Interview: Sub Pop

When Nirvana went global and 'Grunge' became a household word, Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt's fledgling record label hit the big time. Geffen Records bought out their contract with Nirvana in a tidy deal that gave the Seattle label percentage points on future Nirvana releases - as well as reviving sales of Bleach to make it the label's biggest seller to this day.

With interest in Seattle bands spiking wildly, the label invested in it's own - pushing Mudhoney, Tad, L7 and Soundgarden into the limelight and paving the way for a long, rich history. After a troubled mid 90's period, the label has seen a recent resurgence and the self-professed goal of "World Domination" is back on the agenda. Hits from The Shins (thanks to a name-drop in Zach Braff's movie Garden State) and Death Cab For Cutie side-project The Postal Service (11.5 million downloads and counting) have seen the label funneling money back into music from the Seattle area and beyond - successfully nudging bands like Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Flight of the Conchords into the limelight.

Chimpomatic has a long history of favoritism with Sub Pop, so it was our pleasure to catch up with VP Megan Jasper, to talk about Starbucks' music policy, the flippety flop and everything in between.

Chimpomatic: Tell us what life was like in 1988, compared to how it is now.

Sub Pop: Life was… just different. It was a different time in Seattle, it was different time at Sub Pop. You have to remember that our country was in a hell of a recession. On the East coast there were businesses shutting down, construction shutting down, families re-locating to different parts of the country - and on the west coast up in the corner, this city was mostly forgotten. It was different for the North West, because you had companies like Boeing and Microsoft and Starbucks – companies that were starting to grow. When I came here it was shocking to me to see so many cranes in the sky downtown. They were clearly people still working and you could literally see the city being built up.

At Sub Pop, there was a small group of employees - and the thing that was amazing at that time was just being in a city where the opposite was happening to most other places – where things were going well and it seemed like there were lots of opportunities, endless opportunities - especially for young people. There was a feeling in the Sub Pop office that also anything was possible. So, you put a bunch of creative minds together and it’s a really fun environment – that’s what it was like then. It was one of the funnest environments I will ever work in. There were no rules - well, there were loose, unwritten rules - and you just knew something great was happening, but you didn't know what that was. You were just lucky to have the jobs that we had.

Chimpomatic: And how did you get started at Sub Pop – you’re not from Seattle?

Sub Pop: I was just in the right place at the right time. I was on tour with Dinosaur Jr and I met Bruce and John and I told them I was going to move to Seattle in a couple of months and they said come and see us and if we have a space maybe you can come and join us. I think they were just being nice – and they were huge fans of Dinosaur Jr. When I came to Seattle I found them, stopped in and said hello and that I had moved here. They gave me an internship and I stuffed a load of envelopes for a college radio mailing, then about a month later they gave me a job as a receptionist. I lucked out. They could have given the job to anybody and anybody could have done it and anyone would have been happy to do it. I got laid off in the middle of it all, because the label was going through such a financial crisis in the mid 90’s. I ended up working for their distributor and then I ended up coming back to the label a little over ten years ago.

Chimpomatic: And you take the credit for the Grunge dictionary I understand?

Sub Pop: Yeah, but it would be wrong for me not to credit the two pots of coffee I’d drunk.

Chimpomatic: Are you still "swinging on the flippety flop" today?

Sub Pop: I try my best.

Chimpomatic: So what have been some of your personal highlights over the 20 years of the label?

Sub Pop: When I really think about everything, there have been so many defining points and moments over the years. Jonathan is my boss and I have worked for him for so many years – he’s a good friend – and I think my ultimate highlight has to have been watching him, because anybody would have shut down this label. And to see him persevere and to see him now able to enjoy all of this – he’s the only constant. That’s my ultimate highlight. He has so much to feel proud of - and he doesn’t hide the fact that there have been a million mistakes along the way, but the mistakes have led to a lot of the good stuff.

Chimpomatic: And it’s really in a good place now as a label. It’s a good time to have your twenty-year anniversary.

