Lessons From The Rise Of Sub Pop Records

Sub Pop Records founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman said there were two critical things they got right in the early days of the label: wherever possible they cut out the middle man, and they focused on limited releases. Any business can borrow these basic principles.

In the music industry, record labels would work with distributors to get shelf space in record stores. Since distributors were primarily working major label catalogs at scale, a smaller label like Sub Pop was at an automatic disadvantage. Instead of trying to woo the distributors, they went straight to the record stores and built their own relationships. This allowed them to focus on the stores with an interest in selling and promoting independent acts.

In order to create a sense of urgency around buying their albums, they would make limited releases. The record stores would only have a fixed supply, the fans would know there only ever going to be so many copies of something, and the scarcity drove its value up. Not in price, but in the intangible feeling a fan gets when they’re holding something special in their hands.

To the non-record labels: It’s a mistake to think we have to follow the same paths bigger, already successful businesses are taking. If we break the whole process into steps, we can strategize around how we’ll not only advocate for ourselves, but who along the way will also advocate for us? Anything that builds awareness and true fans of our work counts. We can throw gas on the fire by using tactics like creating scarcity. What’s the inherent urgency in what we do? What makes it register as different in the customer/client/fan’s eyes?

There are middlemen we can cut out until we can leverage them later. There are ways we can advocate for ourselves and focus more energy on those who advocate for us. There are tactics we can apply to our products and services to further differentiate them in our clients’ minds. We start small and make those relationships strong. I highly recommend the How I Built This episode of “Sub Pop Records: Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman.” There’s so much we can learn about attracting and building a cult following from the story of their record label.