Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt Recalls the Birth of ‘Indie’ and Reflects on Today’s Music Industry
Chris Kissel / Diffuser
Bruce Pavitt’s new book, Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, documents a world before “indie” was a thing. The book is a collection of Pavitt’s Sub Pop zines, and later columns in the influential Rocket newspaper, both of which strove to review all kinds of independent music from across the U.S. It takes readers all the way back to a time when bands like the Ramones and Television were on major labels and DIY was the purview of Bob Vila. As a primary source document for the very birth of indie music culture, the book is pretty much indispensable; it’s also an enjoyable look beyond canon rock history, through the contemporary lens of Pavitt’s funny and often bruising rock criticism — like when, upon first hearing Husker Du in 1984, Pavitt wrote: “No definition, no intricacy, just plain mud. Go back to Minnesota and send us the Replacements, you charlatans.”
Pavitt started the Sub Pop zine as a college student and DJ at KAOS in Olympia, Wash., in 1979, years before the likes of Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and Black Flag carved up the map of indie rock. The zine morphed into a regular column in The Rocket in 1983 when Pavitt moved to Seattle; later on, in 1988, Pavitt founded Sub Pop Records with Jonathan Poneman, the label that signed Nirvana and brought Seattle’s grunge scene to the mainstream. Sub Pop still sets the bar for indie rock, too — in the first two months of this year, Sub Pop put out two huge records by Sleater-Kinney and Father John Misty. (Pavitt left Sub Pop in 1996, though he still serves on the board of directors.)
In short: Pavitt is a luminary in the field of independent publishing, an early progenitor of DIY culture and the founder of one of the most important record labels in American music history. Naturally, I wanted his take on the state of today’s current internet-disrupted music business, the role of record labels in 2015 and how the motivations behind the birth of indie culture still reverberate today.
Read on as Pavitt — who says he’s now pitching Sub Pop on an idea to send him to DJ new label releases in cities like Tokyo — talks about how he watched his dream of bringing weird regional bands into the mainstream come true, and how he’s still convinced ”the time is coming” for an indie takeover of mainstream music.
There’s a lot of original information in Sub Pop USA about bands that just aren’t known anymore, like Pink Section or the Beakers. Do you intend the book as a historical document? And do you hope it leads to rediscovery of some of these acts?
Yes on both counts. The ’80s were kind of the dark ages in a lot of ways. It was pre-internet, and the indie/punk infrastructure was being developed over this decade. Nirvana’s success was in a lot of ways assisted by the infrastructure that developed over the decade. But a lot of these bands really didn’t have the opportunity to sell many records, because the infrastructure wasn’t fully developed. They were selling 1,000, 2,000 copies of a record. So I thought that by releasing this book, it helped to honor some of the people who in many ways had been forgotten.
And you wrote in a couple of early manifestos, in your zine era, that your motivation was to foster local scenes and local culture. In a way, Nirvana was the ultimate expression of that — except they got so big that they ended up setting the bar for mainstream culture. The whole “local” aspect was sort of lost in the process. How did you feel about that?
Well, let me answer that by saying that the concept of the zine Sub Pop, the conceptual point I was trying to make was that a lot of indie music had the potential to become popular if it was simply given some media attention. So my premise all along has been, Dead Kennedys should be able to sell a million records and in a better world they would have. So, the fact that Nirvana, a band from Aberdeen, a small logging town, whose first record was pressed in an edition of 1,000, could go on to become the world’s most popular band, just underscored the point I was trying to make.
Do you think that what you guys were doing in Olympia and Seattle — the whole indie culture that grew out of that — did that succeed on a broader level? Not just in the case of Nirvana?
Yeah, it did. It did, frankly, blow up way bigger than we anticipated. But national scenes start at home, whether it’s Chicago blues or what have you. It starts in somebody’s basement, somebody’s back yard, and if it’s authentic, and it gets proper media attention, then it can blow up.
In the ’60s, which was kind of a golden era for music in my opinion, DJs had the power to pick what they played. There were national hits and so forth, but if a friend cut a record, they could go play it on the air and it would get some exposure — and then it could be a hit. But as time when on, media got more consolidated and DJs lost the power to choose what’s getting played, college radio being the exception. There is good music in many backyards and it really comes down to media exposure, and in my own tiny way, with my zine, that’s what I was trying to do.
My column kind of stepped things up a notch, because The Rocket was printed in units of 55,000 to 60,000, and was distributed for free all throughout Washington. So the Screaming Trees, out in Ellensburg, could pick up a Rocket and say, “Oh, there’s a new Meat Puppets record.” Kurt Cobain in Aberdeen could go, “Oh, maybe I should pick up the new Husker Du.” Or, “There’s a band called Butthole Surfers, I’ve never heard of them before.” And what The Rocket did, through my column, really exposed a lot of younger people in small towns to new indie stuff. That was not happening in America, OK? It just wasn’t happening. There would be free weeklies that would be distributed throughout a city, perhaps, and it would mention new music, but the depth of underground culture that I was bringing to the table was unique — and then the distribution of the magazine, again getting into all these tiny little towns, was pretty radical.
