Happy Birthday to Sub Pop – April Fools to Everyone Else!

So they did it on April 1st so it could be called a joke if they failed, but really they were serious. Today is the anniversary of the day Sub Pop Records officially opened its office doors, way back in 1988. With a knack for self-deprecation, the independent label also had a talent for combining innovation, timing, and marketability – not only for its bands, but for the label itself.

Sub Pop developed a unique image based around hype that became the straw that broke the camel’s back – that is, if you can call the wall that was blocking underground musicians from having mainstream success in the United States a camel – and thereby caused a major shift in American glamour. Nevermind the make-up and leather outfits, here’s the flannel.

In the late 1980s, heavy metal reigned supreme in American culture; the superstars of the genre had their faces on the cover of mainstream magazines and television screens while their music ruled the airwaves. Here’s some lyrical examples of these bands’ musical genius:

“Hot for Teacher”                                                      “Girls, Girls, Girls”
Van Halen                                                                    Mötley Crüe
I think of all the education                                   I’m such a good good boy
that I’ve missed                                                        I just need a new toy
But then my homework                                         I’ll tell ya what girl
was never quite like this                                       Dance for me,
Whoa I’ve got it bad                                                I’ll keep you overemployed
got it bad, so bad
I’m hot for teacher

Ok fine, let’s throw in some pictures too:


What is perhaps almost as troubling as their misogynistic lyrics is the number of women who slept with them.

Thankfully, it was also during the 1980s, however, that an underground network centred around punk music developed in America. This network had to create its own institutions separate from the mainstream in order to thrive.

Bruce Pavitt, an active promoter of this underground network, formed the independent record label Sub Pop in 1987 with Jonathan Poneman. Some upstart band called Soundgarden or something wanted to put a record out, and Pavitt and Poneman [hereafter known as P&P] decided they’d be the ones to do it. So they did. And they put out albums by other Pacific Northwest bands, such as Tad, Mudhoney, oh and yes Nirvana.

P&P weren’t no lightweights in the music community – Poneman was a music promoter as well as a DJ on the independent KCMU, a radio station staffed entirely by volunteers. KCMU, in direct contrast to album-orientated rock stations, played local talent and pushed creativity instead of a higher profit margin.

Pavitt lived in Olympia and attended Evergreen State College before moving to Seattle. For credit in a course, Pavitt created a fanzine called Subterranean Pop, focused on two areas of American music that were forgotten by the mainstream magazines, the Midwest and the Northwest. Soon he shortened the magazines name to Sub Pop and included in it a compilation of American music with a regional bias.

When Pavitt moved to Seattle, he began writing for the music magazine The Rocket. Sub Pop became a column that hyped underground bands from across the country.  Here’s an example from August 1983:

Pavitt was a student of American underground music scenes. His understandings of their nuances, and his and Poneman’s subsequent hype of Seattle bands on their label led to the mainstream music industry finally starting to pay attention to what was happening underground. The label had a great logo, used shameless hype (proclaiming that Sub Pop was bent on “world domination” and used innovative marketing campaigns. They had a “loser” record club, which got the attention of fanatical record collectors and brought their money into the label’s coffers.

They were doing such a good job of hyping the underground, that others got jealous. But that only led to things like this showing up in fanzines:

Not only did they promote their acts, but the label itself. In an advert for a Sub Pop band, you’d also see the Sub Pop logo. This worked in such a way that it help to create a new type of glamour.

The Sub Pop image protrayed a new style of hero, one that wore flannel and used a chainsaw. These new heroes could also be called losers, and that was a-okay.

“The loser is the existential hero of the ’90s.” – TAD guitarist Kurt Danielson

When Nirvana was ultimately signed to the major record label Geffen, the “Smells like Teen Spirit” music video was released, and Kurt Cobain wore a dress on MTV’s metal program Headbanger’s Ball, the notion of constructed glamour within American culture was changed forever.

The misogynistic masculinity of heavy metal had bitten the dust.

None of that, however, would have happened if it wasn’t for Sub Pop.

So wishing the company a happy birthday would probably be nice, but saying “April fools” is probably more appropriate.

Explore posts in the same categories: American Glamour

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