Seattle music was decidedly underground when Jonathan Poneman began. “Punk rock was a grass-roots rebellion against the stodgy star system of the music industry of the ’70s and ’80s, very consolidated and oligarchical,” he says. “In isolated regions, like Seattle, before there was an Internet, touring bands were the lifeline for music fans, who didn’t have access to record stores or radio. Big touring bands would get substantial advances and tour support from big labels, but punk bands couldn’t make enough to pay for gas to get here.” When early Seattle star Duff McKagan came back to Seattle for a show with his then-unknown new band Guns N’Roses, they had to borrow all their equipment from Sub Pop band The Fastbacks.
“The label was always a collaborative endeavor,” said Poneman. “It wasn’t driven by profit but by social relevance and creativity. It was a social network long before Facebook and Instagram. Inspired by Motown, Chess, Stax, Atlantic, Sire, all these indie labels with a decided regional bent, Bruce and I were interested in taking snapshots of the various music scenes across the country, reflecting the consciousness of the people, the musical identity of the communities. I think that still happens, because rock and roll and hip hop are social media. They ferment and become potent through social interaction.
“Live music can never be replaced, because it’s the essence of what makes the culture blossom and have a vital impact on society as a whole,” Poneman continued. “Because it’s participatory. Sub Pop in the 21st century is trying to wed the technical advances that have come to define the music industry. But we’re also maintaining the mission that we establish when we went into business. It’s not a top-down company. I am the co-owner and the boss, but to the extent that the company reflects my image, it does so in being a place where everybody has a voice, everybody gets to contribute.”