Jonathan Poneman gives us a tour of Sub Pop

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Answering the age-old question; grunge or emo?

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Derek Evers | April 16, 2014

Sub Pop records office

Welcome to Sub Pop.

If you're like me, when you go record shopping one of the first things you look for to validate an album is the label on the back of the packaging. Aside from all of the untold information that can be gleaned from these little logos, they're the easiest indicator of a recorded audio composition's worth. Luckily, through all of the ups and downs of an industry driven by opinions, there are labels like Sub Pop to make our phonograph shopping a little easier.

That's why we wanted to stop by their offices when we were on the west coast to get a look at their digs and spend some time with the good people who work there. (It should also be noted that they house a second, equally-impressive label in Hardly Art, who also opened their doors to us while we were there.) As we sauntered through their office, checking out platinum records perched above toilets, we took some photos and asked a few poignant questions that label co-founder Jonathan Poneman was nice enough to answer. Below are my thoughts on the arc of Sub Pop's releases in interview format, along with Jonathan's answers.

You can check out the rest of the photos from our office tour here.

I realize the first few Sub Pop releases were cassette comps with the zine, but do you remember the first band you sat down with and discussed details, contracts, etc?

JP: The first band where there were in-depth conversations about contracts was Nirvana. Bruce and I felt that we would rather pour our limited resources into recording and the pressing of records, figuring, perhaps mystically, that all would be made right in the end. We were supremely confident in the quality of Sub Pop's music and never wavered from the belief that it deserved to be heard on a large scale. We knew that we were exposing ourselves to potential legal wrangling down the road but what good was an air tight contract if we couldn't fulfill its obligations? With Nirvana, I just pieced together a cut-and-paste contract myself. This was at the emphatic request of Nirvana's imposing bass player.

People see Nirvana as a forbearer to the “indie” persona, but how involved/meticulous were they with the business side? Were they aware of their identity, or was it something that sort of happened?

Nirvana were a lot of things but they weren't particularly groundbreaking as an indie band, great music notwithstanding. They were another band in a long, long line of artists stretching back decades who were making music, touring and building a career without corporate seed money. At the time when Nirvana became active, the music industry as a whole had become dominated by a bloated oligarchy. If you had the hope, talent and ambition to have a career in those days, you had to either win the favor of an oligarch or do it all yourself. The “persona” that you speak of is a caricature that was embraced by entertainment corporations the world over in the hope of peddling any number of products to a powerful and influential consumer demo. Nothing new about that either.

Can you walk us through the Dwarves fake death PR/dropping them from the label? Ever have any regrets either way, and do you still talk to them?

I don't “do” regret. I learn lessons, hopefully, but regret is a waste of precious time. The Dwarves had fulfilled their contract to Sub Pop; they couldn't be dropped. It was just another prank in a long line of 'em. Was it in bad taste? You bet. But those who felt suddenly squeamish about bad taste in the service of rock n roll p.r. were either being disingenuous, chickenshit or Blag Jesus.

Everyone gives Sub Pop credit for starting grunge, but do you feel like it should get more credit for helping launch “emo” via the early Sunny Day Real Estate records?

I will happily take credit for all of the good, and disavow all of the bad. Grunge: good; Emo: bad.

Any stories of cold-pitched artists that actually got signed?

I've been cold-pitched plenty of artists who have gotten signed: Nirvana, Afghan Whigs, Red Red Meat… these are just a few artists who were pitched to me, the former and latter by their producers, the Whigs by another musician. If what you are really asking is has anybody walked into the office and walked out with a contract, I'm still waiting for that day.

Impose started as a zine and also puts out records, do you feel the dynamic has changed for a small publication/label in the digital age (obviously the formats, etc, but I mean more conceptual about the separation between music and the media)?

Oh, totally. Record labels, blog sites, radio and streaming services are all basically doing the same thing only with an adjustment of emphasis depending on the platform. Record labels take on more strategic concerns, plus they help maintain what's left of the anachronistic music retail syndicate that used to be so powerful before the internet fully blossomed as a music delivery system. I think that it's all incredibly exciting except history dictates a rush to oligarchy, where a handful of companies hold sway over the entire industry while everybody else struggles against marginalization. I am not talking about major labels here. They are the least of our concerns.

Reason for starting Hardly Art and why you felt the same attention couldn't be applied via Sub Pop in the way you wanted?

Hardly Art had to happen. Sub Pop is a great label and tradition, but I wanted to have another label that was free to decide what it was going to be, sharing some of Sub Pop's resources but creating its own identity. It has succeeded wonderfully. There are some records that sound like they could've come out on Sub Pop, but mostly Hardly Art has its own thing going, as every label should. The fact is, we'll all be working for Hardly Art eventually.

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