When Sub Pop vice president Megan Jasper was working in the label's sales department in 1991, she got an early listen to an album from some expats who were about to release their major-label debut. Jasper told her bosses that she thought the record was going to be huge. Twenty years later, Nirvana's Nevermind has sold more than 26 million copies.
"At the time, huge in my mind was 250,000," said Jasper in a recent phone call.
Jasper is hardly alone in thinking that one of the year's most anticipated indie-rock releases--Fleet Foxes' sophomore record, Helplessness Blues, whose name and release date Sub Pop announced on Monday--is also going to be huge. But in a world where nobody is selling 10 million records anymore and indie bands with big opening weeks are suddenly hitting the top of the charts, "huge" has become an even more relative term. Rhetoric aside, Jasper says the May 3 release is probably the biggest the label has ever geared up for, and it's planning accordingly, to both push the record, and hang on to one of their marquee acts, whose contract is up after Helplessness Blues.
"I would hope that we work this record and really enjoy that experience, and that we do our jobs really, really well," Jasper says. "I hope that we earn that ability to work with them again through our hard work."
Much as it did for the 2007 release of the Shins' Wincing the Night Away, the Seattle label is hiring extra help to market and promote the record. But it's also brought in new blood. Last August, in anticipation of Helplessness--and of upcoming releases from The Head and the Heart and Shabazz Palaces, among others--Sub Pop hired major-label vet Scott Perlewitz as its emissary to commercial radio.
Sub Pop's roster has become increasingly accessible to mainstream audiences at the same time that commercial radio has shown more interest in spinning the occasional indie band. Perlewitz says a commercial-radio bump could get a band like Fleet Foxes to the next level, as it has for their indie colleagues the Black Keys. "It wasn't until [the Black Keys] had commercial-radio success that they really became a household name," he says. "They've definitely grown and gotten better . . . but at the same time it was multiplied by what radio can do for you."
For Sub Pop, the stakes are higher than first-week sales or even the record's overall numbers. Its efforts paid off with Wincing, which debuted at #2 on Billboard and sold 118,000 copies in its first seven days--sales that would have made it #1 in any week so far this year. But while Sub Pop had hoped those results would prove to the Shins that it could offer everything a major label could, the album marked the end of their contract, and the band left soon after. After the release of Helplessness, Fleet Foxes will have to decide if they're satisfied with what an indie label can offer, or if they're going to follow former Sub Pop flagships Band of Horses and Iron & Wine to the majors. And though frontman Robin Pecknold has had less-than-admirable things to say about major labels in the past, that doesn't mean he couldn't be susceptible to curiosity -- or a good sales pitch.
"Nirvana left Sub Pop. Soundgarden left Sub Pop. Mudhoney left Sub Pop and then came back. The thing that's missing is a perspective," says Jasper. "Sometimes you need to understand what else is out there and how other things work, not by having them explained to you, but by having that experience."