Even under the best of circumstances, operating an independent/alternative/underground record label is more often than not fraught with trauma--distribution problems, tour hassles, a minuscule advertising budget, getting bands to the recording studio, you name it. Add to that the amount of time it takes to establish a track record of consistency in the public eye, and it's a wonder that any small indie labels manage to survive this sort of torture for any amount of time before they evaporate into ethers.
In stark contrast to such foreboding elements, the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records label--thanks in part to ex-Phoenician Jon Poneman--has bucked the odds and become the fastest-rising star in the land of independent music.
Since 1987, Poneman has signed raw and hard Northwest-based bands like Soundgarden, Green River, and Mudhoney to the label and in doing so has shifted the underground rock 'n' roll community's intense gaze from L.A., Athens, and Minneapolis over to Seattle.
"Our motivation first and foremost is to be a Northwest-based label that is documenting those bands who we feel are vital," says Poneman, the label's co-head honcho. "It just so happens that what is vital up here also happens to be fairly rowdy rock 'n' roll. We like that, bands which despite the wattage and amplification can still connect in the liberation of emotion as opposed to constricted show-biz, pouty-lipped, poodle-haired posing."
Sub Pop's sound is now as identifiable as any prominent indie label's, but when it began in the early Eighties, Sub Pop was silent.
That's because the label began originally as a fanzine, published by Sub Pop's other co-bigwig, Bruce Pavitt. In the 'zine, Pavitt reviewed independent American releases exclusively at a time when critics were drooling over anything with a British accent as if it were the Koh-I-Noor diamond. Sub Pop, the fanzine, begat Sub Pop cassette samplers, which in turn begat Pavitt's "Sub Pop" column, which ran in alternative weeklies across the country, including New Times.
Not content with what he had created, Pavitt undertook releasing an album called Sub Pop 100, a compilation of terrific oddball bands from around the country. Although national in its execution, the album sonically defined what has since become recognized as the Sub Pop sound--roaring, aggressive rock 'n' roll that takes no prisoners.
With the success of Sub Pop 100 under his belt, Pavitt toyed with the idea of starting an actual label that would be regional in focus. Enter into the picture one Jon Poneman, a part-time student/musician who moved from Phoenix in 1977. Speaking
from the "plush, luxurious" offices of Sub Pop, Poneman picks up the story from there. "I was involved with the communications program at the University of Washington, which led to a radio show where I pumped local releases over the air. A local tavern owner who wanted to align herself with local bands that I had previewed began to have me book those bands into the club, quite a few of which are now on Sub Pop--Green River, Soundgarden, Bundle of Hiss, and Mudhoney."
Poneman, who admits that his own musical career was languishing, had also vaguely envisioned starting a record label, but it wasn't until he heard the grinding tones of Soundgarden that he decided to take the plunge. "It was strictly happenstance that I came into this. I was in the bar where I had been booking bands to settle up finances with the owner, and Soundgarden was playing. I'd never really heard them play live, and I was stunned at how confrontational they were. In one fell swoop, they made my musical aspirations seem irrelevant by comparison. This was back when Soundgarden was very rough and aggressive, confrontational in the sense of Iggy Pop or early Mick Jagger."
Poneman recalls being dissatisfied with pop music that he thought was "androgynous, asexual and very clean, emotionless. Then I hear Soundgarden's dirty, sexual music. I thought to myself, `Hey, I'll put out a Soundgarden record.'"
Poneman then approached Pavitt with the idea of turning the writer's project into a full-fledged label. "I had a little bit of money stashed away, and Bruce already had Sub Pop going, so with a little more outside finances, we launched Sub Pop, the label, on a wing and a prayer."
The release of Soundgarden's Hunted Down seven-incher quickly led to releases like Green River's Dry as a Bone EP and Soundgarden's Screaming Life EP. Since then, Sub Pop has released records by such Northwest-area stalwarts as Blood Circus, Swallow, and Cat Butt (which features ex-Phoenician Danny Bland on rhythm guitar).
Because nearly all Sub Pop bands display a no-nonsense attitude, some have discounted the label as nothing more than a storing house for retro-rock rehash hounds.
Poneman bristles at the accusation. "Yeah, there's always some asshole journalist who will write us off as a bunch of revisionist/revivalist bands, but I tend to think of it as a classicist approach to music that says, `This is what we believe is essential to rock music and what we want to present.' If you know your rock history, the Northwest has had a great tradition of rock bands--the Kingsmen, the Sonics, the Wailers. Hell, even [Kinks commando] Ray Davies without fail points to influences from those bands. In fact, "You Really Got Me" is actually a rewrite of the Sonics' "The Witch."
That Pavitt and Poneman have corralled an abundance of regional talent into a going concern is no small feat, and Poneman claims that Sub Pop's business techniques will keep it from going the way of other less successful labels.
"We depart markedly from other labels in that we market and distribute our own records. We have one distributor, Caroline, but outside of them, we deal directly with about 125 record stores worldwide who buy the records upfront C.O.D. As we all know, cash flow is the key to successful ventures, but that doesn't mean we're sitting around here making money hand over fist. We have an incredible roster of commitments in these bands, and the profit margin is very low."
Sub Pop's ambitious efforts to highlight the best of the Northwest's rock bands has led to the recent release of Sub Pop 200, a three-record boxed set of tunes from twenty Washington state bands. Upon listening to the trio of discs, any skepticism about the viability of Northwest rock is shot to pieces. Swallow, Mudhoney, Tad, Blood Circus, Cat Butt, Soundgarden, and Girl Trouble, to name a few, rip their idiosyncratic way through the rock underbrush like a 200-m.p.h. Poulan chainsaw in a bad mood.
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Since the release, Soundgarden has signed to major label A&M Records, but Poneman swears he isn't concerned for now that the giant record corporations will suddenly begin horning in on his bands.
"Sooner or later some of our bands will get picked up by a major label, and well they should if that's where their interests lie. Our primary goal is to grow as a viable alternative to major labledom. Okay, so the band might get a large advance upfront and better distribution. With the indies, you can call your own shots, distribution angles are getting better, you don't end up owing people money or have to put up with a retarded art department."
Though not about to brag on about Sub Pop's momentum, Poneman does admit that "things are going well, even though I am cautious. There are so many killer bands and records waiting to break out of here, and we are going to endeavor to expose as many as possible and make this area a veritable rock heaven.