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Sub Pop Earns Well-Deserved Pat on the Back for 20th Anniversary

July 11, 2008

By Patrick MacDonald, Seattle Times

Jul. 11–Get live updates now on our Festival Blog!

Sub Pop is more than just a record label. It’s an attitude, a way of life, a symbol of Seattle like Microsoft and Starbucks. America’s greatest indie label, Sub Pop single-handedly turned Seattle into a rock-music mecca by introducing Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and other grunge bands to a waiting world 20 years ago.

What’s most amazing about Sup Pop is not just that it’s still going strong, still hip and cutting-edge — but that it’s enjoying one of its most creative, productive and profitable years ever.

All of that is worth celebrating, which is what the SP20 Festival, Saturday and Sunday at Marymoor Park, is all about. The two-day festival pays homage to the past, with an appearance by Mudhoney, a reunion of one of its very first bands, Green River (whose core members went on to form Pearl Jam), and more. But mostly it features the new acts that are making Sup Pop vital again, like Fleet Foxes, Flight of the Conchords, Wolf Parade and Grand Archives. (Read more about Fleet Foxes and Wolf Parade on Page 4 and this page.)

Sub Pop’s management style has defined it as much, or more, than the music. Its promotion gimmicks are clever and snarky. Sub Pop began selling T-shirts emblazoned with LOSER on the front and the boxy Sub Pop logo on the back shortly after the company was founded by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman on April Fools’ Day, 1988. One of its longest-marketed and best-selling T-shirts reads, “Going Out of Business Since 1988.”

When the label released Nirvana’s “Bleach” album in 1989 (its all-time best-seller, with more than 1.6 million sold), the promotional literature about it was funny, right-on and prophetic: “Hypnotic and righteous heaviness from these Olympia pop stars. They’re young, they own their own van, and they’re going to make us rich!”

Little did they know. After Nirvana left Sub Pop for Geffen Records in 1991, Sup Pop got a percentage of the profits from the band’s first two albums on its new label. And those two albums sold in the multimillions, especially after lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994.

Even bigger money came Sub Pop’s way in 1995, when Warner Bros. Records bought a 49 percent stake in the company for a reported $20 million. Pavitt and Poneman made out like bandits. Pavitt took the money and ran, to the San Juans, where he bought land and built a house for his young family. He’s still a Sub Pop partner but is no longer involved in the business.

Poneman is the face, and the ears, of Sub Pop. I still see him out at clubs and concerts, checking out the music. At SXSW in Austin in March, he showed his usual low-key, wide-eyed enthusiasm. “I don’t want to go home!” he kvetched the day after a successful Sub Pop showcase at the music festival. He was enjoying the music, and didn’t want to get back to business. (He was actually setting out for his new, second home, in New York.)

Sub Pop has always liked to party, but its annual birthday celebrations have been private (usually at the beloved old Crocodile Cafe), though the 10th birthday party was at the Showbox and open to the public. It starred the Afghan Whigs, 10 Minute Warning and Tad.

This one is better.

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Look for live updates from the festival this weekend on our festival blog!

Festival preview

Sub Pop 20th Anniversary Festival

Comedy: 8 p.m. today, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $20 (206-443-1744 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Music: Noon-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Marymoor Park, 6046 West Lake Sammamish Parkway N.E., Redmond; $35 for each day (206-628-0888 or www.ticketmaster.com); Fleet Foxes plays 4:40 p.m. Saturday; the full lineup is at www.subpop.com/channel/news/sp20_festival_details

Showbox concert: Brothers of the Sonic Cloth and the Gutter Twins, 9 p.m. Saturday, Showbox at the Market, 1426 First Ave., Seattle; $20 (206-628-3151 or www.ticketmaster.com)

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