After 30 years, Sub Pop Records has become as emblematic of Seattle culture as Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft—only without the corporate baggage that sometimes makes those companies feel like enemies of freedom.
Against the odds, the label has thrived. How? Who knows? They signed a diverse array of interesting artists, they kept their scale reasonable, and they turned self-deprecation into a shrewd marketing device. Their motto: "Going Out of Business Since 1988." Their T-shirt: the word "LOSER" in huge letters. That Sub Pop became a winner while wearing "LOSER" on its chest says a lot about the past few decades of American culture, and even more about the courage and savvy of a few smart, diligent people.
Here we celebrate its genius and scratch our heads at its missteps. Just to be nice, we'll start with the good stuff.
15. Signing Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney
These are so obvious, it's almost cheesy to include them, but no list of Sub Pop successes would be accurate without them. In case you've been Rip Van Winkling it since Reagan's second term, the label signed and released the first records by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and many other bands that started out as underground chancers and wound up as internationally beloved legends. Thus, the label briefly made Seattle the epicenter of rock and youth culture (and arguably hastened the city's demise, but don't blame the music for that). Sub Pop's greatest hits are among the greatest of all hits, even if they weren't technically hits. Years later, the label would release actual hit records by the Shins, the Postal Service, and Fleet Foxes.
14. Pranking the New York Times
13. Hiring graphic artist Lisa Orth to design the logo
In an age where no one seems to mind the overuse of the word "brand" or the misuse of the word "iconic," Sub Pop's improbably simple logo—designed by the great Seattle graphic artist Lisa Orth using two rectangles, two colors, four carets, and five letters—is a titan for the ages. Having long since represented the label's aesthetic sensibility while also signifying certain personal affinities, the Sub Pop logo is as important to the identity of the Pacific Northwest as Mount Rainier, and just as likely to outlive us all.
Editor's Note: This isn't exactly true, as co-founder Bruce Pavitt wrote to let us know shortly after the piece was published:
"Great article on Sub Pop; however, here is the real history behind the logo:
The Rocket magazine designer Wes Anderson created the foundation of the logo. In it’s first evolution, it served as a banner for my Sub Pop USA column, which first appeared in 1983. Three years later, in 1986, designer Dale Yarger cut the banner in half, and placed the SUB above the POP. This final logo was introduced when the first Sub Pop record, "Sub Pop 100," came out in Sept of 1986."
12. Creating the Sub Pop Singles Club
11. Immortalizing the poetry of Steven Jesse Bernstein
Sub Pop's only foray into poetry was one for the ages. Released in 1992, Prison—featuring poems that Steven Jesse Bernstein grimaced into existence while Steve Fisk provided the ideal film-noir-jazz/easy-listening/triphop soundtrack to them, after the fact—remains one of the most interesting anomalies in the label's vast catalog. Bernstein was a brilliant, dark presence in Seattle's poetry scene who earned the respect of William S. Burroughs, Oliver Stone, and Kurt Cobain, among many others, before killing himself in 1991. A bard of urban squalor and comprehensive self-deprecation, Bernstein created unforgettable scenarios with a pitiless eye for humanity's basest instincts.
10. Digging gems from the modern psychedelic underground
Heron Oblivion's self-titled 2016 album proved that even at this late date, Sub Pop still had its ears tuned to the psychedelic-rock underground. A favorite among heads who know what the deal is, Heron Oblivion consist of players from sonic explorers such as Comets on Fire, Espers, Sic Alps, and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. This debut full-length morphs from the fiery to the flowery with the flip of a heroic mane of sweaty hair, alternately gnarling into Zuma-era Neil Young territory and ambling into verdant fields of UK folkadelic giants Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Add fellow Sub Pop acts Goat and Morgan Delt to Heron Oblivion, and you have a strong mind-expansion department.
