A look into Gillian G. Gaar’s history of the iconic Seattle imprint Sub Pop Records
I almost hyperventilated when I learned of the existence of World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story. I was a major musichead in high school and college, and Sub Pop was the best record company ever. They simply did not release uninteresting music, ever, and they were simultaneously well-organized enough to be a real label and underground enough to be respectable. This book would tell me the main thing I thirsted to know as a young person: how Sub Pop got so cool.
Well, yeah, it does do that. The book traces the roots of Sub Pop through co-founder Bruce Pavitt’s zines, hustle and enthusiasm across the 1980s, up to the organic realization that the mixtapes of songs by Seattle bands he was assembling and selling could be, y’know, actual records. He started with Green River, a band which exemplified grunge like Anvil exemplified metal (i.e., the genre later evolved into more crowd-friendly versions, but it’s clear who started the party). Eventually, Sub Pop had gathered up and released early work by Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and a gajillion other bands with grunge/indie cred, mostly hailing from Seattle. Then, when grunge imploded in the mid-90s, the label did, too.
The rest of the story is a slow climb upward. When the entire infrastructure of the music business changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with MP3s and Napster, Sub Pop scrambled to put together an artist list that made sense. As the division between indie music and chart music dissolved, and the isolation of local music scenes vanished, Sub Pop adapted. They released the all-important Postal Service album, they signed The Shins, they moved into producing comedy albums by such renowned comics as Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Eugene Mirman and Flight of the Conchords and vanguard hip-hop (The Evil Tambourines, Shabazz Palaces, clipping). In 2018, Sub Pop celebrates 30 years in business. World Domination’s summary of those decades indicates that although everything has changed at the label, also, nothing has. It’s still all about the music.
Gillian G. Gaar is the most qualified person possible to write this book. She’s been covering Seattle music for many, many years, and she is the author of books about Nirvana and Elvis, among others. Her research is solid, and her mood is journalistic, not dishy or particularly philosophical. The reporting in this book is wide-ranging and exactly detailed enough.
However, this straightforward approach has downsides. The three decades of Sub Pop have been incredibly tumultuous for music culture, and the book raises all kinds of questions that its focus does not allow it to answer. What happens to a punk aesthetic when its proponents take on corporate responsibilities? What’s the legacy of Generation X’s music? Is “selling out” an irrelevant concept in the current era, when everything is on Spotify? (Or has everybody sold out?) What does the splintering of culture into smaller and smaller subcategories have to do with the supreme indie label?
To be clear, I’m not saying that Gaar has ignored her responsibilities by not answering these questions in the book. World Domination is a straight history of Sub Pop, and in that regard, it’s entertaining, fluidly written and definitive. But at every turn, I wanted analysis. Like: What did it mean that Sub Pop would’ve gone under in early 1991 if they hadn’t signed into a 2% interest in Nevermind when handing Nirvana over to DGC? That current co-president Tony Kiewel talks, late in the book, about merchandising and Subaru commercials? What would the heads of the 1989 version of Sub Pop make of that? That the book shifts its focus gracefully from the intriguing figure of Bruce Pavitt, to the label he co-founded, to the identity the label took on in wider culture, to the new figures leading the label in the 21st century? What did all that mean? I’m equal parts fascinated and frustrated not to have answers.
I realize this is a surface review of World Domination, because it doesn’t dive into all the interesting stuff the book covers—nor how totally it justified my teenage devotion to the label. But that, too, is appropriate. The book isn’t a destination, but a conversation starter. It gives culture hounds a place to begin when thinking about the tectonic shifts in indie music over the past 30 years. Find a place for it on your bookshelf, and in your head.
And quit hyperventilating, okay? Jeez. It’s just a record label.