The origin of SST dates back to 1966, when a 12 year old Greg Ginn started a side hustle selling ham radios made from salvaged WW2 parts under the name Solid State Tuners. This turned out to be quite a lucrative side hustle, and he kept it up into his early adult life. Fast forward to 1978 and Greg’s band Panic (soon to be renamed Black Flag) were seeking a label with whom to release their EP, with little to no success. Deciding that it couldn’t be that hard to press and distribute it himself, he scoured the phone book for pressing plants and, thanks to the money coming from his ham radio company, SST Records was born.
Their early years as a label were dogged by harassment from the LAPD who were convinced it was a front for drug trafficking. There was also a lawsuit with a distributor who refused to distribute Black Flag records due to their ‘anti parent’ content (a consequence of the lawsuit was they couldn’t release anything by Black Flag until it was settled). In the meantime, SST was releasing music by The Minutemen, Saccharine Trust and The Meat Puppets – all bands that had originated in the hardcore scene but were now starting to explore different musical horizons (jazz, funk, psychedelia, country) much to the annoyance of the traditinoal hardcore punks.
1984 was a turning point. With the lawsuit resolved, Black Flag released three albums, the Meat Puppets released their classic Meat Puppets II, and new signing Hüsker Dü released their double LP concept album Zen Arcade to critical acclaim. Not wanting to be outdone, The Minutemen released their own double album Double Nickels On The Dime on the same day as Zen Arcade. Things didn’t stay calm for long. D.Boon from The Minutemen would die in a car accident, Black Flag split up and Hüsker Dü jumped ship for a major label. It was around this time that SST acquired New Alliance Records and brought The Descendants into the fold. New Alliance would become their go-to for jazz, experimental and spoken word releases.
As the 80s marched on, SST signed (and lost) what would become some of the most influential bands of the era: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Bad Brains, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden. One by one these bands would follow Hüsker Dü’s example and leave for the greener pastures of major labels. An ongoing issue was one of cash flow. Bands were touring their arses off and selling a lot of records but not seeing a dime. This might have been down to bad accounting or possibly Greg Ginn’s insistence on signing new acts and releasing records like it was going out of fashion (which I guess they were in retrospect). In 1987 alone the label released over 80 titles.
By the 90s SST weren’t quite a spent force, but they were a long way from the utopian DIY punk dream upon which the label was founded. Accusations of withheld royalties turned into acrimony and lawsuits, and then there was the whole Negativland/U2 debacle (see further reading for details).
But let’s not focus on the business side of things – we’re here for the music. SST’s core bands either influenced or played a big part in the alternative rock scene of the 80/90s (no SST = No Nirvana) and Greg Ginn’s DIY attitude inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps by creating their own independent labels.