Thirty years ago, Seattle’s fledgling Sub Pop Records released Bleach, the famously low-budget debut album from Nirvana that set the wheels in motion for one of the most transformative moments in music history. Today, Sub Pop is a bona-fide institution with an eclectic active roster of 70-plus artists from around the world, 65 employees, and its very own line of branded onesies (among many other swag options). But these two circumstances are not as closely related as they may seem.
Originally founded by Bruce Pavitt with business partner Jonathan Poneman as an extension of his indie-music zine, Sub Pop’s pioneering role in the nascent grunge movement would give the label an international profile—and, for a time, a Nirvana-induced financial windfall—that most indie imprints could only dream of. But even the most esteemed labels can’t coast on reputation alone, and the Sub Pop story has been a three-decade roller-coaster ride of game-changing successes and existential crises. Here, co-president Tony Kiewel explains how one of the most iconic record labels of the ‘80s and ’90s has managed to survive and thrive in the digital age.
Life after grunge
Following the early-’90s alt-rock explosion, Sub Pop tried to shake off the grunge tag with a flurry of more diverse, but ultimately less successful, signings (like lounge revivalists Combustible Edison and experimental funk act 5ive Style). Upon selling a 49 percent stake in Sub Pop to Warner Bros. in 1995, Pavitt walked away from the label he founded, leaving Poneman to take the reins. By the time Kiewel first joined Sub Pop’s radio-promotion department in 2000, the label was on seriously shaky ground.
“It was a pretty hand-to-mouth situation,” says Kiewel, who eventually moved over to A&R before taking on his current role as co-president alongside Poneman. “It was difficult to pay for things; even figuring out budgets to make records was challenging. Many of the projects that we signed in that time period were all very modestly budgeted albums—like single-digit thousands of dollars.”
But some of those small investments yielded rewards still being reaped today. Between 2001 and 2003, Sub Pop released The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World, Iron and Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, and The Postal Service’s Give Up, three albums that would go on to define the sound of a new kind of indie rock for a new millennium. Kiewel claims the budget for the latter record topped out at around $3,000; it’s since become Sub Pop’s second biggest bestseller after Bleach. “I don't think we've ever felt like we were in trouble since then,” he says. “Honestly, it just felt like, ‘Yeah, it would be really hard to screw this up now!’”
Building a Brand
Even before the label’s 21st-century renaissance, Sub Pop was already in an advantageous position to weather the digital-music storm. The popularity of their mail-order service—through which fans around the world could order those iconic LOSER t-shirts—prompted the label to build its own webstore in the late-’90s, using tech talent that eventually wound up working for fellow emergent Seattle empire Amazon. “We were also one of the very first Amazon Cloud services clients,” Kiewel notes. “So there were these little boring behind-the-scenes things that let us evolve into this current marketplace a little bit easier than some of our peers initially.”
Still, even with a track record like Sub Pop’s, nurturing a unique label identity in a digital marketplace has been an ongoing challenge. At this point, the label occasionally finds itself pursuing younger artists who’ve never known a world with Kurt Cobain in it, and, as such, have little familiarity with the label. “A few years back, we were talking to this one band that is a pretty big well-known indie band at this point,” Kiewel recounts. “And they were like, ‘Oh, yes, Sub Pop—you guys are the ones who reissued Nirvana's Bleach, right?’ Yeah, that's true—we put it out the first time as well! That sort of thing doesn't happen super often, but it happens enough that I don't ever take it for granted.”
As Kiewel notes, the Sub Pop of the ’90s had established a company personality long before corporate brands glommed onto the concept, using its mail-order catalog, merchandise, and savvy media stunts to project a sense of humor. “We had this ironic, pretend-world-domination upstart shtick,” he explains. “But now everybody's got a shtick, and it makes us not want to have a shtick anymore. We're still who we are, and we do struggle to convey that. It's also just harder to be funny now, because we don't ever want to offend anybody.”
These days, Sub Pop’s irreverence is best gauged by the sheer audacity of its more recent brand-awareness efforts. Sub Pop is hardly the only label to open its own record store, but you won’t find it in a cool downtown ‘hood—it’s located at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, targeting tourists instead of hipsters. And to mark the label’s 30th anniversary last year, the label partnered up with Alaska Air to emblazon a passenger jet with the famous Sub Pop logo. The anniversary festivities culminated in a massive all-day event last August at Seattle’s Alki Beach.
“We threw a massive party for the city of Seattle, which I highly advocate that everybody do for their hometown,” Kiewel says. “And we made ours a free event—we drew, like, 60,000 people.”
Sub Pop dates back to an era when A&R was an intensely local endeavor that required heading down to clubs to see if a prospective signee could deliver the goods onstage. Sub Pop still devotes a fair amount of energy to boosting the local Seattle scene (from jangle-punk outfit Tacocat to rising avant-rapper Porter Ray), and the label’s upper brass solicits suggestions for prospective signings from all corners of the staff. (The company has a commendable track record of grooming employees in-house—Sub Pop’s CEO since 2016, Megan Jasper, started out as an intern and receptionist back in the label's early days.) But like many tasks in this day and age, A&R has become a technologically abetted process—Kiewel says he’s about to announce a new signing he first heard on his Discover Weekly playlist, a band with just a thousand Spotify followers. And while Kiewel naturally prefers to see the artist live before presenting a contract, it’s not essential—in fact, some of the label’s flagship acts were signed sight unseen. “The Postal Service didn't exist as a live act,” Kiewel says. “And I think Iron & Wine had played maybe one show before we signed him. I don’t think it’s a huge thing.”
To emphasize the point, Kiewel brings up Sub Pop’s biggest breakout act of 2019. With his mysterious masked visage and Orbison-worthy croon, Canadian country outlaw Orville Peck has slowly amassed a fervent cult of fans who regularly gift him with hand-drawn portraiture and turn out for his gigs decked in their most flamboyant cowboy attire. But Kiewel knew nothing of Peck’s costumed persona and commanding stage presence when he fell in love with rough mixes of his debut album last year.
“Orville didn’t feel inevitable,” Kiewel says. “We put out the Weyes Blood record around the same time, and that one came out of the gate screaming—Pitchfork gave it Best New Music, and everybody was calling it Album of the Year at the get-go. The reaction to Orville was slower, but now it’s the bigger record for us week-to-week, which is crazy.” And the fact that Peck has crossed over without the typical yardsticks of indie success—rave reviews from critics, heavy satellite-radio play, high-profile playlist placement—reaffirms the enduring strength of the Sub Pop brand to lift the smallest boats in the ever-rising tide of digital music.