9. Making space for brutal and the cacophonous
Six Finger Satellite is a prime example of Sub Pop taking a risk on a band that was ahead of its time. The Rhode Island bros' four Sub Pop albums and one EP from the 1990s have proved to be enduring and influential documents of aggressive, synth-informed rock. For people who liked their rock brutal and cacophonous, Six Finger Satellite were the next evolutionary leap. They featured John MacLean—who went on to produce great house music for DFA—on guitar and keyboards and the cantankerous J. Ryan on Steve Albini–esque vocals. A reissue campaign is overdue.
8. Doing hiphop correctly
7. Allowing Steve Fisk to do whatever the hell he wants
The Stranger Genius has appeared on Sub Pop's timeline in many guises (as a producer, solo artist, half of Pigeonhed) and is responsible for many of its most fascinating releases. In 2001, Fisk dropped 999 Levels of Undo, an album of unclassifiable electronic music that couldn't be marketed easily or danced to with facility. Yet for heads who crave maverick studio manipulations and disruptive rhythms, 999 Levels of Undo was a revelation. We've been waiting in vain for its follow-up ever since—but in the interim, Fisk largely has been busy making other musicians sound fantastic as a producer.
6. Raiding the lost archives
Record labels aren't always good at history lessons, but Sub Pop has always done it right. With the 2012 box set the Aberrant years, the label did the world a huge favor by collecting the über-obscure releases by feedtime, one of Australia's most important and punishing rock bands. (It's probable that superfan/Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm—who also works at Sub Pop HQ—nudged the label into doing this.) Whatever the case, feedtime do but two things, but do them very well: ram-rodding, bass-heavy rock that makes the Stooges sound scrawny and slow-boiling, glowering rock that makes Black Sabbath sound anemic. This sort of underdog championing elevates Sub Pop to Nobel Prize worthiness. (See also: the recent U Men compilation, The Way of the Vaselines, The Essential Radio Birdman 1974–1978, and a slew of killer reissues over the years.)
5. Incubating a scrappy little sister label
4. Giving Jeremy Enigk more real estate
3. Enabling the transfiguration of J. Tillman into Father John Misty
2. Sniffing out future cult classics
The Sub Pop discography is littered with undiscovered gems by bands that briefly seemed like candidates for next-big-thing status before getting swept away by the pop-culture tide—but not before making the one lowercase-p perfect album every band believes is in them. (See also: Hazel, Pond, Jale, the Grifters, Red Red Meat, Spinanes, and others.) For example: Despite having the worst cover art of all time, the second and final Zumpano record, Goin' Through Changes, is a melancholy masterpiece that stands comfortably in the space between the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle and singer/songwriter Carl Newman's subsequent band, New Pornographers. Start there.
1. Catching pop moments just before they happen
Everyone knows Sub Pop is synonymous with the late-1980s/early-1990s g-word explosion. But what about a decade or so later, when records by the Postal Service, the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, and the Thermals set the definitive tone for 21st-century indie pop v. 1? With strong recent releases by Frankie Cosmos, Kyle Craft, Bully, and nearly everything on the Hardly Art label, it seems plausible that they might be on the verge of doing it again.
15. Selling a 49 percent stake to Warner Music Group
The case for selling in 1995 was probably easy to make: a huge influx of the cash the label was (in)famously always short of, a muscular distribution and promotion engine, and a strong claim to biz legitimacy. But the case against included more than just the indie optics that were so much more significant at the time. To wit: The deal led to a period known as "the dark years," which involved the departure of ingenious cofounder Bruce Pavitt, an attempted internal "coup" against remaining (and differently ingenious) cofounder Jonathan Poneman, conspicuous firings, and a general sense of what corporate America refers to as "mission drift." The boat righted itself, of course, and even in the immediate aftermath, they never stopped releasing great records—and plenty of shitty ones, too. But even if it was ultimately the smart move, the Warner Music Group deal indisputably marked the end of something special.
