Sean Lewis - 10th July 2013
Grunge is arguably one of the most important western cultural movements of the modern age. Until flannel shirted rockers shuffled in and blew the doors of popular culture down in the early 90s, it was generally accepted amongst rock fans that rock stars would lead lives of excess. 80s consumerist culture, fuelled by the hedonism of the Reagan era, made it acceptable for the rock stars to act like money-grabbing arses, without fear of reprisal from anyone.
Then, a small band from Seattle released their major label debut, and what was considered cool was flipped on its head. Gone were tales of excess over bombastic over-produced riffs. Instead, moping, angst, and heavy distortion became in vogue. This impact hasn’t gone away since. Every mainstream rock movement, from nu-metal’s “I hate my parents” angst, to pretty boy junky poets like Pete Doherty, couldn’t have enjoyed the level of success that they had without grunge opening the floodgates to leftfield ideas in rock music.
Instrumental in all this was an independent record label, called Sub-Pop. This label is perhaps most famous for putting out Nirvana’s first album; however, they also gave other bands that were integral to the grunge scene their first deals, such as Soundgarden. This year, the label celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Whilst the label’s initial success is well documented, what is less well known is the label’s struggle after the grunge era began to lose steam. In an interview with The Guardian, Sub-Pop founder Jonathan Poneman claimed that he was pumping “millions and millions of dollars” into the label, in the hope that the label could come out it with its credibility intact.
In 1995, Sub-Pop sold a 49% stake of the label to the Warner Music Group. According to Poneman, Warner was hopeful that Sub-Pop would find “another Nirvana”. However, the deal quickly became tarnished with bidding wars on unsuccessful bands and ridiculously high pay cheques going out to Sub-Pop employees, which saw the label lose a lot of money.
This all changed, however, when a band called The Shins released a single through the label in the year 2000. This eventually led to Poneman signing the band for a three album deal. When their first album was a surprise success, the label found a new identity. Instead of being associated with a movement that arguably died in the mid-90s, a legion of new-millennium indie rockers began associating themselves with the Sub-Pop label. According to Sub-Pop’s Executive vice president Megan Jasper "A lot of artists wanted to be on the same label as the Shins. They wanted to have a better shot at touring with them, they wanted to be associated with them."
Since then, the label has found a new lease of life. As the label reaches its 25th anniversary, Sub-Pop remains strong. Despite some problems on the way, it seems that Sub-Pop are keen to remain relevant, rather than chase what sells, which ultimately, has led to their longevity, and may keep them going for years to come.
Above: The Iconic Nirvana Logo