This article will examine Sub Pop’s acquisition strategy for permission-based contacts and offer possible methods for improvement.
Background of Sub Pop
As a label, Sub Pop has been responsible for the release of many notable albums from grunge bands in the 1990s as well as indie bands in the 2000s and 2010s. However, the label’s origins actually began as a college credit fanzine run by Bruce Pavitt. In the early 1980s, Pavitt released nine editions of his Sub Pop fanzine which he alternated with compilation tapes of underground rock bands. Of these, the Sub Pop #5 cassette sold two thousand copies. As a result, Pavitt attracted the attention of bands like Green River, which allowed him to begin a record label under the same name in 1986. A year later, Jonathan Poneman provided the funding for Sub Pop to record the debut single and EP for Soundgarden. Poneman became a partner in the label, focusing on business and legal issues, while Pavitt continued to focus on the label’s artists and repertoire (A&R). With the label’s official formation, Pavitt and Poneman decided to focus on marketing a “Seattle sound.”
In June 1989, Sub Pop released Bleach, the debut album from Nirvana. The debut single from the album was also used as the first release in the Sub Pop Singles Club, which was a subscription service that sent customers singles released by the label on a monthly basis. The Singles Club was a success, with two thousand subscribers at its peak. Consequently, Sub Pop became synonymous with the “Seattle sound” as they had intended. In 1995, Sub Pop sold a 49% stake in the label to Warner, partly due to Nirvana’s move to the latter. This sale led to friction between Pavitt and Poneman, and Pavitt split from the label a year later. Since then, Sub Pop has seen continued success over the years, releasing albums from bands like The Postal Service, The Shins, and Fleet Foxes.
Notably, Sub Pop has also created a distinct personality, often being self-deprecating and snarky. The motto appearing on their website is “We’re Not the Best, But We’re Pretty Good” and their Instagram Link in Bio headline reads “Going out of business since 1988.” This personality also extended to Sub Pop’s interactions with artists. The label used to send form letters for demo rejections in which they referred to the artist as “Dear Loser.” The “Dear Loser” branding has remained with the label and they run a scholarship program called “The Sub Pop Loser Scholarship” in which applicants must discuss what being a “Sub Pop Loser” means to them.
Sub Pop’s Current Acquisition Strategy for Permission-Based Contacts
Sub Pop’s current acquisition strategy is almost entirely focused on directing contacts to the artists on Sub Pop’s label.
On Sub Pop’s main website, permission-based contacts are acquired through a simple email submission form. When a user enters their email address, they become signed up to Sub Pop’s daily newsletter. This newsletter is essentially an RSS feed of the Sub Pop blog. There is no option for personalization of types of emails received nor is there the ability to add other input like a subscriber’s name. For MegaMart, Sub Pop’s merchandise store, users are provided with more customization, allowing contacts to provide names and choose from three types of emails: updates on shop additions, new music, and/or touring schedules.
On social media, Sub Pop acquires contacts primarily through the typical follow or subscribe buttons. However, they seem to actively discourage direct engagement on these platforms. The Sub Pop Instagram bio reads “email > DMs.” In order to drive engagement to other platforms, the label also uses built-in features from the platforms. Their Instagram features a Link In Bio option which links feed posts to their website and their YouTube Community tab actively encourages followers to subscribe to individual Sub Pop artists.
Earned & Paid
Examining Sub Pop’s earned media strategies for acquisition proved difficult and seemed largely dependent on individual artists. While the Subreddit for the label is active, it has low engagement with many posts receiving no comments. There have been many books and articles written about the label over the years, but it is unclear how those may have benefitted Sub Pop’s acquisition strategy.
Most of Sub Pop’s paid acquisition strategy is also focused on individual artists. According to Facebook Ad Library, Sub Pop has only run one ad. This is likely due to ads being run solely through artist pages with no tieback to the label.
First Impressions and Suggestions for Improvement
Because Sub Pop focuses its acquisition strategy on pushing contacts to its artists rather than its own brand, it is missing out on developing a stronger brand loyalty. Sub Pop started as a tastemaker and has a clear and unique personality. If the company focused more on that aspect in their acquisition strategy, their marketing ability for all of their artists would improve as well.
Because Sub Pop’s main website only offers an email entry form with no ability to personalize the email subscription, the value the label receives from their email marketing is incredibly low. They do not acquire contacts’ names or interests, and thus cannot deeply engage with subscribers. Sub Pop’s merchandise store sign up improves on this slightly, but still proves lacking. If Sub Pop improved the information collected from email subscribers, they could more effectively market to their contacts’ interests and increase brand loyalty. Some possible options include adding subscriber names as a required input as well as allowing contacts to choose which artists to receive news about.
The quality of content in the emails is also low. Since the newsletters function largely as just an RSS feed of the blog, there is no real reason to subscribe. Sub Pop should take inspiration from their beginnings and redesign the newsletters to appear more like a fanzine. In doing so, they would be able to use their history and unique voice to better engage customers. Additionally, the daily frequency means that newsletters typically only highlight one article. By reducing frequency to weekly rather than daily, Sub Pop could create a newsletter that feels more full.
Because Sub Pop is first and foremost a label, much of their shared media is focused on their artists. While this is understandable, Sub Pop is also a brand with an interesting perspective and history. If Sub Pop added more content about the label, it would deepen followers connection to the brand, which would also lead to higher engagement for all of their artists. Sub Pop could provide more insight into why they signed particular artists or employee stories about why they chose to work at Sub Pop.
Earned & Paid
Even though Sub Pop owes its current success to its early earned media, their acquisition efforts in earned media now are very low. Sub Pop should focus more on developing this aspect through better fan engagement.
Because Sub Pop’s current acquisition strategy is focused so heavily on individual artists, it makes sense for the company to continue its paid media strategy on artist marketing rather than brand marketing.References:
Instagram. (n.d.). Sub pop (@subpop). Instagram. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.instagram.com/subpop/
King, M. (n.d.). The Business of Music Marketing. Berklee Online. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from https://bocce.online.berklee.edu/#/14714/OMBUS-522.02/14794/5/455473-assignment-5_-music-marketing-technology-stack-_group-assignment_
Sub Pop Records. (2023). Sub Pop Records. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from https://www.subpop.com/
Sub Pop. (2023, February 17). Sub Pop News for 02/17/2023.
Wayback Machine. (n.d.). Sub Pop Rejection Letter. Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from https://web.archive.org/web/20150430004728/http://www.flickr.com/photos/molotrash/3331641876/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Yarm, M. (2008). "Going Out of Business Since 1988!": An Oral History of Sub Pop Records. Northwest Passage. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from http://www.revolutioncomeandgone.com/articles/7/sub-pop-history.php
YouTube. (n.d.). Sub Pop. YouTube. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/@subpop
This article was initially written as an assignment for the Berklee College of Music graduate class "The Business of Music Marketing."