In England, the reason there are so many successful bands is because anyone could turn on BBC and hear John Peel and hear the latest underground single. Same with NME, Sounds and Melody Maker, these music publications. So kids in England, no matter how small the town they lived in, were brought up to date on what was going on on a nightly or at least a weekly basis. In the United States, there was a media f—ing blackout, straight up. And the revolution that happened with Nirvana had everything to do with MTV making a conscious boardroom decision to take a band from the indie ghetto underground as an experiment to see what happened. They [played] “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and game over. So, it’s all about media exposure.
Now you have the internet, and sure, I can get turned on to some pretty good stuff, so the media situation on the internet is pretty good, but as far as mainstream pop culture, it’s still on lockdown. You have the same 20 musicians circulating through Top 40 with very few exceptions and that’s been going on for quite awhile. I am really looking forward to the day when I look at at the iTunes Top 10 most downloaded songs and see that half of them are on indie labels. The time is coming. And then it’ll be more like the ’60s. There was more indie stuff on the Top 20 — and more diversity, too.
It’s interesting to me that you’re positive on the internet. I talk to a lot of indie musicians who are down on it — that it’s hard for listeners to form a connection with music, it’s hard for bands to get noticed, it’s a big echo chamber.
It is an echo chamber. But when I was 17, I had to get on a train, go into Chicago, go to WaxTrax Records and buy a fanzine and that would be an investment of pretty much my whole day, to find out what was going on. I didn’t mind, I worked hard for that information, but now you can be living anywhere in the world, and you can go online, that’s a good thing. But I do think we live in an era where there’s not as much of an investment in getting to know music. It’s almost too easy. If I spend an entire day tracking down a record, you better believe I’m gonna get into it. It’ll be a part of who I am. But if it’s a click away, it’s more peripheral, more disposable.
Let’s say you’re 18 years old in 2015 instead of in 1980, when you started the Sub Pop zine. Would you start a blog? Would you still try to start a zine? Or are things so different now that you wouldn’t even have the same impulse?
I would probably start a blog. My daughter, who is 21, is very old school, and would probably put out her own zine. I know this because she’s done it, and the idea of doing a blog, it’s like — oh, no, no, it’s gotta be something you hold in your hand.
I would do a blog. [Music] aggregator sites are very important. Critics are very important. Kind of like art galleries are important. If a gallery owner starts a gallery, it could create a revolution in their community, if they saw the creativity of their community through a unique perspective. There are genius artists out there but there are also genius scene makers, [who might be] starting a record label, or starting an art gallery, or a club, and when you get really creative, visionary people in those positions, they can tip the scales because they’re working as a filter, they’re organizing and they’re providing context — and those are the kinds of people who can really make a difference.
So, if you’re doing a blog and you’re creative about it and organizing it in a unique way, you can change the world.
Do you think record labels are as important now as they were when you started Sub Pop?
No. I don’t think they are, especially with sites like Bandcamp where you can get your music distributed digitally. Things are moving toward digital and it’s easier to get your stuff out there, and if you’re creative with social media and marketing you can do it.
But that said, I still think labels are really valuable as filtering systems that people trust. People go to Sub Pop and say, “You know, I trust the fact that they are generally supportive of creative people, and I may not like everything they put out, but I like the fact that they have integrity.” It makes my day a little easier to go straight to their section of the store, because it’s a “brand I trust.” There’s so much information out there that going to a label like Sub Pop helps a lot.
Some of the reviews that you wrote were just so blisteringly negative. Like, you called Swans “tasteless loudmouths.” Were you naturally honest that way or were you amplifying it to get noticed?
I think I was probably trying to stir up some drama to increase my readership. [Laughs] At the time I was writing my column I was especially influenced by [Big Black frontman and accomplished producer] Steve Albini, who was writing in [Chicago zine] Matter and had come out with these really brutal reviews sometimes. In general, I tried to be a cheerleader but there were some things that really bugged me. I thought a lot of the music that SST was putting out — probably the biggest indie label at that time — was just filler, and it started to get to me after awhile. I thought I felt like those guys needed to be checked a little bit. It needed a little quality control. But also sometimes the drama with which I wrote was just stirring s— up.
Did you have any hesitation cheering on bands like Metallica, that obviously had such mega national ambitions, when your stated goal was to sort of pump up these local scenes?
No, you know, the line wasn’t that defined. I was really trying to champion primarily indie releases, but also making note that most of the indie releases were coming out of indie scenes. Understanding the scenes that the records were coming out of just made record collecting more interesting, you know? You feel a deeper sense of the artist. Like, “Oh, Husker Du is from Minneapolis, and they’re hanging out with the Replacements, and they’re all drinking beer down at the Seventh Street Entry, and they’re buying records at Oar Folkjokeopus and the guy who runs Oar Folkjokeopus probably helped produce this other record,” and once you break it down, it’s kind of like, “These guys are kind of like my friends.” I could go to Minneapolis, plug in, go to Oar Folkjokeopus, talk to the store owner, and the next thing I know I’m having a beer with Bob Mould in his living room, you know?