Sub Pop: For sure. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same challenges as everybody else, we certainly do, but we’re lucky that we’ve been around so many years and we’ve learned so many stupid lessons. At least the mistakes that we make from now on and the lessons we learn will be new ones – and that’s exciting.

Chimpomatic: Going back to 1988, that was the first time that CDs outsold records and now with mp3s we’re in a similar situation. How is the label adapting to take on the digital era?

Sub Pop: I think we’re lucky in that we went through that configuration shift a while back, so it’s not something that people here were afraid of. Certainly, people getting music for free is an issue and it will continue to be an issue, but really that’s all the difference. If people choose to purchase their music and download it, it’s just a shift of configuration. The thing that’s fascinating about it, is that a song is a song is song. Some people hear differences; some of us don’t hear a difference. A lot of people here choose to listen to music on vinyl – because it’s warmer – but, however people choose to listen to music ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as they are enjoying that experience. If it seems like people want to listen to music that way, then we try not to work against it and we try to be able to deliver the music to them, how they want it. The important thing is that they get it, so they can have those great experiences with finding artists that you love.

Chimpomatic: How does a CD break down for the labels, and the factory costs and then the artists?

Sub Pop: You know, to be honest with you it's very different depending on the deal that the artist has. If the artist has a 50/50 split deal it's going to be a different breakdown to an artist who has a more old-fashioned, regular contract. Because all of the points are negotiated when we sign the bands. All in all I would guess that we probably average an amount of about $4 per CD, but the other thing you have to take into consideration is that we pay all our own marketing and overhead expenses – we don’t charge that back to the band. With a lot of labels, whatever costs are involved with marketing those records – whether it be mailings, or retail programs, or ticket buys are charged back – we don’t do that.

Chimpomatic: Those costs are met by the band before they get any money?

Sub Pop: We’ve never done that.

Chimpomatic: Is the internet helping with reducing overheads and things like that for you?

Sub Pop: It helps a little bit – we don’t have those mailing costs for product, whether it’s envelopes or cardboard or whatever, as well as the actual mailing. But you know, with our marketing costs, I think the difference is miniscule to be honest. Most of the money we spend is on retail programs. We still service the music to those people, they still get finished copies. It saves a little bit, but not really a significant amount.

Chimpomatic: SST Records was a very influential label on the birth of Sub Pop, would you say?

Sub Pop: I would say absolutely.

Chimpomatic: SST’s Sonic Youth were supporters of Nirvana and the label. There was uproar recently about this Sonic Youth / Starbucks album that they have had. Do you think that what is almost corporate sponsorship of music is a good way for music to be going now?

Sub Pop: I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I want to just go back to the SST thing for a moment, as it’s interesting to note that Soundgarden was an SST band first.

Chimpomatic: I was a huge SST fan, that’s how I got into nearly all my music.

Sub Pop: Christa Keener who was a receptionist at SST Records moved up to Seattle when I first moved up to Seattle. So back in the day there was a really strong SST connection at the label, not to mention that John and Bruce were fans of all those bands – in fact we all were – but, I like the point that you’re making because it’s a bizarre evolution for a band. I think Sonic Youth first put their records out on Homestead and then went to SST, then went to Geffen. It’s evolved so much for them and I suppose that’s what happens when you’re a band for 25 years.

Chimpomatic: And it also seems like it’s easy to say “Oh, that’s wrong, Starbucks is wrong” but presumably they’re calling the shots with that deal.

Sub Pop: The other thing is that you can’t really say if something is right or wrong. Because Sonic Youth are a band who have been around for about 25 years – wait, is it even longer than that?

Chimpomatic: I think ’81, something like that – about 27 years.

