Sub Pop is a record label founded in 1986 by Bruce Pavitt. In 1988, Sub Pop Records LLC was formed by Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in Seattle, Washington. Sub Pop achieved fame in the late 1980s for first signing Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and many other bands from the Seattle alternative rock scene. They are often credited with taking the first steps toward popularizing grunge music, and have continued to achieve critical and commercial success in the new millennium, with bands such as Fleet Foxes, Foals, Beach House, The Postal Service, Flight of the Conchords, Sleater-Kinney, Blitzen Trapper, No Age, Wolf Parade and The Shins on their roster. In 1995 the owners of Sub Pop sold a 49% stake of the label to the Warner Music Group.
The origins of Sub Pop can be traced back to the early 1980s when Bruce Pavitt started a fanzine called Subterranean Pop that focused exclusively on American independent record labels. Pavitt undertook the project in order to earn course credit while attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. By the fourth issue, Pavitt had shortened the name to Sub Pop and began alternating issues with compilation tapes of underground rock bands. The Sub Pop #5 cassette, released in 1982, sold two thousand copies. In 1983, Pavitt moved to Seattle, Washington and released the ninth and final issue of Sub Pop. While in Seattle, he wrote a column for local newspaper The Rocket titled "Sub Pop U.S.A.", a column he ended in 1988.
In 1986, Pavitt released the first Sub Pop LP, the compilation Sub Pop 100, which featured material by artists including Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun, Wipers, and Scratch Acid. Seattle group Green River chose to record their Dry as a Bone EP for Pavitt's new label in June 1986; Pavitt couldn't afford to release it until the following year. When finally released, Dry as a Bone was promoted by Sub Pop as "ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation". Also in 1987, Jonathan Poneman provided $20,000 in funding for Sub Pop to release the debut Soundgarden single "Hunted Down"/"Nothing to Say" in July 1987, followed by the band's first EP Screaming Life that October. Poneman soon became a full partner in the label. Pavitt focused on the label's artists and repertoire aspects, while Poneman dealt with the business and legal issues. Both men decided they wanted the label to focus on "this primal rock stuff that was coming out," according to Pavitt.
In early 1988 Pavitt and Poneman quit their jobs to devote their full attention to Sub Pop. Raising $43,000, they incorporated that April. "Of course that was spent in, like, thirty days", Pavitt recalled. "We almost went bankrupt after a month". That August Sub Pop released the first single by Mudhoney, a band featuring former members of Green River. Sub Pop released the Mudhoney single "Touch Me I'm Sick" in an intentionally limited first pressing of 800 copies to create demand. The strategy was later adopted by other independent labels.
Pavitt and Poneman studied earlier independent labels ranging from Motown to SST Records and decided that virtually every successful movement in rock music had a regional basis. The pair sought to create a cohesive brand identity for Sub Pop. The label's ads promoted the label itself more than any particular band. The label also sought to market a "Seattle sound", which was accomplished with the help of producer Jack Endino, who produced 75 singles, albums, and EPs for Sub Pop between 1987 and 1989. Endino recorded cheaply and quickly; in order to operate this way, he utilized some consistent studio techniques, which gave the records a similar sound.
In November 1988 Sub Pop released "Love Buzz", the debut single by Aberdeen, Washington band Nirvana, as the first entry in the Sub Pop Singles Club, a subscription service that would allow subscribers to receive singles by the label on a monthly basis by mail. At its peak in 1990, the club had two thousand subscribers. The club made Sub Pop a powerful force in the Seattle scene, and effectively made the label's name synonymous with the music of the Seattle area—much in the same way Motown Records was to Detroit—and helped to secure the label's cash flow. The original series was discontinued in 1993, followed by Singles Club V.2, launched in 1998 and discontinued in 2002.
Mindful that garnering the attention of the American mainstream music press was difficult for all but the largest indie label, Pavitt and Ponemen took inspiration from alternative bands like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and Dinosaur Jr. and sought to publicize the label via the British music press. In March 1989, Pavitt and Poneman flew Melody Maker journalist Everett True to Seattle to write an article on the local music scene. As Pavitt had anticipated, the British press became enamoured with Sub Pop and the grunge sound. Pavitt said, "I really felt that the Brits and the Europeans wanted to see something that was unruly and that was more of an American archetype -- something that was really primal and really drew from the roots of rock & roll, which was very American." Poneman explained the label's success: "It could have happened anywhere, but there was a lucky set of coincidences. Charles Peterson was here to document the scene, Jack Endino was here to record the scene. Bruce and I were here to exploit the scene."
When Nirvana moved to Geffen Records, Sub Pop received royalties from sales of Nevermind that kept the label going for years afterwards. A stipulation was also implemented where selected future Nirvana studio LPs were required to carry the Sub Pop logo alongside Geffen's. After the mainstream success of Nirvana, many successful grunge bands had left Sub Pop for major record labels. Soon afterwards, a joint venture was formed with Warner Bros. Records (which had distributed Geffen since that label was founded in 1980; after 10 years under Warner, Geffen was sold to MCA Music Entertainment Group), thereby ending Sub Pop's status as an entirely independent label.
Poneman and Pavitt had a disagreement about the direction the label should take, with Poneman wanting the label to become larger and make more money. In 1996, unable to take the new corporate culture following the Warner partnership, Bruce Pavitt left the label and was able to spend more time with his family. The split between Pavitt and Poneman was not amicable, and they did not speak for seven years.
The label opened offices worldwide and began major investment in new artists, but without achieving great commercial success, prompting a scaling down and a return to Seattle.
In 2006, Sub Pop Records became the first Green-e certified record label. Through work with the Green-e program and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Sub Pop "greened" their label by purchasing enough renewable energy certificates to offset 100 percent of the electricity they use in their office, showing their commitment to putting renewable energy in the mainstream as a way consumers can take action to do something about global warming.
In early 2007, Sub Pop started a sister label by the name of Hardly Art. This label is also partially owned by Warner Music. In August 2008, Sub Pop relaunched the singles club for one year to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.
In 2009, they signed their second hip-hop group - Seattle-based Shabazz Palaces, the first being The Evil Tambourines in 1999. Ishmael Butler, one half of Shabazz Palaces and former member of jazz rap group Digable Planets became A&R for Sub Pop.
Sub Pop has three platinum records, Nirvana's Bleach; Flight of the Conchords's Flight of the Conchords; and The Postal Service's Give Up, as well as two gold records, The Shins' Wincing the Night Away, and Fleet Foxes' Fleet Foxes. The Shins' "New Slang" has gone gold, and The Postal Service's digital single for "Such Great Heights" has gone platinum. On January 31, 2007, Sub Pop announced that The Shins' third full-length for Sub Pop, Wincing the Night Away, debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, reporting first week sales of 117,991 (35K in digital sales). This is the first time any album in Sub Pop history has ever charted in the top ten or broken 100,000 in the first week of sales.
Starting in 2008, Sub Pop has released Deluxe Editions of their top-selling albums, which features the remastered album as well as some live tracks. Some of the Deluxe Editions are known to contain some demos. The albums with Deluxe Editions are Nirvana's Bleach, Mudhoney's Superfuzz Bigmuff, Sebadoh's Bakesale, Jason Loewenstein's Codes, The Postal Service's Give Up, and Red Red Meat's Bunny Gets Paid.
Sub Pop is famous for its blunt letter to aspiring artists informing them that they would not be taken on by the label. The letter opens with "Dear Loser".