It’s 1990. Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman are in New York City visiting Sony Records, the biggest label in the world. Their own Seattle, Washington-based indie label Sub Pop had only scraped by full-time for a couple of years. They’d sunk almost all of the cash they made back into the company (Pavitt paid himself $25,000 a year) and into signing bands including Tad, Mudhoney, and a trio called Nirvana, who made fuzzed-out, blissed-out, punk-tinged noise rock that was never intended to top charts. (Nirvana’s album Nevermind would bump Michael Jackson from the No. 1 slot on the Billboard album charts in 1992, and the band would go on to sell about 50 million records). Sub Pop would grow to a $20 million company in less than 10 years and become a driving force in "grunge," one of the last modern rock genres to earn status as a full-blown movement, one that influenced all sorts of art, fashion, and culture for decades.
But no one saw any of that coming when Pavitt and Poneman met with Sony for the first time. Sub Pop had launched the Singles Club, a groundbreaking scheme in which the label’s die hard fans paid a sum up front to get a certain number of limited-edition, hand-numbered, vinyl 7-inch 45s sent to them via mail in the course of six months or a year. Club members didn’t even know whose records they’d get—most of them hadn’t been recorded, much less pressed. After the Singles Club launched, major record labels suddenly wanted to talk to Pavitt and Poneman about buying shares of their startup. And Pavitt was about to learn why.
He arrives at the conference room in Sony’s midtown tower and is greeted not only by the label’s chief, Don Ienner, but 15 of the company’s executives. "And [Ienner] goes, 'Alright you guys, how did you do it? How did you convince people to send you money in advance for records that haven’t been made yet? This business model has never been seen before in the record industry and it’s just kind of tripping us out.' I’ll never forget that moment," Pavitt says.
Cut to today. Pavitt, 53, is back in New York to talk about a subject he’s avoided for the better part of 15 years. He left Sub Pop in 1996 after the label sold a 49% stake to Warner Music Group in 1995, and he’s laid low while raising his family in Orcas Island in the northwest corner of Washington (population: 4,500). In Manhattan, one of the founding fathers of indie rock asks to meet at the Ace Hotel, the hangout du jour for creative types. But when we connect at the coffee bar, he suggests going to the basement. As bespectacled art directors and jetsetters sip lattes above, Pavitt, in casual pants and a $40 plaid buttondown, picks a spot on a tabletop in front of the coat check under a cloud of cleaning fluid vapors for an hourlong talk about some of the most important bands—and brands—in modern rock.
Pavitt recently took a romp through history that started with a search for a snapshot he took of Nirvana’s singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain during a European tour in 1989. Cobain was posing in front of a cross at the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome. "I remember thinking: That’s a very powerful image. It’s Kurt as Christ in front of a 50,000-people stadium…. There’s something epically symbolic about that."
In digging for it, he found shots that told a compressed, drama-packed chapter in the early life of Nirvana, a bite-size version of the band’s—and Sub Pop’s own—bigger struggle to balance creativity and commerce in a time of rapid change and constant chaos in the music industry. Pavitt tells the story with words and photos in his new interactive iBook Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe, 1989. Time away from the subject has also done wonders to solidify what Pavitt learned about building a brand and a business in a fiercely anti-corporate environment, among a group of young people who were as sensitive and aware of marketing as the present generation is.
One of the ways Pavitt distinguished Sup Pop was by thinking of it as a brand from day one. That was a big deal in an era where Kurt Cobain appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt with the message "CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK," and anything corporate was dismissed as fake. Pavitt took his cues from Factory Records in the U.K. or the U.S. jazz label Blue Note. "You pick up a Blue Note record and you know what you’re getting," he says. Even Sub Pop’s stark black-and-white logo was far more clean and corporate looking than others with hand-scrawled fonts. Sometimes they’d put the Sub Pop logo on the front of the record instead of tucked away in the back like most punk labels. "We were trying to be very consistent in our packaging, very consistent in our sound, really putting focus on the region, in the same way that Motown put focus on Detroit Soul," Pavitt says.
One of the first payoffs for all of his early branding efforts came in London, in the moment where Pavitt showed up to the legendary Rough Trade record store and found not only a bunch of releases from his roster of bands displayed prominently but a whole section labeled Sub Pop.
"That’s the beauty of what we did," Pavitt says. "We saw what was there; we connected the dots; and we tightened it up so that anyone in the world could pick up a record and go, 'oh, Sub Pop.' We created fans that would pretty much buy anything on the label."
The second big way Sub Pop developed its brand was by making good on promises—even while dealing with massive cash flow problems. More than once, distributors they’d hired to would sell Sub Pop’s stock to shops, pocket the wholesale bucks then go out of business owing the label as much as $40,000. (Meanwhile, the bands would be asking for their money to make rent or just survive—usually they got it.)
