Sub Pop: Going Out of Business Since 1988
“Everyone here is counting the days until this is over,” sighs Megan Jasper. Fortunately she isn’t talking about any foreseeable end to the Pacific Northwest’s great cultural institution that is Sub Pop records, more looking forward to celebrating the impending retirement of George Bush. Then again, without the kind of political cataclysm that tyrannies like the Bush administration provide, the two fingered punk rock intensity that Sub Pop have been documenting with records since 1988 would never have manifested itself in quite the same way.
Beckoning forth the rise of everybody from Nirvana to No Age, the brainchild of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman – who were brought together by mutual friend and ex-Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil – has defied the odds and outlived almost every band on its roster, save Mudhoney. Indeed, Sub Pop is so ingrained in Mudhoney’s DNA that front man Mark Arm runs the warehouse. “I think he’s everyone’s favourite co-worker,” says Jasper. “He’s really smart, funny and he’s a super goofball but he has a strong work ethic.”
Arm’s not the only one; Jasper moved from Massachusetts to take up an internship with the label after meeting Poneman and Pavitt at a Screaming Trees gig in the late 80s. Now speaking as Sub Pop’s executive vice president, in conversation Jasper appears a modest mother figure to the Seattle based independent. While she was receptionist and chief ‘goofball’ in Sub Pop’s early day, Jasper would take bullets from the label’s many creditors and tell porkies to the New York Times (infamously inventing Grunge Speak, where ‘Swingin’ on the flippity-flop’ was fictitious slang for ‘hanging out’) before losing her job during one of its darkest hours. It’s no secret that the label has thus far rode a series of financial dramas, purportedly a symptom of Pavitt and Poneman’s initial strategy to have everybody believe theirs was a monolithic enterprise from the off.
“I say that I was fired because it sounds so much better,” laughs Jasper, “but in 1991 [The Year Punk Broke, no less] there began a series of layoffs, the company had grown to almost 30 people and had no money. The biggest misconception is that back in the day we had a lot. Bruce and Jon marketed the label as one that was striving for world domination and this was partially a joke that they tried to take as far as they could. But, like the word ‘Grunge’, if you use something like that as a joke for long enough it starts to become real. It became real to some people and a lot of them thought [Sub Pop] had more money than it knew what to do with. The truth was Bruce and Jon were writing rubber cheques every day and it made for a very stressful situation because we had to answer to it all.”
“And in those middle years, even though there was a lot of money that came in from Warner [who bought a 49% share in the label] and Nirvana, it seemed like the company was trying to grow too quickly and as quickly as it was growing, morale was falling. It felt like the soul was trying to leave the company, I don’t know that one was any worse than the other, they were all pretty brutal times.”
Following a shake up in personnel that culminated in the eventual departure of Pavitt in 1995 – disillusioned by the swooping in of corporatism – the eventual salvation of the label's spirit and finances would arrive in the hands of progressive diversification.
“Yeah, there are a lot of different types of bands right now,” considers Jasper. “These days, the Shins [signed at the turn of the millennium by then A&R man Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse] probably come to mind for a lot of people when they think of Sub Pop. But you have Iron and Wine which is sometimes so delicate and fragile and then Wolf Eyes, which will absolutely destroy your soul through and through,” she lingers slightly before giggling. “And that’s why we love it!”
Now, having weathered all of the above storms, Sub Pop’s personnel were free to bask in the glory of seeing in its 20th birthday with a mini festival that provided “the perfect collision of old and new school” and highlights arriving in the form of “Green River, the Vaselines, Grand Archives, Comets on Fire and a Sub Pop flag on the Space Needle” in Jasper's book. Far from the creatively spent force that Rolling Stone prematurely assumed a decade ago, she unflinchingly suggests we could be right in the middle of Sub Pop’s glory era. “Every release has been really strong this year and when I look at all of those records it feels like a statement.”
Flying in the face of the uncertainties that the music industry tussles with in this digital age of global economic recession, strong new releases from Grand Archives, No Age, Wolf Parade, Foals, Fleet Foxes and CSS as well as returning veterans Mudhoney and the dark duo of Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan (as The Gutter Twins) – almost all of whom are touring Europe as we speak - are collectively chanting that statement loud and clear: Sub Pop is here to stay.
But what kept them muddling through for all these years? “Mostly, I think belief in artists and belief in what we all knew this label could and should be,” offers Jasper. “When you can see it’s within arms reach you just have to focus and do your best and I think that’s what everyone rallied to do.” She continues, “I think when you have a band that’s working hard, a label that’s working hard and it’s the right time, anything is possible.”