Jonathan Poneman, cofounder of Sub Pop Records, which launched Nirvana, was presented with the Independent Spirit Award May 7 at the opening night of Music Biz 2014, the annual convention of the Music Business Association (formerly NARM) at L.A.’s Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.
“It’s a great honor,” said Poneman, who founded the seminal, still-vital label in 1988 with Bruce Pavitt, and earned $4 million when Warner Music Group bought 49 percent of it for $20 million in 1995.
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“On the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s first album release, it’s an especially appropriate time to honor Jonathan, a visionary who has successfully guided his label through fast-changing times in the industry without losing an ounce of integrity and artistry,” said Music Biz president James Donio in a statement.
Pavitt, who retired from Sub Pop to a remote island north of Seattle with his $4 million but recently returned to Seattle, called Poneman: “A brilliant strategist with an excellent ear for song craft,” Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs said, “Bruce and Jonathan remind me of Barnum and Bailey.”
“Our business succeeds because we approach things less from a traditional business perspective and more holistically,” explained Poneman. “The weight of the label’s history plays on its identity in the present — a lot of people who come to Sub Pop grew up listening to Mudhoney and Soundgarden, and they value the fact that with Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Iron and Wine, The Postal Service, The Flight of the Conchords, and David Cross, we never took a cookie-cutter approach.
“It’s an artist-by-artist undertaking. I’m not the most outgoing person, but I hope the artists see me as their advocate and their friend. I’m there for them, period.”
Poneman, who grew up in Ohio, got his start in Seattle in 1983 as a KCMU-FM DJ airing local music alongside fellow DJs Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, at a time when Seattle’s scene was tiny and cops often battled local rockers — who, to be fair, did once set a giant fire in a show at the base of the Space Needle, and once used a chainsaw to cut a door-shaped hole in a club’s wall when fire marshals said the club needed a fire exit. “Nirvana got kicked out of their own record-release party,” says former Sub Pop employee Nils Bernstein. Yet thanks to Poneman and company’s vision and success, Seattle’s mayor attended Sub Pop’s 2013 Silver Jubilee celebration in a Sub Pop shirt, and let Mudhoney play on top of the Space Needle, and last week the label opened a store at Sea-Tac Airport.
But Seattle music was decidedly underground when Poneman began. “Punk rock was a grass-roots rebellion against the stodgy star system of the music industry of the ’70s and ’80s, very consolidated and oligarchical,” he says. “In isolated regions, like Seattle, before there was an Internet, touring bands were the lifeline for music fans, who didn’t have access to record stores or radio. Big touring bands would get substantial advances and tour support from big labels, but punk bands couldn’t make enough to pay for gas to get here.” When early Seattle star Duff McKagan came back to Seattle for a show with his then-unknown new band Guns N’Roses, they had to borrow all their equipment from Sub Pop band The Fastbacks.
“The label was always a collaborative endeavor,” said Poneman. “It wasn’t driven by profit but by social relevance and creativity. It was a social network long before Facebook and Instagram. Inspired by Motown, Chess, Stax, Atlantic, Sire, all these indie labels with a decided regional bent, Bruce and I were interested in taking snapshots of the various music scenes across the country, reflecting the consciousness of the people, the musical identity of the communities. I think that still happens, because rock and roll and hip hop are social media. They ferment and become potent through social interaction.
“Live music can never be replaced, because it’s the essence of what makes the culture blossom and have a vital impact on society as a whole,” Poneman continued. “Because it’s participatory. Sub Pop in the 21st century is trying to wed the technical advances that have come to define the music industry. But we’re also maintaining the mission that we establish when we went into business. It’s not a top-down company. I am the co-owner and the boss, but to the extent that the company reflects my image, it does so in being a place where everybody has a voice, everybody gets to contribute.”
Past recipients of the Independent Spirit Award include Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph Records Founder and Bad Religion singer/guitarist; Rachelle and Joe Friedman, founders of J&R Music & Computer World in New York; Tom Silverman, Founder and CEO of Tommy Boy Entertainment; Don Van Cleave, formerly the President of CIMS; and the Department of Record Stores (formerly Music Monitor Network), the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), and the Alliance Of Independent Media Stores (AIMS) , who collectively founded Record Store Day.