Sub Pop: So, a lot of people love Sonic Youth - and they have young listeners and they have old listeners. For an older audience, maybe 30s, 40s or older – a lot of those people will download music, buy it from iTunes, put it on their iPod – or they’re more than happy to go to Starbucks, pick up a CD with their coffee and I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that. We’re in a weird place right now, as it seems like back in the day there were a lot of people who loved music and they were all in their 20s. When people got to be in their 30s or mid-30s they let go of it and that’s not what's happening right now. What we’ve found now - and The Shins are a perfect example, or Iron & Wine are a perfect example - there are 14 or 15 year olds who will buy that music and there are 40 or 50 year olds who will buy that music. The common denominator is enormous and the pool of people who are inclined to buy their music is growing and they are not one demographic. They are people with very different lives, who just come back to the fact they are just appreciating this music. So, if that helps those people, I think "God bless Starbucks”. Each person votes when they buy a record – do they want to support this place? Do you want to buy your record at a mom & pop? Do you want get it at Starbucks? Do you want to get it online? Do you want to get it at Best Buy? The important thing ultimately is that people can make that choice, and people can also – no matter how they do it – connect with this art. That’s what’s most important to me.

Chimpomatic: So after 20 years, the management of the label is getting older - how does that affect the way the label is operating? Do you bring in younger people?

Sub Pop: It seems like when we hire new people - and also depending on the job – it seems like the majority of our staff is marketing and most of the people who want those marketing jobs are younger people. But what we try to do – and we do try and do this as much as we are able – is we try to promote from within, because it’s a weird company and we make decisions that normal people might think are counter-intuitive, but for us they are not, because we have to take into consideration the community that we’re in and we have to take into account the fact that this industry is based on relationships - good relationships. We need to prioritise those things when making our decisions and so if we can promote from within, then ultimately we have people who can manage, people who are steeped in these bizarro values that we have – and they get it. If we were to just bring someone in off the street, they might be so bottom-line driven – which of course is important – but it’s also important to balance out the impact that might have on the community that you’re based in. So that’s a long-winded way of saying that most of the positions that open up tend to be entry-level positions and most of the people that want those positions tend to be younger people.

Chimpomatic: Going back to the birth of the label and ‘grunge’ as a genre, Mark Arm and or Bruce I think were credited as coining that as a name. How do you think it holds up now to other period genres, like ‘punk’ or ‘disco’?

Sub Pop: I think it’s actually holding up better than anyone thought it would. It's still a phrase that’s used and understood easily. I was watching Project Runway last week actually and there was a designer – who happened to be from Seattle – and they were describing his outfit as “grunge meets Playboy bunny" or something. You can imagine how atrocious this kid's work was - it really was that bad - but you can draw that phrase out and it’s understood. Not just the music, but everything that spun off of it. If it's still mentioned as a reference point on TV shows, that means it’s held up.

Chimpomatic: It’s funny that people turned their back on it at the time and didn’t want to be grouped under it, but now it's looked back at much more fondly.

Sub Pop: We wouldn’t use the word! That’s how you would know that someone was gross – that they’d use the word 'grunge" and you just were like "Urgh! Take them away!" and then something just happened where everyone knew that you can’t beat them, you have to join them - as you sounded like a crazy person, by not referencing the obvious thing, that everybody understood.

Chimpomatic: And Mudhoney’s Mark Arm works in the warehouse now? How has that happened? How is Amy Winehouse covered in money and he’s doing that? Surely that’s just not fair.

Sub Pop: He was working at a warehouse before he worked here – for a pretty awesome company called Fantagraphics. He obviously needed to work some place where he could get away if he had to tour, still have health insurance and we needed somebody in the warehouse, so it was a perfect fit.

Chimpomatic: He knows the product.

Sub Pop: I think if Mark had his own way, he would love to be on the road so much, but his reality is that he’s in a band with guys that are not little kids. Guy is a registered nurse. They have jobs that aren’t really easy to leave. Mark has the flexibility to come and go and we totally support whatever he needs, but I think he enjoys having just a normal thing during the day to be honest with you. I’ll tell you, everybody here fucking loves having him here. He’s such an awesome co-worker. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s goofy – and people think it’s a joke when they get a package from us, because it has ‘Mark Arm’ written as the sender and everybody just thinks that’s a code – that our UPS machine uses or something. No, it’s Mark Arm sending it.

