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Seattle’s Sub Pop Records still leading way 25 years later

Nirvana's 'Bleach' remains Sub Pop's biggest seller as the Seattle label celebrates its 25th anniversary. (Sub Pop image)

It’s been 25 years since Seattle’s Sub Pop Records put out its first LP, followed by a slew of groundbreaking releases from the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and a little band no one else would sign – Nirvana. And as the label celebrates a quarter century, it’s still making a big mark on the music business.

“They were tremendously important and influential not just in Seattle but worldwide,” says noted Seattle music journalist Charles Cross. “In some ways the advent of Sub Pop was a huge shifting of music away from music being controlled by major labels shoving things down our throats.”

Cross credits co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman with having the courage and vision to launch the independent label and spot talent far before anyone had an inkling of what was to come.

“They had luck, but they had great sense,” he said. “They signed stuff they loved. They signed their friends and they signed other bands that nobody else in the world would have thought about putting out, like Mudhoney, Tad, Soundgarden and even Nirvana.”

But the label has remained relevant by keeping to those same guiding principles. Sub Pop has scored some big successes since the grunge hey day with the like of The Shins, The Postal Service, and most recently The Head and The Heart.

“It’s a great example of following your artistic muse and maybe the riches will one day come. They believed in what they put out. They loved every record they put out. And that’s not something you could say about Columbia Records, Atlantic, RCA or 20 other major labels that have been around throughout the years,” Cross says.

The label has spawned three platinum sellers, with the Postal Service’s ‘Give Up’, Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ and Flight of The Conchords selling over one million copies.

Many others haven’t made much – or any – money for the label. But Cross credits Sub Pop with continuing to take risks and supporting unique and innovative acts, especially here in the Northwest. And the current roster includes such popular acts as Beach House, Father John Misty and Sera Cahoone.

“It’s a label that still casts a very big shadow in the Northwest. It’s shocking in some ways that they lasted 25 years. They’ve had some ups and downs financially at times.”

It would be easy to question the relevance or need for a label like Sub Pop when artists like Seattle’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Allen Stone achieve worldwide fame on their own. But Cross insists those are the anomalies, and both bands and fans alike need the backing of a label to help connect.

“There’s so much music available, so much writing, so much radio, that we still need editors. And I think that’s one of the reasons Sub Pop still survives and thrives. I don’t see that shifting any time soon,” he says.

Sub Pop Records celebrates its 25th anniversary Saturday July 13 with a Silver Jubilee in Seattle’s historic Georgetown neighborhood. Details are still being worked out, but the free event promises to feature live music, a “record-fair” and other activities along with food and beverages galore (you’ll have to pay for that part yourself, the label says in a Tumblr post about the party.)

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