That’s why the Singles Club was such an important innovation. When Sony’s chief Ienner asked how Sub Pop did it, "We said, counterintuitively, we limit the pressings of our records for the Singles Club," Pavitt says. "And because they’re limited, people know they’re unique and that they’ll most likely not be able to get these records unless they pay us up front. But also because they trust the brand."
Given that Warner ended up investing in Sub Pop, it’s fair to say Pavitt didn’t give Sony the secret recipe it was looking for.
The roots of Sub Pop go back to Pavitt’s radio show "Subterranean Pop" on Evergreen College radio station KAOS-FM in 1979. He launched a zine by the same name in 1980 and put out a couple of music compilations and a record by the band Green River. By the time Poneman came on board as a 50% partner, Pavitt was deeply devoted to discovering what was going in the culture that blossomed around bands. "I’m more interested in scenes than bands," he says. "I’ve always been interested in what happens when a group of people comes together and builds a culture together. That’s what was going on in Seattle. It was going on all through the '80s." Pavitt connected with people such as Charles Peterson the photographer and Jack Endino the producer who were making and recording art that was getting more and more attention. By the time Pavitt and Poneman sent three of their up-and-coming bands—Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana—to tour Europe with the plan to have them meet for a triple-bill show in London, "I could sense that this phenomenon was going to go global," Pavitt says. He met with Nirvana in Rome, had dinner with Kurt. And then everything went to shit.
Eight hours after his first dinner with Kurt in Rome, Kurt decided to break up Nirvana. It was his first battle with the duality that he struggled with (among other things) until his death on April 5, 1994, which was determined by investigators to be a suicide. He wanted to share music with the world. But he was often more comfortable with fellow fans of the bands he loved than fans of his own music. (One of the first things he announced on stage at one of the most important shows in Nirvana’s career in London was that the little-known band the Vaselines were the best band in the world, and then Nirvana played a cover of the band’s song "Molly’s Lips," which was later a Sub Pop Singles Club release.)
In Italy for the first time, Nirvana played to a crowd that was much more macho than his usual circle of indie rock friends. "He was like, 'This is too metal for me. I have to question why I’m doing this in the first place,'" Pavitt says. He declared Nirvana done. But by the next day, Cobain had reversed course and decided to stick it out. Then, a day and a half after his dinner with Pavitt, Cobain’s wallet and passport were stolen on a night train to Geneva, Switzerland. At a subsequent show, an exasperated Cobain climbed a 15-foot-high P.A. stack with the intention of plummeting. "It wasn’t an empowered gesture, like, 'I’m Eddie Vedder. I am standing on a P.A. stack look at me, I’m a rock god.'" Pavitt says. "It was like, 'I have reached the end of my rope. I’m am just going to fall over and people are just going to have to deal with it.' And people were freaking out. It was a very intense moment. And that was essentially what happened after our first meal in Italy."
Pavitt was having a Get Him To The Greek moment. If he could get Cobain to London, he’d be reunited with his friends from bands he loved. And Pavitt would show the U.K. (and the London press, which was the pre-Internet version of indie-obsessed music blogs) exactly what Sub Pop was about. Pavitt pushed the idea to Cobain: "This is going to be a pinnacle moment in your life—if you can just get there," he says. For the band and the brand, those eight days in Europe were an early test of startup-style survival skills. Pavitt says:
The label would never have impacted the culture if it weren’t for the bands themselves living up to the promise. And the one thing you could expect from Sub Pop bands’ shows was the unexpected: a face-melting cover of a song from a band you’d never heard of; a bell-ringing boot to the head from a stage diver; musical experimentation and whimsy that always teetered on the edge of chaos.
"When people came in they knew they could expect a higher level of energy, of randomness, of chaos that they weren’t seeing at other shows," Pavitt says.
One thing fans of the MTV version of Nirvana might not realize is that Cobain never made a plan to start smashing guitars on stage. It just kind of happened in Europe. He was frustrated, stuck thousands of miles from his hometown Aberdeen, Washington. He didn’t like the audiences he was playing for, and to top it off, he couldn’t get the guitar to sound right, so he just beat the hell out of it. And it was the only one he had, Pavitt says.
"These bands would literally give it their all," Pavitt says. "Kurt would smash his last guitar to express himself."
So he did in Rome. The next morning, Pavitt and Poneman ponied up cash to buy Cobain a new guitar just to get him through the next show. Once he got to London, Kurt smashed that one, too.
Click through the slide show above for some newly published images of Cobain.