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Sub Pop founder takes stock of last 20 years

The Seattle grunge scene may have faded, Nirvana may be no more, but the Emerald City's famed record label, Sub Pop, still lives on.
/ Source: Reuters

Venerable indie label Sub Pop has been declared dead twice in its 20 years on Earth: first in 1991, with a Seattle Weekly cover that asked, "Is Sub Pop About to Pop?," and again in 1998, when Rolling Stone said, "Its future looks bleak." But despite predictions to the contrary, the label that has taken its lickings kept on ticking, right up to the present day.

One of its latest releases, an album by comedy-folk duo Flight of the Conchords, entered the Billboard 200 in late April at No. 3 and has sold more than 130,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

According to co-founder/label president Jonathan Poneman, he started the label as "a blindly ignorant music fan." And after breaking Nirvana, helping birth emo with Sunny Day Real Estate and changing lives with the Shins, Poneman is a savvier businessman but not a cynic. "Fandom always drives what we do," he says. "When you get down to it, we're all a bunch of music nerds."

Q: What's been the key to keeping the label in business for 20 years?

Jonathan Poneman: Loving music. At the end of the day, it's been the fact that we are all music fans. It's certainly not our massive CD sales (laughs), although our digital sales are growing nicely.

Q: As you take stock of the last two decades, what have been the best and worst business decisions you've made?

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In terms of the worst, we've signed artists whose expectations have been too grand and were too impatient to realize that it takes a lot of time to build success. That impedes our ability to form a good, long-term partnership with those acts.

Q: Where does your joint venture with Warner Music Group (which bought a 49% interest in the label in 1995) fit in on the best-to-worst scale? I've read interviews with you where you say the deal has worked out, but if you could go back and do it over, you wouldn't do it.

Poneman: First off, the people who work at Warner are all good people, and I think very highly of them as individuals. But the thing is, Sub Pop comes from a culture that is very independent, and that does not do well inside a certain system. It is a huge conglomerate, and while we wish them well, we also realize that Sub Pop operates best in our own community. When the deal first went down, there was a lot of culture shock, and now it seems to have settled down. The deal does not last in perpetuity and will end sometime in the next decade.

Q: Lots of people buy albums just because they are released by Sub Pop. How have you built this up during the life of the label?

Poneman: The first time we really thought consciously about this was in the early '90s. We were thinking about signing non-grunge acts, and the debate over it lasted about five minutes before we realized we'd be fools not to. In a way, I think we reflect the collections of most music fans; unless you are a hardcore genre aficionado, your collection is probably diverse. We were much more regimented early on, but now I think we are just focused on quality and making an impact.

Q: When Nirvana broke, the thought of the band in a car ad was absurd, and now Band of Horses is in Wal-Mart commercials. How have the changes in attitudes about this affected Sub Pop?

Poneman: We see Sub Pop as being a platform for artist success above all else, and we see our role as being a counsel to our bands when it comes to making decisions about licensing. The final decision is up to the band and their comfort level; we only give them advice when they ask for it.

I also think the debate about "selling out" is incomplete if you don't also look at whether an artist is being played on radio. Historically, radio has been driven by ads, and if your song is on radio bookended by five minutes of commercials, then you really have no room to protest. Being on TV or in film accomplishes the same thing, only artists are compensated for their work.

Our film and TV licensing staff are very good at what they do, and while an individual placement might not pay a lot, it does add up. We have one artist who doesn't sell a lot of records but has had many placements and has managed to not only recoup his initial costs but make a nice living for himself.

Q: Your connection to the Seattle sound in the early '90s played a huge role in the development of the label and your brand. Nowadays, it seems like bands are more associated with labels or genres or Web sites than the city they reside in. Has this affected Sub Pop?

Poneman: While the advent of MySpace and the Web certainly changed the way people view local music, I think we are in for a re-emergence in localism in music. The spike in oil prices has put a big dent in our migratory culture, and while the Web remains, it's going to become increasingly hard for bands to travel. We are in for some hard times economically, and people are going to have to stay home and build local scenes out of necessity.

Q: Speaking of the Web, while Sub Pop has a digital store and your bands all have MySpace pages, you have not embraced the Web as much as some labels that cater to younger fans. What is your digital strategy going forward?

Poneman: I still represent an old-guard mentality, but I think I do it in a more sophisticated way than some other people. I still cling to the perspective that the medium is not always the message, and we have gotten bogged down in all these discussions about file sharing and downloading and CD burning and legality. It's really about asking the question, What does the music mean to you? You can get everything you want right away, and that is not going to change. If every label, including Sub Pop, were to disappear tomorrow, music would remain. I'd much rather spend my time talking about music and its impact than music and its business practices.

Q: Where will you be in 20 more years? Still signing bands?

Poneman: If I'm not pushing daisies, I'll be planting them. I've gotten to the place where I'm comfortable with the fact that it is all out of my control.