14. Signing Memoryhouse
13. Let us never Spoek of this again
It was bold for Sub Pop to sign South African electronic artist Spoek Mathambo, but he was just too niche and his music too confusing to find a substantial audience. Ergo, Mathambo's 2012 album, Father Creeper, sank to the ocean's bottom without causing a ripple. Unfortunately, the world just wasn't ready for Sub Pop to be championing "Township Tech." On the upside, you can likely find Father Creeper for cheap. On the downside, Sub Pop's shelves are surely groaning with unsold copies and taking up valuable space that could be holding Beach House LPs.
12. Packaging Jessamine's 7-inch single like that
11. Paying artists late
Everyone thinks they know everything about the way record labels work, despite hardly anyone knowing even one single thing. However, the times (and the faltering labor movement) have conspired to make it harder to laugh along with Sub Pop's reputation for not paying royalties on time.
10. Signing Wolf Eyes
9. The Plexi fiasco
Who knows what the truth really is, but the rumors at the time were that Sub Pop, which was cash-rich from its $20 million deal with Warner Music Group, spent more money than it had ever spent signing and launching Plexi, an aggressively mediocre, generic AF Los Angeles glam rock band that was gone in less than a year. To paraphrase the late Robin Williams on the subject of cocaine, Plexi was god's way of showing a record label it had too much money.
8. Showing the world a Cat Butt
As if the name weren't enough of a giveaway, Cat Butt just may have been the Insane Clown Posse of grunge... but without the commercial potential of those suburban Detroit rappers. You may not be shocked to learn that the tiny discography of Cat Butt—the 1989 EP Journey to the Center Of—is not on Spotify.
7. Failing to make "world music" happen
6. Releasing those not-funny comedy records
For indie labels to release comedy albums seemed like a natural progression, especially since comedy has come to occupy such a central place in the consciousness of the kind of youngsters who used to enjoy music. And Sub Pop is a famously funny label. But with the exception of Patton Oswalt's Werewolves and Lollipops and Jon Benjamin's indisputably brilliant Well, I Should Have..., it's a bunch of very funny people (David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Mirman) at their not-best, and also Flight of the Conchords.
5. Signing CocoRosie
From its proto-Snapchat, WTF cover art to its dilettantish dabbling with non-Western sonic elements to the twee-est rapping and singing ever (the Cassady sisters make Joanna Newsom sound like Lemmy), CocoRosie's 2010 album, Grey Oceans, comes across as a befuddling stain on the Sub Pop catalog. Something about their demeanor on record and onstage made CocoRosie seem like they were trying way too hard to be "transgressive." You could discern the calculation in every vocal trill and canned hiphop beat. Luckily, it was CocoRosie's one and only Sub Pop release.
4. Green (and red) lighting Jon Spencer's holiday single
Christmas music sucks, generally speaking, and not even Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at their 1992 peak could make their Sub Pop Christmas 45 "Big Yule Log Boogie"/"My Christmas Wish" sound like anything other than an awkward, shticky embarrassment. Whatever your feelings about holiday music, though, copies of this limited-edition single sell for $15 to $20—which is more indicative of the desperation of completist Jon Spencer fans for scarce product than it is of the songs' quality.
3. Occasionally finding Jesus
2. Trading away receptionist Mike Nipper
It's true that when The Stranger and Sub Pop swapped receptionists in 1995, they gained the great Anna Woolverton. But we got Mike Nipper, and we still do, and you can have him when you pry him from our cold, dead fingers.
1. Letting Sebadoh headline their eighth-anniversary party
The evening of Thursday, April 11, 1996, should have been triumphant, but instead it illustrated the weird in-betweenness of Sub Pop's post-boom years. Headliners Sebadoh were then considered to be the label's biggest prospect for breaking through. They made incredible records, but they were always a hit-or-miss live band. Their headlining set at the label's eighth-anniversary party—mere months before the release of the album that was to be their "crossover," Harmacy—proved to be a legendary, and seemingly intentional, meltdown witnessed by hundreds of influential biz people with long memories (and no apparent desire to see a random drunk guy plucked out of the crowd to sing lead on "Gimme Indie Rock"). Let us hope the 30th anniversary show goes a little smoother. Mudhoney are headlining.