Independent record label makes connections at Sea-Tac airport

Sub Pop’s store aims to add to Northwest sense of place for travelers

Staff writerMay 23, 2014 

Washington record label Sub Pop has opened up a shop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and the store appears to be taking off.

“We’re doing very well,” said store manager Julie Butterfield. “People are coming in and buying stuff, and if they don’t know what we are. They’re very curious. It seems like a lot of people are drawn to the space and want to see what it’s all about.”

The store’s opening is the latest in series of efforts made by the airport to showcase local music and musicians. The airport already regularly invites a variety of local performers into the terminals to play and plays host to a small Jimi Hendrix exhibit on loan from the Experience Music Project. It even recorded a number of airportwide announcements with a variety of notable Northwest musicians such as Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains and composer Quincy Jones.

Seattle Port Commissioner John Creighton said bringing Sub Pop into the airport is an important step in sharing Northwest identity with the world.

“We’ve had this goal to have a Northwest sense of place at the airport,” Creighton said. “For example, we have an Ivar’s Fish and Chips, we have an Anthony’s restaurant, but bringing in such an iconic company like Sub Pop really goes a long way to achieving that goal.”

That mantle of cultural ambassadorship is something that Sub Pop officials is keenly aware of, and they take it quite seriously.

“We have so much respect for and are humbled by our community,” Butterfield said. “That’s why we also have other things from the Pacific Northwest that aren’t specifically Sub Pop, just so we can promote them as well.”

The store sits near the entrance to Concourse C, just off the central terminal; it’s the busiest part of the airport. The layout is quite open, with vinyl records, T-shirts and all manner of accoutrements lining the walls and shelves. In the back sits a large bench with a listening station.

“We want people to come in and hang out between flights,” Butterfield said. “It’s kind of like a clubhouse.”

And the store is proactive about educating puzzled travelers about who they are.

“Usually if you say ‘Have you heard of Nirvana or Soundgarden?’ then people always go ‘Oh yeah!’ So there is that context for who we are,’” said Butterfield. “From there then you can go, ‘Maybe you’ve heard of the Postal Service, or The Head and the Heart, or the Shins.’ They know the music maybe, but didn’t know the label.”

And, of course, the store is in the business of selling records, and sales are encouraging, according to assistant manager and former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel.

“We’ve been really impressed with the amount of Sub Pop sales from Nirvana to Father John Misty and the Shins,” Pickerel said. “It’s also been really cool to see groups like Sunny Day Real Estate, Sebadoh, La Luz and the Moondoggies selling as well.”

But there’s no guarantee the store will go on to become a long-term success. Just last year, the venerated independent label Motown shut down its retail location at its hometown airport in Detroit.

That Sub Pop is willing to give it a shot has brought smiles to a number of faces, though.

“Bringing Sub Pop into the airport is so thrilling to me because it wasn’t a given,” Creighton said. “It’s tough to convince small businesses to open up at the airport. Sub Pop saw it as an opportunity to sell merchandise, but also to get their name even further out there and promote Seattle in general.”

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