What it was like working in music industry at the height of 90s grunge
In this extract from ‘This Woman’s Work, a collection of essays on women in the music industry, edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, Megan Jasper recalls her reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain.
From musicians to record execs, songwriters to producers, male dominance has long been hardcoded into the legendary stories of music; women, meanwhile, were cast as wives, girlfriends, groupies and fans. A new book edited by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson seeks to undo that injustice. This Woman’s Work, a collection of essays about music and female artists, is a celebration of the unheard or overlooked figures in the world of rock and pop. Featuring words by Ottessa Moshfegh, Maggie Nelson and Anne Enright, amongst others, This Woman’s Work recounts the stories of women who kicked down the industry doors as pioneers of their craft, and made politics central to their sound.
In this extract from the chapter “Losers”, written by the now CEO of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper, Megan recalls her humble beginnings in the music industry, making coffees, answering phones and meeting (and then saying goodbye to) some of the world’s biggest rockstars.
Sub Pop’s offices had an energy that was constantly abuzz. The main lobby was daubed with graffiti and looked like a New York subway in the mid-eighties. The Dwarves spray-painted ‘You owe the Dwarves $$’ on the floor. There was a colourful chaos of posters and stickers on the walls and piles of records, music magazines, cardboard boxes and mailers everywhere. The phones rang off the hook, the few employees ran back and forth 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 to Twin Peaks or Lou Rawls, something begging to create balance amid a grunge windstorm. Mostly, it was Tad and Poison Idea. My desk was front and centre in that lobby since I had been immediately promoted from intern to receptionist, a job that paid me $5/hour. I felt like I had struck gold.
Charles Peterson, our then-UPS guy who became an internationally famed rock photographer, brought me an old wooden desk from the seventies. It was shaped like a kidney bean and had a red top. I found every sticker in that office and started covering the desk. On the very front was a sticker that said ‘I hate your band’. It must have been during one of the quiet morning hours that I had the time to write in a thick marker ‘I have grunge in my pants’ and ‘Anal leakage rocks’ on it. I started out as the girl who answered phones and I couldn’t have been happier. I had no idea that I was about to embark on my own ‘journey to the centre of’ and that one day I’d be calling the shots.
Those years can only be described as surreal, squared and then squared again. And they all came to a screeching halt on that gut-wrenching 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 and then in 1993 was hired as the northwest sales representative for ADA, a new distributor which 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 west coast chain of hypermarket superstores, tending to my largest account. The music buyer, Don Jensen, never talked about grunge but he knew it sold in the stores.
Don sat in a big brown leather swivel chair. He wore a button-down shirt, and his thinning hair was tied back into a scraggly ponytail. That look seemed to be the uniform for the middle-aged chain store buyers. The swivel chair and a copy of Billboard magazine were the key accessories. There were hundreds of these men at every NARM convention, an annual gathering for US music retailers. I often felt like such an oddball, being a young woman in a sea of older men twirling their ponytails and talking about their stores. Don’s secretary often warned me about his mood before I was called into his office. Today I was told that his mood was ‘short’, which wasn’t unusual. It was normal to move through our meetings quickly and I always had to spend a little extra time preparing for those pitches. I had my paperwork and promo CDs ready for him. I was looking forward to having this meeting behind me because many of my co-workers were coming in 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.
‘Did you hear that Kurt Cobain’s dead?’ asked Don in his gruff voice. I hadn’t. I was speechless. Don turned up the radio. The commercial rock station was reporting the few haunting facts that were known. There was a body in Kurt’s garage with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I’m not sure that I said much at all during that visit. My mind was reeling and I was trying to hold my hands together in an attempt to hide their visible shake. In shock, I went through my rehearsed pitches and soon walked out of the office and to my car through a grey Seattle drizzle holding, in my still-shaking hands, the biggest order I’ve ever taken as a salesperson, thousands of Nirvana Bleach CDs. My heart was heavier than the order and it didn’t feel right that Kurt’s death had immediately translated into sales. The order felt dirty. I took a moment to gather myself before going directly to Sea–Tac airport. I was worried about so many people, especially Jonathan, and I wouldn’t have the chance to check in with anyone until I got home.
My co-workers were also in sombre moods when I met them at their gate. I remember hearing a stranger say, ‘Seriously? He killed himself? What the fuck did he have to feel sad about? He’s a millionaire.’ I felt sick to my stomach as we all headed to my car. I went to Linda’s Tavern that night, the last place Kurt was seen. The bar was filling up with friends, musicians and music journalists who had flown in from all over the world to cover the story. I vividly remember one UK writer complaining about how unfair it was that Everett True had an all-access pass that day. ‘He’ll get the better 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 carry on with their party that next evening. The Crocodile Café lined the inside of the windows with brown paper, which seemed smart since a massive number of reporters were gathered outside of the venue and windows ran along more than an entire wall of the business.
As I walked into the venue, a bright light from the cameras hit my face and a reporter jumped in front of me with a microphone. ‘Did you know Kurt Cobain?’ he asked. ‘Yeah. I fucked him,’ I responded. That wasn’t true but it was the politest ‘fuck you’ I could muster. I walked through the blinding lights and was relieved to get away from the hungry mob of journalists. Artists new to Sub Pop, Velocity Girl, Pond, and Sunny Day Real Estate, all performed but the gathering felt more like a funeral reception than it did a show. And although it seemed odd to watch live music, the togetherness that it offered felt right. It was comforting to see friends, to check in with people and to hug them. Kurt’s death seemed impossible to process. It impacted so many people both personally and professionally and it all felt disturbing, tragic, heavy and unsettling. It still feels that way.
This Woman’s Work, edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, is published 7 April 2022 by White Rabbit in Hardback.