Sub Pop Records throwing itself a party at Alki Beach—the place where the Denny Party first landed in 1851 before going on to found the city—makes a certain kind of sense. In contemporary Seattle, Sub Pop is also foundational, and it has, since its start, loved artful self-promotion. The bash, to celebrate the record label’s 30th anniversary, lands on August 11 and is called SPF30. The company expects up to 50,000 people to subsume the beach for a free music festival featuring some of its roster’s major acts—Father John Misty, Beach House, Mudhoney, Shabazz Palaces—along with children’s bands like Caspar Babypants and the Not-Its!
These days, the label’s as much a part of Seattle culture as Starbucks and KEXP. Scan our streets and the Sub Pop logo is a fixture on T-shirts, hoodies, or as a sticker slapped across a laptop. For an indie label to hold such cultural sway in a city this large remains unprecedented. Part of that impact is due to the golden ear that the company has so frequently flaunted. Along with offshoot Hardly Art, with which it shares a downtown office, Sub Pop has launched local talent as various as Soundgarden, Nirvana, the Postal Service, Fleet Foxes, and Tacocat. The rest of that impact owes to masterful marketing.
Copresident Tony Kiewel attributes the brand strength in part to the label’s zine beginnings. Bruce Pavitt launched Subterranean Pop in 1980, covering local music, and when the zine became a record label in 1988, early releases had an aesthetic cohesiveness that heralded brand and band equally. Vinyl single covers placed band names (Mudhoney, Tad) and label logo directly beside each other, above kinetically blurred Charles Peterson photos. “That was done to create a thing, a look, a spirit,” says Sub Pop CEO Megan Jasper, who started as a receptionist there in 1989.
They might’ve been a punk label, but Pavitt and his Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman drew inspiration from Motown as much as SST. They also had an eye, it seems, toward classic advertising. Sub Pop screened “Loser” on T-shirts as a self-deprecating slogan, just as three decades earlier, Volkswagen sold cars with nearly the same letters: “Lemon” read a famed VW Beetle ad.
Such duality has long been at the heart of Sub Pop. In 1995 it sold a 49 percent share to Warner Music Company for $20 million, yet for all its self-promoting prowess, all its commercialism, which it’s approached with brazen irony—just see a 1995 Spin article in which the writer introduces Poneman as a man getting a massage in his office beneath a “rustic oil painting of a large moose” and imploring, “Buy low, sell high!”—the label has continued to seek out longshot artists and use its marketing verve to vault them to about as much prominence as they could hope for. The dissonant space punk of local upstarts So Pitted won’t yield runaway commercial hits. Nor will the noise-rap of Clipping.
Jasper says in the last decade management has consciously stepped back from self-promotion, trying instead to put its energy toward artists. The musical roster has diversified; the album covers’ visual cohesion faded long ago. That effort, she says, became increasingly conscious after the label stuck a Sub Pop store in Sea-Tac Airport, with all the branded merch—tote bags, coffee mugs—a visitor could want.
“Sub Pop’s fine,” Kiewel says. “It has an identity.” But that identity, even, has matured. “I think who we are as a company has changed,” he says. “We put a lot more energy into trying to find ways to be over-the-top generous, than over-the-top insulting.” In the ’90s the label’s demo rejection letter began “Dear Loser” and noted the music’s journey through the “great lower intestine that is the talent acquisition process.” Now Sub Pop gives a yearly college Loser Scholarship, $15,000 divided among three high school seniors, and gives employees monthly volunteer hours and a paid yearly “protest day.”
KEXP DJ Cheryl Waters has watched the label engage more with causes but thinks that may be due to its increased connections. “The founders and the people that work for the company,” she says, “have always been very active in the community.”
“There’s no real payoff to that,” Kiewel says of the business impact of the company’s generosity. In fact, there is; if you broadcast it, doing good is good PR. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. They just entail a contradiction inherent to corporate giving.
Of course, such contradiction has always been at Sub Pop’s center. When it was a zine in its third issue, Bruce Pavitt shaved the title to prefixes, which have remained in constant tension. To read the name is to be lost in a game of connotative ping-pong: the subterranean, the populist, the subpar, the popular, the submissive, the bubble bound to pop, and now, so fittingly in its 30th year, as it aims to shift focus from itself to others, the paternal.