In the conflicting age of aspiration and economic misery we’re currently enduring, most people probably wouldn’t begrudge their favourite artist somehow managing to make a living doing what they love – chance would be a fine thing. In the 90s and 00s, however, it was treated like a picket line that, once crossed, sealed you into your chosen side with an invisible fence of hostility.
This was especially true for punk scenes in the United States, which – following the unprecedented success of Nirvana’s Nevermind – found themselves being ransacked for talent by A&Rs who suddenly saw the lucrative potential in loud, angry, anti-establishment acts. As with grunge, some major label figures had a genuine interest and belief in punk. Others, not so much. Meanwhile, those who had been keeping their communities alive since commercial interest in punk died down the first time around treated the whole situation with an understandable landslide of suspicion. These were two economies that did not interact naturally, and it was bands who typically found themselves in the middle, being pulled apart by a single insult containing all the rage and resentment of an era: “SELLOUT!”
It’s a phenomenon that Dan Ozzi unpacks in his forthcoming book SELLOUT: The major label feeding frenzy that swept punk, emo and hardcore 1994 – 2007. Collating first hand experiences from people who were there at the time – artists, managers, friends, fans, label heads and A&Rs – Ozzi uses the stories of 11 bands and their major label debuts to document a decade of music history that has gone largely unexamined. From Green Day’s Dookie to Against Me!’s New Wave by way of Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, Blink-182, At The Drive-In, The Donnas, Thursday, The Distillers, My Chemical Romance and Rise Against, no two trajectories are the same. The book is structured so that each chapter functions in isolation, but when read front to back SELLOUT presents a fluid timeline of events that follows punk on its conflicting journey through the mainstream.
Ahead of the release of SELLOUT, we spoke to Dan about the relationship between punk scenes and major labels at the time, how My Chemical Romance foreshadowed the shape of the music business in the internet age, and whether it’s even possible to “sell out” anymore.
VICE: The story of each band is very different, which is kind of a sticking point in each of their careers: either the industry or the band expects to follow the trajectory of the last big thing, and that doesn’t really happen. But what is clear is that each band paved the way for the next. I'm sure there's plenty of albums you could have talked about and didn't, but do you see the stories you have told as being inextricably linked?
Dan Ozzi: I think that a lot of people are gonna pick up the book and just read the chapters about the two bands that they love, and that's fine. It's geared for you to do it in such a way. However, it was written as one story and I think if you read it start to finish, it is much more of a rewarding experience. I broke everything down and tried to connect all the chapters together somehow to keep it in the framework of one story, so that after somebody finishes it they understand why they read the book and [don’t feel like] I just threw 11 random bands in there.
How did you land on the bands you chose to bookend things: Green Day to start, and Against Me! to close?
When I was helping Laura from Against Me! write her memoir, she mentioned that she got into punk because the first show that she ever saw was Green Day. So to me that was a full circle moment that I kind of put a pin in, in my mind. Green Day had to be the first chapter because they kicked off this huge international interest in this sort of punky sound, and Against Me! had to end it because this woman who had seen them at 13 started a band and tried to follow that same track.
I say in the epilogue of the book that Against Me! will probably be the last band from the punk world that would get a chance to sign to a major label. People have pointed out that The Gaslight Anthem did proceed them, but to me that fervour and that anger about selling out did end with Against Me! because they just got it so hard. It was really bad against Green Day too, but Green Day was just like a rocket ship and, as Andre 3000 once said, “spaceships don't come equipped with rear view mirrors” – you couldn't really see the haters in the background. But Against Me! were grinding a bit more, and so I think they felt it so much harder. So to me, I kind of see Against Me! as closing the door on that era of getting backlash from your fanbase about what label you went to.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about how the concept of ‘selling out’ has evolved over time, and I think you’re right in saying that it isn’t something fans really care about anymore. Why do you think that is?
I've been thinking about this a lot, and I think in the context of music we don't see that word get used as much anymore because, you know... to sell out, somebody has to be willing to buy. And I just don't think that like record labels see a lot of profit in punk or emo or hardcore right now. Travis Barker and Machine Gun Kelly are sort of the exceptions, but I don't think they're giving a million bucks to some band on Polyvinyl to make a huge record.
