Key Acts: Mudhoney, Nirvana, Sunny Day Real Estate, the Shins, the Postal Service, Fleet Foxes
The roots to Sub Pop —or Subterranean Pop, as it then was— go all the way back to 1979, when Bruce Pavitt began his photocopied punk-rock fanzine of the same name. Through the 1980s, Pavitt would, in an oddball fashion, chronicle the underground musical scene of the United States, assembling cassette compilations of bands from out-of-the-way American towns.
In 1986, Pavitt relocated to Seattle, and began assembling Sub Pop's first-ever vinyl LP, Sub Pop 100. Featuring such luminaries as Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, The Wipers, and Shonen Knife, the album marked the beginning of Subterranean Pop as record-label.
At the time, Pavitt was also presenting Subterranean Pop as radio-show, on the University Of Washington's student radio-station KCMU. Other station volunteers included Mark Arm of Green River (and soon to be of Mudhoney), Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, and future Sub Pop co-founder (and recent Toledo transplant) Jonathan Poneman. There, under the one roof, grew the first buds of the grunge explosion.
The Early Years
Sub Pop, as label, truly came into being in 1987, when Poneman borrowed $20,000 from friends and family to release Soundgarden's debut EP, Screaming Life. Now resembling a 'real' label, Sub Pop signed a host of bands from the local Seattle scene: Mudhoney, Tad, Blood Circus, and Nirvana.
Riding on the back of Nirvana's meteoric rise to most-famous-band-on-the-planet, Sub Pop became internationally famous, not to mention financially flush. As well as earning a small royalty percentage from Nirvana's major-label debut (a little record called Nevermind), the trio's first album, the Sub Pop-released Bleach, went platinum in retrospect.
Yet, by the time Nirvana had released In Utero in 1993, Mudhoney were the only original grunge band left on the label. Instead, Sub Pop had started to branch out, stylistically, their ranks ranging from the slowcore crawl of Codeine, to the retro-lounge of Combustible Edison, the jangle-pop of Velocity Girl, and the proto-emo of Sunny Day Real Estate.
The New Era
In 1996, Pavitt left the day-to-day running of the label, and, for a few years, Sub Pop seemed to be on uneasy footing. Yet, after some financially-frought, lean years through the late-'90s, the Seattle institution has undergone a tremendous renaissance in the 21st century.
A host of signings —indie-rock kingpins The Shins, bearded bluesman Iron And Wine, Death Cab-associated electro project the Postal Service, Brazilian partystarters Cansei de Ser Sexy, menacing Montréal combo Wolf Parade, harmony-draped woodland psych troupe Fleet Foxes— have been astonishing success stories.
After a decade of living in the shadow of grunge, Sub Pop is now more successful than ever; albums by The Postal Service (2003's Give Up) and The Shins (2007's Wincing The Night Away) selling more copies than anything the label's issued since Bleach. With a solid stable of acts, and regained cultural currency, Sub Pop may have a few more decades left in it, yet.