Sub Pop And The Indies Circa 2008: Not One Other Mention Of Nirvana, I Swear

I wrote about Sub Pop and other similar labels in my column this week, and in the course of reporting it I went out to Seattle earlier this month for some of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary festivities.

Sub Pop’s actually been around well over 20 years, but, whatever, it’s close enough for rock. Brief video of (the unusually beloved to the college-age Fine On Media) Green River, from their first “secret” reunion show at the Sunset Tavern, and a brief, late-night interview with Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt after the jump.

(Special bonus gift to the first Fine On Media reader who correctly identifies the band who first performed the song Green River is playing in the video.)

What I find interesting about Sub Pop and some other labels like them is that they illustrate an interesting perversity in the music biz right now. The biggest stars on labels like Sub Pop and Matador and Merge—like Spoon and the Shins—are selling more now than they ever have before. This, simply, is not the case for the biggest acts on major labels, as those labels continue to crack up.

Not that Sub Pop’s historical example is anything to be particularly proud of, seeing how their history is one of mismanagement and near-death experiences, all of which were lavishly covered in Seattle’s many free weeklies under headlines like “Sub Plop.” Most labels like them were generally in financial danger at all times—famously, Matador Records were in the process of getting evicted from their offices in 1991 when boxes full of lifelines, in the form of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted LP, arrived—but Sub Pop took it to ridiculous heights.

As recently as 2001 Sub Pop was sued for underpayment of royalties. (Said suit was later settled out of court.) Nevertheless, the business shortcomings are, of course, just part of the carefully-constructed legend. During the anniversary celebrations, even the Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was in on the joke. When presenting Pavitt and label CEO Jonathan Poneman with a proclamation at a brief ceremony, Mayor Nickels made sure to orate in said proclamation that Sub Pop’s been “successfully going out of business for 20 years.”

That said, these labels seem relatively stable right now. Although even Pavitt admitted to me such labels will always be tenuous. “It’s a highly unpredictable industry. You’ve got 20 employees, and your big act stiffs—you’re kind of [expletive].”

All this and more in the column.

(As for disclosures: As a guest musician I played guitar on one Sub Pop release. A fuller accounting of my many, and more casual, intersections with the bands and labels mentioned herein would likely require a large whiteboard and several magic markers.)

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