For most of his career, Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt had a front row seat to the most subversive elements of punk rock culture. His music career started at college with a radio show and fanzine, before launching Sub Pop in ’86—a label best known for Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. After dumping his shares in 2003, unhappy with the culture change that came with selling a 49% stake to Warner, he took some time away from the industry to raise a family. Now he’s back – with some considered observations on what’s lacking in music culture in 2017.
Pavitt is working with remix app 8Stem alongside business partner Adam Farish. The app allows fans to remix artists’ music, versions of which are then distributed online – with independent acts keeping 70% of the profits. “It’s a completely radical way of thinking about music,” says Pavitt. “Artists can own their material for one thing, and once those remixes are posted online they generate revenue. “We’re lowering the bar to allow people to participate in remix culture, and when you lower the bar to participation, culture gets activated, which is what happened with punk rock. “It used to be that you’d need x amount of cash and experience to do these remixes, but we’ve created something that literally anyone with a phone and a finger can use to do audio collages and share them.”
The inspiration for the app comes from a belief in the importance of authentic independence when dealing in culture — a factor Pavitt believes is few and far between in today’s music scene. So what exactly does he make of the music business today—13 years since he left? Read on for a no-holds-barred account…
‘THE CORE VALUES OF AN INDEPENDENT LABEL SHOULD BE RESOURCEFULNESS’
“To me the core values of an indie record label should be creativity and resourcefulness. At Sub Pop, once we got more cash in, we started to mimic the behaviour of major label competitors, spending $75k on videos and things like that. “You don’t need to spend $75k on a video, you can spend way less and it’s the budget constraints that sometimes force you to be more creative. Once you have an unlimited budget you start thinking about money rather than creativity. Then, it takes a visionary leader to connect the dots and give something momentum. For example, Hilly Kristal who established CBGB’s, gave a focus to a very creative group of people. In the UK, Malcolm Mclaren, love him or hate him, was an orchestrator who helped tip things around. Those behind-the-scenes producers who have a revolutionary sensibility are sometimes what you need. For a lot of labels right now it’s about business: ‘How can we make money, how can we get a song on a McDonald’s commercial.’ So you have business people doing business and that’s fine, but it’s also kind of boring. I think there’s more creativity happening in TV shows like Mr. Robot or Black Mirror, every episode of which has provoked me into thinking about the world in a different way. [Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker] is a revolutionary. I don’t see that personality in the music industry right now.
“That said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Beggars’ Founder Martin Mills. I think he has maintained a very high level of integrity and the depth of what those labels are putting out is pretty impressive. The pop charts have never been this conservative, ever. There are literally 10-20 artists who are in the Top 100; it’s a very closed system unless you’re Drake, Rihanna, Beyonce or Bieber. I’m not a music snob, I like pop music, but I do think that popular culture should be much more diverse and genius should rise to the top. There was a period of time in America where regional DJs would throw on a record, fans would call up and give it a yes or no and labels would come in and maybe pay the DJs some cash. There were a lot of different players deciding what was going to be popular and the result was a tremendous diversity and genius in popular radio in the ’60s.
“You can go on the internet and stream a wide variety of music now but a lot of it is ghettoised and that’s the problem. I think radio has a lot to do with that, and the fact that there are three major labels is certainly part of it. I wouldn’t be surprised however that under a Trump presidency you will see a lot of creative people become a little more activated. That’s typically the case. When Reagen became President, the hardcore punk scene in America became really activated because there was something to go up against. I think you’ll see artists using labels as a stepping stone to total independence rather than independent labels as a stepping stone to majors. Majors in particular are going to be tremendously challenged in the near future because the distribution advantages are becoming less and less meaningful as we go to digital. Frank Ocean leaving Def Jam and releasing Blonde the day after his visual release was a huge fuck you to the industry. Macklemore is another prime example; he hired the radio promotion division at Warner to promote The Heist, which did extremely well.
Apple is the most powerful player in music right now. The game plan for somebody like Chance the Rapper is building his brand by giving away mixtapes, like Frank Ocean did by working with Def Jam, and then doing an exclusive streaming deal with Apple. If you consider Sub Pop as the most established label in Seattle, Macklemore has 25 times the Facebook followers of Sub Pop. Would it make sense for Macklemore to work with Sub Pop? I don’t think so. The opportunities for independent artists have never been greater, but as a label, trying to stay in business is going to be more and more challenging. Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean and Macklemore all took very creative approaches to what they were doing and succeeded as indie artists in a major world. I’m sensing more of that is going to happen.”