Monday, April 1, 2019

Book Review: Gillian G. Gaar's World Domination - The Sub Pop Records Story (2018)

The longevity of Seattle-based independent label Sub Pop Records is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit; a triumph of rock ‘n’ roll aesthetics over commercial considerations. Formed in 1986 by Bruce Pavitt, the label was an offshoot of his Subterranean Pop music zine (Sub Pop – geddit?) and a labor of love that seems to have gotten out of control. After releasing a series of acclaimed, moderately-selling cassettes, Pavitt scraped up enough money to release the label’s first vinyl LP, the Sub Pop 100 compilation. Featuring performances from indie stalwarts like Sonic Youth, the Wipers, and Naked Raygun, the album provided the fledgling label with instant street cred.

When local rockers Green River – which included future members of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney – chose to record their Dry As A Bone EP for Sub Pop, Pavitt struggled to underwrite its release. With the EP’s subsequent appearance almost a year later, in the summer of 1987, the band and Sub Pop had planted the flag for ‘grunge’ as a hard rock genre that would be identified around the globe with Seattle and Sub Pop. Pavitt took on a partner in Jonathan Poneman, who provided funding for the debut single by future world-beaters Soundgarden, who followed it up with their groundbreaking Screaming Life EP later that year. Sub Pop was off and running, if not without a few struggles and obstacles along the way, with Pavitt handling the label’s A&R efforts and Poneman handling Sub Pop’s business dealings.

Gillian G. Gaar’s World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story

Soundgarden's Screaming Life
In the 33 years since its founding, Sub Pop Records carved a niche for itself, first as a pioneering indie imprint releasing influential and often-times blockbuster records by local bands like the aforementioned Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana. Studying earlier indie labels like Motown and SST Records, the partner worked to make the label reflect the regional scene before branching out and, from their logo and merchandising to imaginative efforts like their singles club, Sub Pop created a strong and easily-identifiable brand identity for itself. It helped that they had enlisted producer Jack Endino early in the process, the studio master recording fast and cheap, his unique recording technique creating a signature sound for Sub Pop artists across the 75 45s, EPs, and albums that he produced during the label’s early days.

As time passed, changes in the industry pretty much forced the label to partner with major label Warner Bros, which bought a 49% ownership of the company in 1995. Pavitt retired to spend time with his family after an acrimonious split with Poneman, who continues to head a dedicated staff of music-lovers at Sub Pop to this day. Along the way, when ‘grunge’ as a commercial force fizzled out, the label expanded its focus and, whether by accident or on purpose, would release important and influential albums by a diverse roster of innovative and exciting artists, including Sleater-Kinney, Sebadoh, the Afghan Whigs, King Tuff, Father John Misty, and even comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt. The label has enjoyed its share of commercial success – Nirvana’s Bleach LP and the Postal Service’s Give Up both achieved Platinum™ Record status for over one million in sales, while releases by the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses have all sold better than half-million copies – overall the label occupies a modestly-successful alt-rock niche.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Sub Pop Records logo
With World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story, music journalist Gillian G. Gaar explores better than three decades of the label’s history, from Bruce Pavitt’s early musical interests and publishing efforts to Sub Pop’s current state in the new millennium, and the entire roller-coaster ride between these two points. Gaar is uniquely qualified to tell the Sub Pop story – she’s been covering the Seattle music scene since before the beginning, knows all the important people, and has written about it in the city’s excellent music publication The Rocket. Gaar is a veteran writer whose work has appeared in venues like Goldmine, Rolling Stone, and British music magazine Mojo, among others. She’s also an avid music lover who published a Kate Bush fanzine back in the early ‘80s that I swapped issues of my own zines with.

Gaar does a wonderful job with World Domination in condensing the label’s lengthy history into an easily-digestible and quick read without omitting any important or crucial facets of the story. Her writing is colorful, yet succinct, and you get a feel for the people and personalities that made the label special and innovative. Although Gaar is obviously a cheerleader for her local scene, she pulls no punches in the pages, outlining Sub Pop’s stumbles and mistakes as well as the label’s triumphs. As such, World Domination is much more than the story of a single scrappy indie label but also a primer for like-minded music lovers who may dream of one day launching their own record label. As, arguably, the most successful rock ‘n’ roll indie of the last quarter-century, the Sub Pop story is an important one, and Gaar nails it perfectly with this informative and entertaining tome. Grade: A (RPM Series/BMG Books, published November 20, 2018)

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