Sub Pop and Nirvana's First Record Contract: Simplicity Ahead of a Squall

An early photograph of Nirvana performing live (via Sub Pop)

Six hundred bucks well spent—not that we had it at the time.

That what Sub Pop had to say when it posted the first page of its original, starkly simple, contract between Nirvana and the still-fledgling Seattle label. The document dates to when Nirvana was a four-piece, prior to Dave Grohl's replacing of drummer Chad Channing and guitarist Jason Everman's departure.

Nirvana's initial contract with Sub Pop was for a one-year term, between January 1, 1989 and December 31, 1989, for which the band would be paid $600. Two additional option years were included as well, if the terms of the contract were met by both parties. The band's salary would increase each year over the initial $600, to $12,000 the first option year and $24,000 in the second. As was standard, all advances were recoupable against royalties, meaning the initial $600 in royalties the band would receive from the first record agreed to in the contract -- which ended up being "Bleach," recorded with Chad Channing and Jason Everman -- would go directly to the label.

In a development that loosely parallels Decca's infamous rejection of The Beatles, Nirvana's following two albums, "Nevermind" and In Utero," which would go on to sell over 13.3 million records cumulatively, according to Nielsen SoundScan, were released on Geffen Records imprint DGC. Regardless, "Bleach" -- which was released before SoundScan began tracking sales, in 1991 -- went on to sell 1.9 million in the period between 1991 and the present.

Recently, Nirvana's ousted guitarist Jason Everman was the subject of a fascinating profile in the New York Times, detailing Everman's journey from a guitarist who missed out on mega-fame by the skin of his teeth to a member of the U.S. Army Rangers to a quiet philosophy student at Columbia. In that profile, it's made clear the Everman was the one who paid for the recording costs of "Bleach," which the article says were $606.17. “Jason was very generous,” [Krist] Novoselic said. “And he’d had a job. . . . So he had, like, bucks, O.K.? You know how it said it was recorded for like six hundred and something bucks on the back of the record? Jason paid for that.” It's not clear whether Everman was ever paid back for the recording.


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