How Nirvana Made It

Spin - April 1992.

It's 1992... grunge goes overground and anarchy comes to the charts.

By Nathaniel Wice


So how did a bunch of underground nobodies suddenly turn into pop superstars? Nirvanaís Nevermind has reached the top of the pop charts and sold three million albums (and counting). How did the style of the 100,000-strong indie tribe suddenly infect a nation of a quarter billion?

When Nirvana turned in the master tapes of Nevermind last summer, the band and its new label, Geffen subsidiary DGC, hoped to match the sales of Sonic Youthís Goo (almost 200,000). DGCís 1989 signing of Sonic Youth was a watershed in the process by which the major labels have taken over and expanded alt-rock into a market force. With its hummable hybrid of metal and alternative, its pop melodies, and the vaguely incoherent, antisocial lyrics, Nirvanaís new record was clearly much more polished than Bleach, the bandís Sub Pop debut. But it was still worlds apart from the likes of U2. Nirvanaís success is obviously not the result of a marketing master plan... Capitol Records spent more on Hammerís TV campaign alone than DGC did on recording and producing Nevermind. Romantics might put it all down to artistic genius, but grown-ups know that great albums donít just drop out of the sky into No. 1. A lot of people subscribe to the SoundScan theory. Last spring, Billboardís chart compilers replaced the old corruption-prone system...which relied on store managersí reports... with SoundScan, a computerized tally of retail sales. SoundScan revealed that marginal genres have much stronger sales than previously thought. Nirvana...and N.W.A, Garth Brooks, and Metallica...wouldnít have come close to No. 1 under the old system. And, of course, the charts donít just report tastes; they also amplify and shape them. When you watch the slow-mo replay of Nevermindís spontaneous combustion, you see that itís really a chain reaction that started deep in the alternative world and blew outward, eventually reaching Top 40 radio. Each stage ignited because of the overwhelming response to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but ignition all depended on the newly powerful alternative market. Mark Kates, director of alternative music at DGC, says that "there's never been a time when the indie buzz was so qualitatively important. And we've never had such instantaneous response to everything that we did to market the album."

Word of mouth started immediately. Nirvanaís September release party in Seattle was the talk of the L.A. rock world. Alternative radio added "Teen Spirit" on its arrival in late August. On the eve of Nevermindís September 24 release, the band kicked off a major tour. Kates reports a "weird excitement" surrounding these shows, giving much credit to the devotion of the 20-odd large commercial alternative stations across the country. By mid-October, when Nevermind was the most-requested album on alternative radio, sales had broken 200,000. In a matter of weeks, Nirvana had effortlessly shot to the top of the alternative world.

On September 30, MTV introduced Nirvana Ďs notorious anarchy cheerleaders as a "World Premiere" on 120 Minutes. Ironically, the most concentrated, centralized force in pop music is now more adventurous than commercial radio. MTV had helped set the pop stage for an indolent, melodic rock anthem by championing Faith No More's "Epic," but the response to "Teen Spirit" astonished everyone. By Thanksgiving, MTV had accidentally overshadowed its own Michael Jackson hype with a genuine pop phenomenon.

In October, Nirvana caught on with metal fans, who were prepped for Seattle rock by Soundgarden and the alternative retooling of Headbangers Ball. Nevermindís metal fans were the bridge between alternative and pop success. In the first week of November when the bandís tour finished, sales stood at an extraordinary 600,000. Even album-oriented rock (AOR) radio was nervous about the albumís radio-friendliness. On most stations, "Teen Spirit" was considered too noisy for daytime airplay...until audiences forced airplay through request lines. At each step, the song was making instant fans of listeners, who wandered zombie-like into record stores.

Top 40, the last domino to fall, couldnít resist this combined force of music, SoundScan, alternative and metal fans, and MTV. In January, Jeff Pollack, the preeminent AOR consultant, got with the new program, telling an AOR convention that the format has to play more alternative bands.

Sub Popís not bitter about losing the No. I band of the year to a rich competitor...theyíve been saved from near Chapter 11 thanks to back-catalog sales of Bleach and the deal Sub Pop cut when Nirvana left for DGC. The label receives royalties..."gets points"...on every copy of Nevermind sold. Though the bandís wayward behavior continues unmodified, it remains to be seen what of Nirvanaís world will survive as the band gets absorbed into the mainstream. If hip 11-year-olds everywhere know about Dinosaur Jr., Pearl Jam, and the Pixies, what are hip 21-year-olds to do?