Venerable indie label Sub Pop has been declared dead twice in its 20 years on Earth: first in 1991, with a Seattle Weekly cover that asked, "Is Sub Pop About to Pop?," and again in 1998, when Rolling Stone said, "Its future looks bleak." But despite predictions to the contrary, the label that has taken its lickings kept on ticking, right up to the present day. One of its latest releases, an album by comedy-folk duo Flight of the Conchords, entered the Billboard 200 in late April at No. 3 and has sold more than 130,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

According to co-founder/label president Jonathan Poneman, he started the label as "a blindly ignorant music fan." And after breaking Nirvana, helping birth emo with Sunny Day Real Estate and changing lives with the Shins, Poneman is a savvier businessman but not a cynic. "Fandom always drives what we do," he says. "When you get down to it, we're all a bunch of music nerds."


What's been the key to keeping the label in business for 20 years?

Loving music. At the end of the day, it's been the fact that we are all music fans. It's certainly not our massive CD sales [laughs], although our digital sales are growing nicely.

As you take stock of the last two decades, what have been the best and worst business decisions you've made?

Not to be too cynical, but I would say hiring a good attorney has been one of the [best]. For us, the key has been signing bands that we didn't expect to perform initially and giving them the space to grow and develop. When we started, we didn't have yearly projections or budgets, but as we matured as a label, we learned a lot more about the value of making modest sales projections and then being happy when the bands exceeded our expectations.

In terms of the worst, we've signed artists whose expectations have been too grand and were too impatient to realize that it takes a lot of time to build success. That impedes our ability to form a good, long-term partnership with those acts.

Where does your joint venture with Warner Music Group fit in on the best-to-worst scale? I've read interviews with you where you say the deal has worked out, but if you could go back and do it over, you wouldn't do it.

First off, the people who work at Warner are all good people, and I think very highly of them as individuals. But the thing is, Sub Pop comes from a culture that is very independent, and that does not do well inside a certain system. It is a huge conglomerate, and while we wish them well, we also realize that Sub Pop operates best in our own community. When the deal first went down, there was a lot of culture shock, and now it seems to have settled down. The deal does not last in perpetuity and will end sometime in the next decade.

Click here to read more about how Poneman helped build Sup Pop’s reputation, the importance of licensing, 360 deals, the indie label’s digital strategy and much more.