"You can't deny the math," Tony Kiewel says, with the slightest hint of defeat in his voice. "The math is bad and continues to get worse for the whole pie." Sub Pop's head of A&R's not particularly bullish when asked about the state of the music industry. It's been a rough couple of years -- decades, really -- and the idea of the record label going the way of its brick-and-mortar counterpart doesn't seem like some far off prediction, as the majors continue to implode under their own unwieldy weight at an impressive clip. But Kiewel's pessimism is tempered with a note of enthusiasm. All said, things could have been much worse for the legendary Seattle label, which has managed to weather the technological storm largely unscathed. "Our piece of the pie is so much bigger than it was two years ago," the bespectacled executive adds.
A dozen years ago, around the same time the first iPods, now big, boxy anachronisms, began to find their way into the hands of early adopters, Sub Pop experienced a renaissance, after years spent wandering forests of obscurity. In the '90s, the label was the epicenter of one of the most important music movements in recent memory, coming a long way from its humble beginnings as a zine published a few hours south of Seattle in Olympia, Wash. For a few heady years, it seemed that every record of note sported the label's iconic two-tone block label on its rear -- but Sub Pop's reign, like the grunge music it championed, wasn't long for the charted world.
By the time the early 21st century rolled around, however, something happened. "We didn't know what the hell was going on," Kiewel recalls, with audible excitement. "At one point, there was so much [traffic] that it was breaking everything. It was people downloading 'Such Great Heights,' the Postal Service song. There were thousands and thousands of kids that had soundtracked their MySpace page with the MP3. It became a debate for years -- maybe we should take down that free MP3. We left everything alone and backed away slowly." Between the Death Cab for Cutie mail-order side project and the haunting indie-pop of Albuquerque's The Shins, Sub Pop was relevant again -- thanks in large part to the magic of social networking.