Chimpomatic: They’re playing in London next week, so hopefully we’ll see them then.

Sub Pop: When they get back from a tour, everybody gets really excited.

Chimpomatic: Tell me about the local bands policy that the label always had - and more or less still does have - about signing local bands.

Sub Pop: You know, we don’t really have a written policy about it, but for a label that was established due to our local bands – and we’re lucky that this is a city where local bands we have are pretty amazing and outstanding – and we’re also fortunate that it's a city where a lot of musicians enjoy living. So, we’d be silly not to pay attention to what was happening in our community. We’re all a part of it and when great talent exists in your own back yard it makes you extra proud to be a part of it and to help support that. So, when it makes sense it makes us happy to do that. It’s also nice to have artists who can just come into the office and go over stuff in person. It makes the experience enriching – hopefully for both parties.

Chimpomatic: Do you look beyond Seattle a lot, or has it just not been necessary? How did a band like Flight of the Conchords come to the label?

Sub Pop: We look beyond Seattle a lot. We look everywhere, including there. With Flight of the Conchords, they actually sent us a demo with an HBO special that they had done, and everybody here watched it we were all laughing really hard. Their package ended up on Jonathan's desk - as Jonathan loves New Zealand and refers to it as his home away from home - and so he was excited to get a New Zealand package, and we were excited to be able to work with these two kids who we thought were hilarious, so it just worked out.

Chimpomatic: So is Seattle really like the myth? If I’d come there in 1988 would it really be streets lined with amazing bars with great bands playing in them, or would it have not been that different to how New York, or London were at the time?

Sub Pop: In 1988? You’d be shocked – it was dead. Dead. There were two or three places where bands could play. Downtown was a ghost town at night – everything was shut down. There were streets with apartments up above and empty retails spaces down below – there was nothing. Now it’s the exact opposite. There are condos all over the place, the city is trying really hard to create a more dense downtown area. The condos are gross, and they are grossing everyone out, and although there are a lot of venues in town - and great venues where band can play - there are noise issues, because they are trying to increase the population in the neighbourhoods. So now, there's a battle between how the city is growing with the population and how our arts community is trying to grow and maintain itself.

Chimpomatic: So has the corporate side of Seattle, with Microsoft and big business taken over a little bit?

Sub Pop: Sort of. And there's a lot of people who are at the time in their lives where they need to downsize. Downtown is livelier than it used to be. There are not all the amenities that you need in a neighborhood, but it's upcoming – downtown is an attractive place to live. Or, those neighbourhoods where you can just get around on foot. So there's a little of that as well. People who have decent jobs, but don’t have the time or interest in maintaining a yard, or older people who have done that and now want something easier and a little different. Lofts and that kind of thing - beautiful spaces that overlook the water.

Chimpomatic: Is it true that Seattle was all raised up a level or something? I read that there are a lot of basements because the whole city was lifted to prevent flooding or something? Or have I made that up? (ED: Guess what, we didn't make this up as it turns out. In fact the term "Skid Row" was coined in Seattle for the area where logs skidded down to the river, as well as the term "wetback" - a new kid in town who got soaked when the toilets backfired...)

Sub Pop: I've never heard that. There are a lot of homes without basements - it’s a hilly city. There are some areas that get a lot of flooding and some don't get any because they're so high up.

Chimpomatic: So are you a Microsoft fan, or an Apple fan?

Sub Pop: I don’t know that I’m really a ‘fan’ of either. I like what both of them do, but I don’t really prefer one to the other. I wish them both well.

Chimpomatic: So, playing Rock Band is not as good as being in a rock band then?

Sub Pop: I’ve never played the game! I’m a weirdo, because I’ve never played any of those games. I’ve never done anything like that. When people talk about it, it goes right over my head.

Chimpomatic: Me neither. It seems like a waste of time, wishing your whole day away.

Sub Pop: I know! I’d way rather put music on, go out in the yard and garden!

