“In the past … ” publicist Bekah Zeitz says, trailing off for a second, “people have called Sub Pop a cult. That’s what they’ve called us, but yeah, that is the dynamic. When we sign new bands, we’re like ‘Welcome to the family.’ ”
Arwen Nicks, who made the jump from KPLU a year and a half ago to produce and co-host the label’s new podcast, says she certainly noticed that dynamic when she arrived. “There’s a collective sense of humor there,” she says. “When I first came in, everyone was sort of ping-ponging around and I was like ‘Hahaha! Wait, what’s the funny? Where is it? Hahaha … what?’ It was like when you’re meeting your significant other’s family for the first time and they all have the same timing for their jokes.”
In a lot of ways, Sub Pop Record’s roster of employees, all 69 of them (heh-heh-hehhh), do operate like a giant weird family—one main reason the record label behind Seattle musical superstars like Nirvana, Fleet Foxes, and Shabazz Palaces earns the title of Best Place to Work in our reader poll. For instance, Sub Pop pays for annual employee holiday trips, traveling as a group to places like Costa Rica, New Zealand, Mexico, and, later this year, New Orleans. Also, there’s frequently a high number of dogs in the record label’s Belltown office. Those Sub Pups are universally adored, despite the very rare step in a loaf of Sub Poop. And, like a good family, they invest in their youth.
Since 2007, Sub Pop has handed out the annual Loser Scholarship to tons of freaky Northwestern kids (which, full disclosure, I was one of in 2009. Thaaaanks, guys!). This year the scholarship went to Redmond’s Lucas Reif, whose remarkable zine Disruptor is the best on the contemporary local punk scene I’ve seen. Sub Pop has a history of rewarding passionate young people in other ways, too. Zeitz is one of the surprisingly many Sub Poppers who made the leap from intern to employee. “Our marketing director interned at Sub Pop,” Zeitz says. “Our former head of sales, Richard Lang, interned at Sub Pop the same time I did. Cassidy who does the Mega Mart [the label’s online store], he interned… . There’s a bunch of people who have turned their internships here into jobs.”
One of the most recent people to make the jump is Nick Duncan, Sub Pop’s radio promoter. “I interned in the commercial radio department just over a year,” Duncan laughs. “I just hung around in fear they’d tell me I’d been there too long, because the internship wasn’t supposed to last nearly that long. I didn’t want to leave.” By Sub Pop providence, just a week after he finally was told to start thinking about moving on, a position in the label’s radio department opened, which Duncan secured. After about a year and a half of working full-time, Duncan seized one of the unique Sub Pop privileges all employees share: Even if you aren’t A&R, anyone at the label can pitch an artist. “It’s not behind curtains,” Duncan says. “It demystifies the signing process so everyone feels comfortable talking about what excites them—like a part of the community.”
The first band Duncan pitched, New York’s lo-fi rock group LVL UP, made it all the way through the company’s democratic A&R process—a rarity for a first-go, he was told. On the eve of Duncan’s second anniversary at the company, the band officially signed. Its Sub Pop debut, Return to Love, is due out this September.
“Day to day it’s the most fun job I’ve ever had, the most fun group of people,” Duncan says. “Sub Pop survives on people who have warm hearts and foul mouths. If you aren’t comfortable with a lot of curse words at every morning meeting, this probably isn’t the job for you.”
Arwen Nicks has spent most of the past year and a half sticking microphones up to those foul mouths for the label’s new Sub Pop Podcast, whose second season should be out soon. Working in what is lovingly called “the murder closet,” a small room in Sub Pop’s building ominously covered with burlap sacks for soundproofing, she’s been interviewing Sub Pop artists and employees about the label as it is today and the rich history that brought them here, as something of an “archivist” project for the company—a proper office for which Sub Pop is generously building. When she started working with Sub Pop, Nicks was also a producer for KPLU’s Sound Effect, and her role at Sub Pop was largely providing consultation on how to make a podcast. But when KUOW last year announced it was acquiring KPLU and Nicks feared she’d be out of a job, Sub Pop offered to just pay her to produce the podcast herself. (Meanwhile, donors were able to save KPLU from the sale. Everybody wins!)
“I’m 100 percent that cliché person who moved to Seattle because of Nirvana,” Nicks says. “I respect Sub Pop as a company so much, and I want to make something to support the legacy of this company that, had it not existed, I probably wouldn’t have moved to Seattle. Every day I’m like, ‘How long do I get to do this for?’ ”
Read about the rest of the Best of Seattle Reader Poll winners here. If you didn’t get a chance to vote this go-round, make sure your voice is heard next year. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will let you know when nominations open for BoS 2017.