July 15, 2013 9:00pm PT by Tim Appelo
Sub Pop Records Throws 25th Birthday Party for 40,000
Sub Pop Records, the label noted for signing such bands as Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Shins and The Postal Service, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a Silver Jubilee concert in Seattle's bohemian Georgetown neighborhood on July 13.
To honor the milestone, seminal grunge band Mudhoney became the first band ever to play the roof of the 600-plus-foot-tall Space Needle (on July 11). Georgetown event facilitator Larry Reid, who paid Nirvana $250 in 1989 to play one of its first big Seattle gigs, tells THR 40,000 fans crammed ten blocks to see acts like Greg Dulli, Shabazz Palaces and Pissed Jeans. "We were expecting 25,000," says Sub Pop A&R chief Tony Kiewel, "and the city shut down an extra block to accommodate the people spilling into traffic."
Adds Charles R. Cross, biographer of hometown heroes Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix: "You saw everyone from 14-year-old kids to Seattle's Mayor Mike McGinn, walking around wearing Sub Pop T-shirts," he says.
Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, called "the pinata" in the grunge years because colleagues could swat his huge beard and crumbs would fall out, tells THR that he's commemorating the anniversary with two history books. "Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, out this fall, will include amazing never-before-seen Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney shots by Steve Double," Pavitt reveals, "in addition to my many paparrazi shots of the artists totally crushing Europe. SUB POP USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology 1980-1988, in May of 2014, will include contributions from Reid, Cross and Jon Poneman [Sub Pop's other founder]." Both are from Bazillion Points press.
Reaching its silver anniversary wasn't a benchmark anyone expected. Recalls the label's 1990s general manager Rich Jensen: "My intention was to make Sub Pop a more or less permanent institution like Boeing, Microsoft or Starbucks." Yet despite his business card reading "Puppet Master," Jensen at first couldn't make Pavitt and Poneman dance to bottom-line realities. Sub Pop EVP Megan Jasper said in 2005, "Bruce and Jon didn't know how to run a business, or even how to write a budget. They were real music lovers but not real businessmen." To wit: Pavitt and Poneman would visit Sub Pop's distributors wearing T-shirts that read, "You Owe Us Money," while one of their bands, the Dwarves, spray-painted "YOU OWE DWARVES $$" on Sub Pop's floor.
Then, in 1991, Mudhoney's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge sold 100,000 copies, and Nirvana's Nevermind hit the jackpot, saving the label. In 1992, Jensen took a random cold call from money manager Dana Giacchetto, who brokered the sale of 49 percent of Sub Pop to Warner Music for $20 million, earning Pavitt and Poneman $4 million each, according to Jensen's ex-wife Emily White's book You Will Make Money in Your Sleep.
Sadly, Giacchetto was sent to prison for misappropriating millions belonging to Jensen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Winona Ryder, among others, and Sub Pop blew millions on its own. It became bloated, hitless, a workplace rife with bitter coups and counter-coups. The bosses quarreled, and arguably had the wrong attitude, evident in what they told this reporter in 1992. "Part of me is a corporate scumbag," said Pavitt, "but part is an artist as well. And when the scumbag takes over the artist, that's when we should be deposed."
Poneman added: "Probably in about two years."
What saved the company from its own swelling ego was when Sub Pop learned to balance and later merge art and commerce, bringing it back in touch with the superb taste that had made it famous. In 2001, the Shins -- almost the antidote to grunge -- hit big with Oh, Inverted World. And Sub Pop profited by getting past the fanatical anti-corporatism of the grunge era, when a representative for Anheuser-Busch couldn't find a single Seattle band willing to take $100,000 to put a beer banner on their stage. In 2004, Sub Pop was smart enough to license the Shins' "New Slang" for Zach Braff's Garden State, in which Natalie Portman says the tune "will change your life."
Suddenly, Sub Pop was au courant again, with bands like the Postal Service, Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes and, more recently, the hip-hop act Shabazz Palaces, locally-bred lo-fi singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone and folkie Father John Misty. "I'm not sure there really is a common thread between all of the bands," says Kiewel. "History is largely written by the victors, and sadly I think a lot of amazing artists get left out of our story simply because they were too mellow when our grunge bands were popular or too punk when our folk records were popular. I do tend to agree that we are generally drawn to great lyricists, though."
Nowadays, pundits are more bullish on Sub Pop than Boeing, Microsoft or Starbucks. Sub Pop's seven-inch Smashing Pumpkins records, which were once so unsalable that employees played frisbee with them, are now for sale on Ebay for up to $799. Asked to sum up the gifts of the label's longtime triumvirate -- Poneman, Jasper and himself -- Pavitt says, "Megan: the world's best boss: kind, motivated, funny, clear communicator. Jon: Brilliant strategist with an excellent ear for song craft. Bruce: Out-of-the-box thinker with good instincts when it comes to recognizing creative artists."
And what is the main lesson of Pavitt's rollercoaster career? "Resourceful thinking is job No. 1."