Chimpomatic: So what's better for a band? Being signed to the Sub Pop of old, or being signed to the Sub Pop of today?

Sub Pop: You know, I have to say the Sub Pop of today - because at least we have our shit together. But I’ve got to say - I can’t dismiss the old school, because even though it was frustrating – for the bands and the people that worked here, it was stressful – but as stressful and tough, and challenging as it was, it was a great fucking time.

Chimpomatic: What do you think would be done differently these days? A label still needs to get started one way or another.

Sub Pop: These days everybody has a computer and it’s a different, different world at Sub Pop. There was one computer that everybody shared back in the day, now everybody has a computer. We have budgets for our records. We have budgets that are based on potential sales. We have a much bigger, more experienced staff. We have solid distribution - we didn’t have that before, it was so sketchy, it was crazy. We have a founder still working here with 20 years experience. If you were to pick one or the other - if you really like extremes, probably go for the early days, but if you want a more healthy quality of life, probably pick the new version. Or the 'older' version.

Chimpomatic: Is there anyone that the label missed out on, that you feel like you should have signed?

Sub Pop: I think we can get so carried away talking about stuff like that… Maybe Pearl Jam, maybe the Arcade Fire. It would have been wonderful to work with those guys and they sent us a demo! We loose big time if you look at it like that. There are so many bands we would have loved to work with for a million different reasons. Either the schedule is full and it makes you crazy. Maybe there’s another label that’s knee deep in conversation and you don’t want to be a jerk. There are so many things that happen. All you can do is do your best and be grateful for the artists you do have – and just try and do right by them.

Chimpomatic: You have had some great bands over the last couple of years though.

Sub Pop: We have been so fucking lucky, we’ve had some killer bands.

Chimpomatic: Is that a change in direction that you’ve taken? Musically there’s some similarities between say, Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses - is that the direction the label is going, or is that just coincidence?

Sub Pop: It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just what we like. What’s coming out and what your tastes are change over time and that’s how the roster evolves.

Chimpomatic: Who are you most excited about at the moment?

Sub Pop: It’s funny, it’s so hard to say because we get to know the artists so well and you get to know their music so well. Jonathan says it’s like picking a favourite child. For me, it’s like every one is so unique in a different way, so when you see them you see those wonderful things. Death Vessel I’m so excited about. Daniel Moore I’m so excited about. Fleet Foxes I’m so excited about. Sera Cahoone and Grand Archives, Flight of the Conchords – all for very different reasons. These artists are just made of all of the good stuff and their challenges are different and their lives are different, but you find yourself rooting for them - personally and professionally. There is no artist that I feel disconnected from.

Chimpomatic: Tell us about the Hardly Art label, how has that come about?

Sub Pop: That came about because were saying ‘no’ to artists we really wanted to work with, because we didn’t have room. We put out so many records and Jonathon got annoyed about lost opportunities, so he decided he wanted to start another label, so that label became Hardly Art. So we thought, if we are going to do another label, let’s make it as different as we possibly can. Try and do things a little scrappier, a little quicker and on a smaller scale and just be able to play a bit with the deals that we’re doing.

Sub Pop: Certainly for me “anything on Sub Pop” has always been a good place to start when you are buying a record. You must be one of very few labels where almost the label is the recommendation sometimes -so if someone was going to start getting into Sub Pop, where should they start?

Sub Pop: That’s a tough one. You know, probably I’d have to say you go with what speaks to most people, so maybe if someone were to be introduced to Sub Pop right now I’d start with one of the contemporary bands on Sub Pop with a new release. That might be Fleet Foxes. I would do Fleet Foxes and Flight of the Conchords...

Chimpomatic: I can’t listen to Flight of the Conchords past about five o’clock, because I can’t sleep. I have it running around in my mind.

Sub Pop: When we get new music from our artists, I get those songs so stuck in my head that they become like soundtracks. And then I wake up and I feel like I’m a crazy person.


Sub Pop



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