By Michael Alan Goldberg
It's early Saturday morning in Seattle, and 4th Avenue is practically deserted, save for a few wind-whipped coffee cups, the occasional passenger-less taxi drifting by, and two long-haired guys in old biker jackets standing right in the middle of the street, unperturbed by the weather, staring at one of the storefronts and talking to one another in what sounds like Bulgarian or Hungarian or some other Eastern European language. While one watches out for traffic - though he really needn't bother - the other points his camera at the giant Sub Pop Records logo adorning the awning above one of the windows and snaps a few shots. Then he hands the camera off to his pal, runs under the awning and poses with his arms in the air while his buddy clicks away. The two switch places. More photos.
"Yeah, that happens a lot," Sub Pop A&R guy Stuart Meyer laughs the following Monday. "We still get people from all over coming in here asking, 'Where's Kurt buried? Where's his house?' Stuff like that. But now more people come in asking about the Shins."
For a lot of fans, Sub Pop will always be synonymous with grunge, will always be associated with introducing Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney to the world. But these days, Sub Pop is thriving with a crop of artists who hardly resemble the superfuzz bigmuff motif of times gone by: The quirky and bright indie-pop of the Shins and the Postal Service; the sparse acoustic murmurs of Iron & Wine, Rosie Thomas, and Baptist Generals; the Springsteen-meets-Fugazi rumble of the Constantines; even the biting, provocative stand-up comedy of David Cross.
In fact, the word on the street is that 2003 was the most profitable of the label's 16-year existence. "Well, that's been the party line," laughs Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman. "I think that whole story generated from a comment I made at a meeting that I thought it was our most successful year. In terms of pure profit, the year Kurt killed himself probably was because there was such a run on Bleach records. But somehow that doesn't count because it was so friggin' awful on so many levels. And not only that, that was the year that the company was starting to slide into a really dysfunctional state."
What essentially happened was this: Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, who co-founded Sub Pop in April of 1988, sold a 49 percent stake in the company to Time-Warner in 1995. The deal brought a lot of cash to Sub Pop, but also a lot of new employees who didn't necessarily share the same vision, or eye for talent, as the original crew. The label began losing its focus, the quality of the releases became spotty, money was spent recklessly, inter-office politics and individual agendas took center stage; and all the while their new corporate partner was desperate for Sub Pop to produce "the next Nirvana." In 1996, Pavitt finally grew disenchanted with the whole business and resigned, leaving the equally fried Poneman alone at the helm.
"I didn't really expect things to get as bad as they did because I was kind of out to lunch, really," Poneman recalls. "I was so burned out. When Bruce and I started the company, we had ideas but we didn't set out for it to become what it did. It just kept getting bigger, and it got steered along by friends, enthusiasts, bands, lawyers, managers."
"Back in the day, people would see the Sub Pop logo and it was a brand name, so people bought the album knowing they would probably like it," says general manager Megan Jasper. "So, then, when Sub Pop tried to branch out with stuff like Combustible Edison and the Blue Rags, people bought that stuff and they'd be bummed! But that's what happens when you market a label and tell people that this is what you can expect from us."
Poneman credits Jasper's return to Sub Pop in 1998 - she started there in 1989 as an intern, soon moved up to sales, then was laid off in 1991 during a particularly bleak financial period - as the event most pivotal to the label's turnaround. She assumed the unenviable task of trimming down the roster, the staff, and operating expenses - necessary moves that put a strain on some long-standing friendships.
"Bands were used to some money getting thrown away in the name of risk-taking," Jasper says. "You have to explain the smaller marketing budgets to a band and it's not easy, and it's understandable that they would second-guess that. But once we were able to get to a point where we could move forward, it suddenly became fun and exciting again."
Over the next couple of years, Sub Pop began writing its new historical chapter in earnest, putting out electronic-tinged albums from Looper and Heather Duby, low-key urban-folk from Damien Jurado and Rosie Thomas, the countrified pop of Beachwood Sparks, and the delicate Britpop of Trembling Blue Stars. All were quality releases, critically hailed, and people began to take notice of the label's dramatic shift toward diversity. But sales remained light.
That all changed in 2003, first with the Postal Service's debut, Give Up, and then the Shins' second full-length album, Chutes Too Narrow. By far the label's biggest hits in years, both albums are nearing the 200,000 mark in sales, and currently move 4,000-5,000 copies a week.
Sub Pop's recent successes have energized the label and opened doors for other roster acts with new albums due in 2004 - Iron & Wine, the Catheters, Helio Sequence, Wolf Eyes, and the Elected among them. But even as Poneman and company look toward a bright future, there are always ghosts from the past to contend with. During recent weeks, it's been impossible to walk past a newsstand in Seattle, or anywhere else, without seeing Kurt Cobain's face staring out from dozens of papers and magazine covers - all tributes to the 10th anniversary of his passing in April, 1994.
"In all due respect to everyone involved in that era, time moves forward and there's always new bands and new music to get excited about," Poneman concludes. "I would much rather it be that way than just keep toiling year in and year out with the same sorrowful cast of characters." •