Sub Pop: The Home of Seattle Sound

The label that gave the world Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney.

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Sub Pop: The Home of Seattle Sound
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Founded in 1986 by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop made the rest of the world fangirl about Seattle's grunge music scene. They were the first to sign the holy trinity of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney, and then made the success permanent by striking platinum and gold with bands like Fleet Foxes and The Shins.

In the beginning of ‘80s, inspired by the D.I.Y era, Bruce Pavitt started a fanzine called 'Subterranean Pop.' It focused on American independent record labels. Part of the 'zine ‘mission,’ was to get the word out on the little regional bands that were popping up here and there. Bruce also was writing a column of the same name for Seattle's Newspaper called The Rocket, and hosting a radio show for KAOS-FM on the Evergreen College (Olympia, WA) station. Pavitt eagerly reported on the stuff that got him excited. For example, in one column he wrote about James Brown Live At the Apollo. By the 5th issue, the name was shortened to Sub Pop, and the issues weren't magazines but actual cassettes with a 16-page booklet with information about the bands. The cover art was done by Charles Burns, who became very popular soon after that. In '83 Pavitt moved to Seattle.

A few years later Sub Pop released the first LP, a compilation of bands previously featured in the 'zine, that included music by Sonic Youth, Wipers, Scratch Acid, Naked Raygun, etc. And so the story of Sub Pop label began.

In 1987 the label released 'Dry as a bone' by Green River and the debut single for Soundgarden called 'Hunted Down'/'Nothing to say' followed by EP 'Screaming Life.' Later that year they hired Jack Endino, the author of the 'Seattle sound,' who produced 75 singles, albums, and EPs for the label between 1987-1989.
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In 1988 Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman (who dealt with the legal and business issues of the label) moved to their own office. In August of that year they released 800 copies of the first single by Mudhoney 'Touch Me I'm Sick'. The very same year label released a debut single 'Love Buzz' by Nirvana. The single had an enormous success.
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The American press was not interested in small indie labels, so Pavitt and Poneman decided to publicize via British music press. In '89 they flew out Everitt Tune from Melody Maker to write an article about the local music scene. The article had a great success, and Britain fell in love with the new grunge sound.
After the mainstream success, Nirvana and other successful bands had left for major record labels. In 1995 the owners of Sub Pop sold a 49% stake of the label to the Warner Music Group. In the mid-'90s Poneman and Pavitt had a major disagreement about the direction the label was taking. In 1996 Pavitt left Sub Pop and didn't speak to Poneman for seven years straight. After Pavitt's retirement, Sub Pop opened offices worldwide and began investing in new artists. It had no commercial success, so the Sub Pop had to return to Seattle. In 2003 the label released a studio album 'Give Up' by The Postal Service. It became the second label's release (after Nirvana's 'Bleach') that went platinum. Critics compared it to the '80s synthpop and new wave genres.
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In 2008 the cognominal album by Flight of the Conchords is released. The album debuted at #2 on the U.S. Billboard chart. The next week it got to #1.
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In 2007 'Wincing the Night Away' by The Shins was released. It got to #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and became the most successful work of the band.
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In 2008 the Fleet Foxes released their debut album. The album had sold over 100000 copies in the UK by the end of the year. The Guardian described it as 'the landmark in American music, an instant classic.' This record made Sub Pop famous again.
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The Sub Pop became known as a home of a new strain of dreamy American indie music such as the Beach House, Iron and Wine, Shabazz Palaces, Band of Horses, Foals, Blitzen Trapper, Father John Misty, Sleater-Kinney, etc. It was a complete opposite of the early grungy heavy guitar signature sound, so it won some new audience to the label.
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Even though the times have changed, the old spirit is still represented by Matz, Pissed Jeans, etc.
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Since 2007, Sub Pop has handed out the annual Loser Scholarship. In order to get one, you have to describe your biggest failure and how it brought you closer to your goals. Fun fact: the label is famous for its blunt rejection letters to the aspiring artists. They always open with 'Dear Loser.'

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Wiencon
    And this is the type of article that is worth reading, not watchmojo top 10s transcribed to text
    Eifler121
    I'm pretty glad this was written. Fleet Foxes are a pretty special band, and they deserve to be included on a guitar website. It's crazy that Sub Pop had the ear for talent they had, and failed to retain any of those artists for their "classic" periods, and almost had no success until they changed tones to the more indie rock stuff. I'm also pretty sure that Mark Lanegan had some kind of role on Sub Pop other than as an artist after​ the Screaming Trees, but I can't find that information anymore.
    DissonantTimbre
    Indie folk bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver don't get enough praise on this site.
    Eifler121
    Strongly agree. Not even a big Bon Iver fan, but he's doing huge things, plays guitar, where's his attention? Certainly more relevant to anything in my life than Corey Taylor.
    soundsabbath
    It's crazy to think that grunge could have stayed underground and metal at the time would have continued to dominate if not for sub-pop! Imagine the world not getting in on Nirvana and Soundgarden, it would have been tragic.
    daniel.rutter.7
    There's a fair bit of quality info for those who want to know more about Subpop in the 'Seattle' episode of Foo Fighters 'Sonic Highways' series. He interviewed a few of the SupPop people, talked about their role in getting these bands known. Good stuff