The world of grunge changed forever on this day, 30 years ago, when Nirvana signed to Geffen Records. Inconsequential as it may seem, it would see the band face a huge backlash from their hardcore fans who accused them of ‘selling out’ before they’d even really begun.
Nirvana, up until 1991, were a relatively obscure band, thriving in the underground scene that would spawn much of grunge’s empirical ethos. Although Kurt Cobain, Kris Novoselic and Dave Grohl had built up some diehard fans that they had garnered through the Seattle scene and some searing performances, the band weren’t well known by any means — if you were outside of that scene in the North West Pacific, chances are you had no idea Nirvana existed.
The group still had a growing reputation, though, and especially with other bands, they came as a highly rated three-piece with enough muscle to make a dent in every stage they took to. One contemporary Nirvana bolstered within their fan base was Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who would change the band’s destiny forever.
Nirvana were already signed to legendary indie label Sub Pop and had released their debut Bleach through the company in 1989. While it had seen some success, it proved to be nothing compared to what they were about to encounter now they were on a major label. Despite the band’s image as unique underground heroes, they were keen to move on to bigger and better things. The band consulted fellow rockers Soundgarden and Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver. Novoselic would go on to thank Silver when the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 for her role in pushing the band to the next level and “introducing them to the music industry properly”.
The success Kurt Cobain and the band went on to have with Geffen was way beyond what the label had expected, with DGC Records initially hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind. It was the same number they had achieved with Sonic Youth’s Goo and seemed like the right ballpark. However, the first single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, gained more momentum than they expected after getting major airplay not only on radio across America but on MTV.
Soon enough their shows became unsafe when they toured Europe during late 1991 due to their growing popularity, with venues overselling tickets to see the hottest band in the world. By the Christmas of 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week in the US. In January 1992, the album displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at number one on the Billboard album charts and was the standout record of the year worldwide. Nevermind eventually sold over seven million copies in the United States and over 30 million worldwide.
Nirvana’s old label Sub Pop were not bitter about the trio moving onto pastures new, and the Seattle-based label felt a real bounce following Kurt Cobain and co. conquering the world. Something that more than likely would never have happened if they didn’t sign to Geffen.
Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt wrote about the effect their elevation had on Seattle in his book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe, 1989 which he likened to what The Beatles did to Liverpool: “The Nirvana story was epic,” he said. “When I first moved to Seattle in 1983, most people in the world wouldn’t be able to find Seattle on a map. Post-1991, that all changed. Nirvana did for Seattle what the Beatles did for Liverpool.”
He added: “It put Seattle on the map and was a huge inspiration for a lot of young people. The music really brought in a level of emotional depth that had been missing from pop radio and is missing from pop radio now.”
When Nirvana signed this deal may have seemed like they ‘sold out’ to their fans but their success meant that more eyes than ever were on the grunge movement than ever. Their success also led to other non traditionally mainstream acts finding themselves on major labels without compromising their artistic integrity at the same time, which can’t be anything but a positive, right?
So yes, Nirvana signed to a major and quite possibly let down the underground Seattle scene. But if they hadn’t would anyone have ever heard of it?