What it was like to work in the music industry at the height of 90s grunge
From musicians to record executives, songwriters to producers, male dominance has long been hard-coded into legendary music histories; women, meanwhile, were cast as wives, girlfriends, groupies, and fans. A new book edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson of Sonic Youth seeks to right this injustice. This woman’s work a collection of essays on music and female artists, is a celebration of unknown or overlooked figures in the world of rock and pop. With words from Ottessa Moshfegh, Maggie Nelson and Anne Enright, among others, This woman’s work tells the stories of women who broke down the doors of the industry as pioneers of their craft and put politics at the heart of their sound.
In this excerpt from the “Losers” chapter, written by current Sub Pop Records CEO Megan Jasper, Megan reminisces about her humble beginnings in the music industry, making coffees, answering phones, and meeting (then saying goodbye) some of the biggest names in the world. biggest rockstars.
The Sub Pop offices had a constantly buzzing energy. The main lobby was smeared with graffiti and looked like a New York City subway in the mid-eighties. The dwarves spray painted ‘You owe the dwarves $$’ on the floor. There was a colorful chaos of posters and stickers on the walls and piles of records, music magazines, cardboard boxes and mailings everywhere. The phones kept ringing, the few employees shuttled between offices, and there was always music playing. Sometimes the music was loud and heavy like Tad or Poison Idea and sometimes it was the soundtrack of Twin Peaks or Lou Rawls, something begging to create balance amidst a grunge storm. It was mostly Tad and Poison Idea. My office was in the center of this hall since I had been immediately promoted from intern to receptionist, a job that paid me $5 an hour. I felt like I had struck gold.
Megan Jasper today
Charles Peterson, our UPS guy at the time who became an internationally known rock photographer, brought me an old wooden desk from the 70s. It was shaped like a red bean and had a red top. I found all the stickers in this desk and started covering the desk. On the front was a sticker that said “I hate your band”. It must have been during one of the quiet hours of the morning when I had time to write in a thick felt-tip pen “I have grunge in my pants” and “Anal leak rocks” on them. I started out as the girl who answered the phone and couldn’t have been happier. I had no idea that I was about to embark on my own “journey to the center of” and that one day I would be in charge.
These years can only be described as surreal, squared and then squared again. And they all came to a screeching halt on that heartbreaking day in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain died. After losing my job at Sub Pop, I found myself in the world of music distribution. I worked at Caroline Distribution for a year, then in 1993 I was hired as the Northwest Sales Rep for ADA, a new distributor that sold music from Sub Pop, Matador, Merge, Touch and Go and other mostly independent labels. I was sitting in the offices of Fred Meyer, a chain of West Coast superstores, handling my biggest account. Music buyer Don Jensen never talked about grunge but he knew it was selling in stores.
Don was sitting in a large brown leather swivel chair. He wore a button-down shirt and his thinning hair was tied back in a tousled ponytail. This look seemed to be the uniform of middle-aged chain store shoppers. The swivel chair and a copy of Billboard magazine were key props. There were hundreds of these men at every NARM convention, an annual gathering for American music retailers. I often felt like such an eccentric, being a young woman in a sea of older men twirling their ponytails and talking about their shops. Don’s secretary often warned me of his mood before I was called into his office. Today I was told his mood was ‘short’, which was not unusual. It was normal to move quickly in our meetings and I always had to spend a little extra time preparing for these presentations. I had prepared my papers and my promotional CDs for him. I was looking forward to having this reunion behind me because many of my colleagues were traveling from different parts of the country to celebrate Sub Pop’s sixth anniversary the following night. I was going to meet a few of them at the airport immediately after leaving Don’s office. I was happy when he called the front desk and asked them to send me back to his office.
“Have you heard that Kurt Cobain is dead? Don asked in his gruff voice. I did not have. I was speechless. Don turned on the radio. The commercial rock station was reporting the few known haunting facts. There was a body in Kurt’s garage with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I’m not sure I said much during this visit. My mind was in shock and I tried to clasp my hands together to try and hide their visible tremor. In shock, I skimmed through my rehearsed presentations and quickly left the office for my car through a gray Seattle drizzle holding, in my still shaking hands, the largest order I had ever taken. as a seller, thousands of Nirvana Bleach CDs. My heart was heavier than the order and I didn’t feel good that Kurt’s death immediately translated into sales. The order was dirty. I took a moment to compose myself before heading straight to Sea-Tac airport. I was worried about so many people, especially Jonathan, and I wouldn’t get a chance to see anyone before I got home.
My colleagues were also in a somber mood when I met them at their doorstep. I remember hearing a stranger say, ‘Seriously? He committed suicide? Why on earth could he have felt sad? He’s a millionaire. My stomach hurt as we all walked to my car. I went to Linda’s Tavern that night, the last place Kurt was seen. The bar was filled with friends, musicians and music journalists from all over the world to cover the story. I vividly remember a British writer complaining about how unfair it was that Everett True had an all-access pass that day. “He’ll have the best story,” she grumbled. Everett was at Kurt’s house with Courtney, in shock and mourning the loss of his friend, whom he loved. Sub Pop decided to continue their party the following evening. The Crocodile Café lined the inside of the windows with brown paper, which seemed smart since a large number of journalists were congregated outside the room and the windows ran the length of more than one entire wall of the building. business.
As I walked into the room, a bright light from the cameras hit me in the face, and a reporter jumped in front of me with a microphone. “Did you know Kurt Cobain? He asked. ‘Yeah. I fucked him, I replied. It wasn’t true, but it was the most polite ‘fuck you’ I’ve ever uttered. I walked through the blinding lights and was relieved to walk away from the hungry crowd of reporters. New artists from Sub Pop, Velocity Girl, Pond and Sunny Day Real Estate all performed, but the gathering felt more like a funeral reception than a show. And while it felt odd to watch live music, the user-friendliness it offered felt right. It was comforting to see friends, to see people and to hug them. Kurt’s death seemed unmanageable. It impacted so many people, both personally and professionally, and it was all unsettling, tragic, heavy and unsettling. It’s always like that.
This Woman’s Work, edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, is published April 7, 2022 by White Rabbit in Hardback.