It began with a fanzine, made its reputation with the era-defining sound of grunge and continues a run of very strong and impressive releases to this very day.

Sub Pop’s many different iterations and shapes since Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman joined forces in Seattle in the 1980s shows that independent labels can run and run and run despite all kinds of hurdles and setbacks which might hinder their progresss. It’s also a tale of how a label which is a byword for one sound can rework itself and find a new lease – or leases - of life.

Listen - Jim Carroll talks Sub Pop on RTÉ Arena:

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Sub Pop first appeared in the form of a fanzine called Subterranean Pop. The work of Olympia student Pavitt, it covered the ultra-obscure punk scenes of the time and, by issue number five, was putting together tape compilations of underground bands from all over the US.

In 1986, by which time Pavitt was in Seattle, the Sub Pop 100 compilation album appeared with tracks by acts like Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, Skinny Puppy and Steve Albini. The sleeve notes set the tone for what was to come: 'Sub Pop: the new thing: the big thing: the God thing: a mighty multinational entertainment conglomerate based in the Pacific Northwest'. Sub Pop, it’s fair to say, always talked a good game.

The following year, Pavitt joined forces with Seattle concert promoter and radio show host Poneman and Sub Pop’s first brace of proper releases appeared, namely Green River’s Dry As A Bone and Soundgarden’s debut EP Screaming Life. That Green River release was also when label and grunge crossed paths in the form of a quote on the press release about "gritty vocals, roaring Marshall amps, ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation". It would not be the last.

Sub Pop’s early days were precarious due to the fact that they basically had no money. While Pavitt and Poneman had a very clear idea to model Sub Pop after such iconic labels as Motown and SST with a distinctive look and feel, it took them roughly a month to burn through the money they had on hand. The label’s tongue in cheek motto 'going out of business since 1988' seemed particulary apt and was also a good indicator of the pair’s arch sense of humour when it came to marketing the label and its releases.

But Sub Pop’s timing and geography proved a boon and they found themselves bang in the middle of a hugely important emerging scene in and around Seattle. The city may have been isolated from much of the rest of the United States – many touring bands would skip the city at the time – but as Sub Pop house producer Jack Endino remarked, it had its own bands to entertain everyone. "It was like a little, isolated germ culture", he told grunge oral historian Mark Yarm. "There were a bunch of punk fans who had gone back and discovered ’70s psych and ’60s garage and combined it with that punk energy and do-it-yourself spirit."

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In time, Sub Pop would introduce acts like Mudhoney, Tad, The Walkabouts, out-of-towners Afghan Whigs, Screaming Trees and of course Nirvana to the world. In November 1988, Sub Pop released the latter’s debut single. Love Buzz is important in a few regards, not least because it was first in the Sub Pop Single Club, a subscription service where people signed up to receive singles from the label in the post on a monthly basis. The club helped the label with cash flow, but it also made the label the place to go to check out music from Seattle.

Nirvana released their debut album Bleach on Sub Pop, but it was the band’s move to Geffen Records and the release of Nevermind in 1991 which changed the label’s fortunes. The royalties from that release, coupled with catalogue sales of Bleach in the wake of Nirvana’s mainstream success, kept the label on the rails and allowed them to expand.

More money came in the shape of a 1995 $20 million joint venture with Warners. But that cash and those partners brought a corporate culture which was not very Sub Pop. By the end of the decade, many of the labels’ employees had had enough and an attempted mutiny, saw Sub Pop’s troubles go public.

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The early 2000s saw Sub Pop try to right the ship and develop an identity which was not grunge. The success of any label is down to how they find and develop new acts and Sub Pop found themselves on the money with The Shins, The Postal Service (whose 2003 album Give Up is the label’s second best selling album after Bleach) and Iron & Wine.

As the years went on, they added acts like Fleet Foxes, Beach House and (the really poxy) Father John Misty to the roster, acts who bore absolutely no resemblance to the sound with which Sub Pop had made its name. To further highlight the shift, the label has been releasing some fascinating hip-hop in the last couple of years from Shabazz Palaces, Theesatisfaction and Clipping. These days, you never know what you’re going to get from Sub Pop, which is a good thing.  

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Sub Pop’s legacy? It will always be associated with Nirvana and grunge, but its rebirth in the last 15 years shows that second acts can sometimes be as good as the first ones. According to Ponemon, the label is "one of the greatest indie labels out of the Pacific Northwest. World domination is an afterthought." But of course, he would say that.