“Sub Pop was the grunge label, right?” That’s right—the original home to Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, incredible bands all. Bands whose members even, on occasion, wore flannel shirts. And 15 years after the rest of America draped itself in fashionable, grungy flannels (and then promptly took them to the thrift stores where they always belonged), Sub Pop is again one of the top music companies in the land, with artists racking up Saturday Night Live appearances and Grammy nominations.

In fact, while much of the music industry has been desperately trying to put the brakes on declining sales, Sup Pop has been giving away music by top-sellers and working with unorthodox business models.

Seriously, who’d’ve thought it? Other than the humble founders of Sub Pop, that is?

SUB POP ROCK CITY

It was Soundgarden that brought Sub Pop label chiefs Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman together in Seattle in 1987.

Poneman, a music promoter and DJ on public radio station KCMU, was a quiet observer, thoughtful, analytical, Pavitt says. By contrast, Pavitt wore his passion for Northwest rock and punk on his sleeve. “There was always something on the tip of his tongue that he was enthusiastic about,” according to Mark Arm, singer and guitarist for the Sub Pop bands Mudhoney, Green River and The Monkeywrench.

At that point, Pavitt had already been using the name Sub Pop for various projects: a fanzine and cassette series, his own radio show on KCMU, and a column in the local music paper The Rocket. He’d also released an album called Sub Pop 100 that included indie groups like Sonic Youth as well as Northwest punk bands the Wipers and the U-Men. Poneman offered to finance Screaming Life by hard rockers Soundgarden, and he and Pavitt became partners in Sub Pop. They quit their day jobs, and on April 1, 1988 they moved into a tiny office in Seattle’s Terminal Sales Building. They stacked boxes of records around the toilet.

From their earliest days together, the pair spoke publicly about “world domination.” Of course it was largely a goof. Sub Pop, after all, hailed from Seattle. In the late 1980s, Microsoft had yet to conquer the world’s computers, and Starbucks had not yet opened on every corner. Seattle was the rain-soaked backwater to most of the country, and to the music industry in particular.

That said, Pavitt and Poneman were serious about creating a brand for the label that would rival classics like Motown or Blue Note. Many of their early releases featured a uniform look: a black bar across the top, with the band’s name in all capital letters, followed by the release name, all in a sans-serif font. Many of those early records also featured the iconic, action-packed rock photography of Charles Peterson.

Credits for the albums and singles often listed only Peterson and producer Jack Endino. Paring down the text, Pavitt says, pumped up the visceral connection to the records, added a sense of mystery, and branded Peterson and Endino as Sub Pop’s house photographer and producer.

And then there was the logo. “That logo was a large reason of why I wanted to work with Bruce,” Poneman says. Evolving over time through use in Pavitt’s Rocket column and on Sub Pop 100, the mark was another key ingredient in creating an image for the label. Stark, simple, with a white-on-black “SUB” stacked above the black-on-white “POP,” the logo lent itself to reproduction on the tiniest CD spine to the largest poster. In the early days, shirts with the logo outsold Sub Pop’s records.

“We learned early on that probably the best way we could spend promotional money was to make a profit having other people wear our logo,” Pavitt says.

Indeed, relentless branding was the Sub Pop approach. At the time, 7-inch vinyl singles were the hip currency in punk. Issuing them in limited runs made them instantly coveted, and encouraged word-of-mouth interest in Sub Pop. But it also bred frustration when fans found the singles immediately sold out at record shops. From this conundrum came the Sub Pop Singles Club: fans subscribed to a series of monthly, limited-release 7-inches. The label got paid up front, fans got rare vinyl by mail, and excitement moved through the underground about that label from Seattle.

While courting devoted fans, Sub Pop also courted the press, and the British music press in particular. UK outlets such as Melody Maker and the New Music Express were given to hyperbolic fawning, which suited Sub Pop’s own exaggerated marketing. In March 1989, the label paid to put Melody Maker’s Everett True on a Seattle-bound plane to come soak up the scene. His excited report back, “Seattle: Rock City” whet European appetites for all things Northwest, including Seattle’s pared-down punk and metal hybrid known as grunge rock.

Three months later, Sub Pop released Bleach, the first album by Nirvana. Although the album was not an immediate hit, it generated big buzz in American indie circles. Tastemaker Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth offered props to both Nirvana and Mudhoney in interviews. Bands that once drew 100 hipsters to Seattle clubs were now selling out the city’s Moore Theater. Meanwhile, Sub Pop released records by heavy rockers Tad, the universally offensive Dwarves, and feminist badasses L7, among scores of others.