It’s accessible, and a whole different way to think about culture. You get plugged in, rather than being a sheep who gets herded into a huge stadium. What gives that culture potency is that you could be doing this, too. It’s a whole different way of thinking and being.
But then that becomes so weird when a band you’re connected to becomes mainstream. There’s a line from one of your reviews in the mid-’80s that says: “If the Replacements are too mainstream for you, try Soul Asylum!”
[Laughs] It’s true. The thing is, oftentimes, when they go mainstream, it’s not necessarily about, “Oh, they sold a lot of records,” but oftentimes bands will change their sound. Not always to the detriment, but it’s typically less rock, less immediate. Not always. But yeah, I’m one of the few people on the planet that thinks Husker Du’s best record is when they went to Warner Bros. and made Candy Apple Grey, which I thought was absolutely incredible. I also really like Nevermind — I like Nevermind more than I like Bleach. It’s a more polished record, but I also think it’s a better record. So, you know, these lines we drawn in the sand, it’s just a conceptual framework that can help guide us — but if you get too locked into that, you can just wind up not listening to some good music.
It’s interesting for me to hear you say that, because your whole intent behind starting the Sub Pop zine was expressly political. Now obviously you wrote these manifestos 25 years ago, and things change. But I think that’s the opposite of what you just said.
Yep. Yep. It is. Maturity changes things a little bit. But at that time, too, what you have to realize is that it was political, but it was also, “What’s my niche? What’s Sub Pop? It’s a zine and a column that promotes independence.” And because I did that, I stood out and I was unique with what I did. But it’s not like I didn’t ever listen to music on a major label or anything.
How much did you fret about being super comprehensive when you were doing the zine and the column?
I didn’t worry about being comprehensive but about being eclectic and diverse. To this day, my sensibility is extremely eclectic. In that eclecticism it was pretty unusual — and pretty healthy. At the time, most zines were, like, hardcore zines — here’s the new Minor Threat review or here’s a Henry Rollins interview. That was 90-percent of what you’d find in indie-punk stores — so if a band is playing jangly pop stuff and they’re from Nebraska, they’re probably not going to get too much attention. Why not just cover it all, full spectrum? Weird poets with synthesizers in the background?
Because I was very eclectic, I was open to things like, “Oh, wow, this group called the Beastie Boys put out this weird hip-hop record called Cookie Puss.” Because I would review anything that was indie, it was like, “Oh yeah, I’m definitely going to review this.” And because there was some left field stuff that didn’t particularly fit any genre, I was right there at ground zero reviewing it because I really appreciated anything that was out of the box.
It feels like the Sub Pop record label of 2015 has come around to that idea more now than ever.
I would agree, and it has nothing to do with me, but it’s certainly noted. It’s very eclectic right now and also very artist oriented. And, you know, it’s almost like there are two paths you can take as a label. The classic template would be Rough Trade — you know, they released Augustus Pablo, Cabaret Voltaire, Young Marble Giants and Stiff Little Fingers. They’re just all over the map and they were totally artist oriented and they were one of the best labels ever. But then you have a label like Motown, that’s like, “We’ve got a sound, this is our vibe and we’re gonna stick to it.” And when Sub Pop started out, it was definitely influenced by the more Motown approach, even though I loved Rough Trade. There was a scene happening that I wanted to document, but I also understood that if it had a unified aesthetic and a focus it would be easier to get attention. A band from Seattle might not get attention, but a label representing a scene would be more likely to get attention.
Is there anything else regarding your intent with this book that you want to share?
One thing I’m trying to underscore is that Olympia, Wash., was kind of the birthplace of the philosophy that independent records were important. In 1979, when I came out to KAOS radio in Olympia, there was a punk culture and a lot of those punk bands were putting out indie records — and that was part of the culture, but it wasn’t really a philosophy that was discussed, in terms of self empowerment, in terms of putting out your own records. That conversation wasn’t really happening yet.
It was John Foster and George Romansic at KAOS that first initiated an independent music policy where indie records were prioritized, and then John Foster put out OP Magazine and served as kind of my mentor when I was putting out the [Sub Pop] zine. That story is a critical part of alternative music history and I think I touch upon that in the book, and I just want to put props out because I think there was a philosophical premise that was laid out in Olympia that went on to affect culture. I really do.
That point definitely comes across. One of the things that I come away with as a reader in 2015 is just that the whole indie model used to feel so simple — it used to feel like if you were a musician, you could make your own record and book your own tours and find a local label to help you get your record out. It just seems so much more confusing now with the internet and the over-saturation of bands … it’s just less clear what most labels are even doing anymore.
I hear you. But in many ways, as far as decentralizing mainstream culture, which was the premise of my zine, it’s happening now. Recording technology is cheaper, distribution is a click away, promoting your music is a click away. Being an indie artist is easier than ever — it’s just getting people to listen to you in a world that’s media saturated is a big challenge. But then again, getting people’s attention when you’re a garage band with 500 singles is a real challenge, too. It’s always been a challenge to compete for attention and it will always be so, but it’s easier than ever to record and distribute your music independently. And that’s a good thing.