In its early days, Sub Pop seemed like one of the last record companies on earth that would survive, let alone remain vital, for more than 30 years. They brought Nirvana and Soundgarden to the world, but seemed destined to be forever typecast as the ground zero of grunge, a rock genre that shook the globe but was obviously destined for a short shelf life. They suffered so many financial troubles in their first years that they actually printed T-shirts with the company’s logo that read “What part of ‘We have no money’ don’t you understand?” They signed many acts that were cool but had grim commercial prospects. And come on, they’re based in Seattle!
Yet through a combination of endurance, fortuitously timed financial boosts (a distribution deal with Caroline that brought much-needed cash just before Nirvana exploded; a later partial sale to Elektra Records), and most importantly, a series of smart and impressively diverse signings, Sub Pop remains one of the most important independent labels in the world. They’ve long since progressed past the snarling guitar rock that’s still synonymous with their name by releasing, over the past 20 years alone, artists including the Shins, the Postal Service, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Flight of the Concords, and more recent franchise front-runners like Beach House, Father John Misty and Weyes Blood. They’ve even broken a hip-hop act with Shabazz Palaces.
Through it all, cofounder and boss Jonathan Poneman has steered the ship. His cool musical career began as a volunteer and DJ at Seattle’s KCMU (now KEXP), and he briefly managed Soundgarden before joining Bruce Pavitt at Sub Pop in 1987, who’d founded the label the year before and pioneered the name for his fanzine. (The pair’s less-cool musical career began with stints at the Seattle-based elevator-music factory Muzak.) The label’s first major release was Soundgarden’s “Screaming Life” EP later that year; amid releases from Blood Circus, Tad, the Fluid, and others, Nirvana’s debut single “Love Buzz” followed in the spring of ’88 and their debut album, “Bleach,” the following year — and the rest is history (Pavitt left the label late in the 1990s).
Over the years, Sub Pop has sold an estimated 50 million records worldwide, donated $2 million to nonprofits, and even has a retail store greeting travelers in the Sea-Tac International Airport terminal in Seattle.
On the occasion of Poneman receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at A2IM’s Libera Awards tonight, Variety caught up with him to talk about the honor and the label’s history and legacy, and he responded with characteristically carefully considered words.
Did you ever dream the label would last for this long?
I didn’t, but when I look back and I think of the other options that I could have chosen for my life, it was either digging ditches or putting out grunge records. It was a tight, neck-and-neck competition, but grunge won out.
How did you adapt to the past 30 years’ drastic changes not only in music, but the music business?
Well, when you’re born in chaos, it become a familiar environment. Bruce and I both did time working in a “Bonfire of the Vanities”-era, top-down, managed, excessive corporate environment [Muzak], and in all honesty, the thing that we consciously wanted when we were beginning the label was to have an egalitarian, inclusive workplace. And to the extent that Sub Pop has put out good music — I’d like to think we have, and other people believe that we have, although it’s a subjective evaluation — Sub Pop’s trick is basically inclusion in the creative process, bringing in not just our greater geographic community but the many communities we touch and are active participants in. We have a lot of people who have worked at the company for a long time, and we also find novel ways to interact with the community.
References have been made to our emulating the great regional independent labels that are our contemporaries and predecessors. But the thing Sub Pop did after that initial era was we followed our hearts and our imaginations. I really believe the music we put out is driven very forcefully by our fandom as opposed to trying to figure out what’s going to entice the market.
So it’s about delegating, and listening to and believing in the people you hire?
My accomplishment in having done this for 30 years — I mean, I literally signed the contracts for all of these artists, but there’s a lot of thoughtful, talented, passionate people who work at Sub Pop and have for a long time. And I have invited them to participate in an endeavor where we have an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening in our particular part of the community that we inhabit geographically, socially and aesthetically, and in interacting with it in a dynamic way.
I see my function principally as that of a custodian: I turn the lights on in the morning and off in the evening — not literally. But what I feel most proud of is creating a platform for talented, passionate people. And the talent I speak of is not picking the hits; it’s an ability to put one’s excitement and inspiration into a context where they can recognize how these qualities manifest in the artists we choose to work with. We identify with the music and we immerse ourselves in the culture — and of course a lot of other record labels can say the same thing. But we’ve sustained and been doing it for 30 years and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished as a label, as a community, and as a collection of services that we provide for our artists. Does that make any sense?
What’s fun for me is to have the conversation, the interplay, and providing the opportunity for people to have entrée into the music industry and into a record label with a heritage and see them do with it what they want to do. I feel like I have gotten a taste of that — I signed Nirvana and blah blah blah: I was in the right place at the right time and I’m capable of championing the things that I’m passionate about, and my hope is that I’ve created more space for other people to do the same thing, with more [current] things and on a more consecutive basis than I would be by myself. We’ve been conscious not to embrace any one kind of music but to be fans.
Looking back over the last 30 years, when did you realize that you knew what you were doing?
Uh, sometime in the future.