But you do still see that word come up in different contexts. Two times recently where I've seen it come up a lot is [US Senator] Kyrsten Sinema, who ran as this progressive candidate and has basically sold out to pharmaceutical companies. The other is that Twitch streamer Hasan Piker, who has an audience that he talks to a lot about anti-capitalist rhetoric, the need for Medicare for all – very leftist ideology. Then he bought a house in Hollywood for two million dollars. For the record, I'm sure it's just a normal looking house. Two million dollars in Hollywood isn’t gonna get you a mansion. But people see the price tag and they're just like, ‘Oh, this guy's a fucking sellout, he's talking about anti-capitalist shit on his Twitch stream and then he goes and buys a mansion’.
Wherever there’s money flowing, I think people are still ready to call people out on [what they see as] abandoning their morals. It's just that, in the music industry, it's so much harder for indie bands to make that money that we're given a bit more grace than we were ten or 15 years ago.
The one artist I can think of who has caught some heat in that respect is Grimes, and it hasn’t been for signing to a major label – which she did recently – it's been for what people see as a different form of compromising her political beliefs, which is marrying a billionaire tech bro in the universe.
Right! I think there was more opportunity in the time that I document to be called a sellout because there were major labels interested in bands like this – and some bands made it a point of pride to stand on stage and be like, ‘Hey, we're never gonna sell to a major label, fuck all these slimy A&R guys!’ And people would applaud for them, and it emboldened their connection to their fans. So when that band did go and sign on the dotted line, people were right to call them out.
Now, it would be really weird if you went to an indie show and the band was like ‘We're never gonna sign to a major label!’ because you’d just be in the audience like ‘Well, yeah, who's gonna sign you?! Of course not.’ So I think bands did some of that to themselves, they put the target on their backs. As much as I love Against Me!, Fat Mike does point out in the book that they made an entire documentary about how they didn't want to sign to a major label – and then, within six months, they went and did it. You can’t have it both ways.
The most heartbreaking parts in the book are really where people's ideals and ethical codes bump so forcefully up against things they consider to be in opposition to them. That tension is very apparent in the Jawbreaker story. Would you say it's a case of the stricter the code the bigger the fall, in a sense?
I think Jawbreaker had another thing working against them that made them fall a little bit harder, which was that they were in the same track as Nirvana and Green Day in a lot of cases. This guy Mark Kates, who worked with Nirvana at Geffen, also signed Jawbreaker to Geffen, and so he thought he had that knowledge of how to make a band like that work. Similarly, I think the label must have seen what had made Green Day successful and tried to duplicate that. Like: here's this trio from Berkeley – let's get the same producer, the same engineer, the same video director, let's just put them into the Green Day model. I love Green Day and Jawbreaker so much, but they're very different bands. Green Day write songs that belong on the radio, songs that my mum would probably know, and Dear You is more complex. It’s brilliant, but it doesn’t necessarily fit on the radio the way “When I Come Around” does. So to try to take a band and just mash them into the mould that had worked well... I think that was a real learning lesson for a lot of record labels that maybe success is not duplicable.
I laughed when you mentioned “Tubthumping”, the accidental hit by anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba. I don't know if this came up much but I wonder if you have any thoughts on how "selling out" as a concept differed in the US compared to elsewhere?
It does seem like the concept of the ‘rock star’ is different in America. I feel like in the UK, [the music press] is very tabloidy. You guys give them nicknames and do these sort of cheeky headlines about ‘ooh who’s Noel Gallagher fancying about with then’. I don't know how we necessarily treat them here, but it does seem like you guys are more playful with your celebrities, whereas we’re very serious – especially the punk scene.
We don't like to let people get too big for their boots, you see. Another thing the book touches on is that it isn't always a case of major label = bad, everything else = good. There are various characters throughout the book who don't exactly have people's best interests at heart. Was that nuance something you were keen to bring?
A book about indie’s versus majors would be very boring to me. I didn't want to get trapped into that binary, and the more I talked to people the more I realised that [binary] is a misconception. There were some bands who all told me the exact same thing, which is that ‘the indie label is going to do right by you and the major label is going to fuck you over’ isn’t always the case.
There's indie labels who don't have your best interest at heart – and not even in a malicious way. Sometimes indie labels don't know how to handle accounting stuff, for example. It's kids running it sometimes, and so it's not always like the most reliable way to get royalty statements. On the other hand I have friends that were on major labels and still get paid like clockwork from them. So I really wanted to dispel the myth that one is not inherently good, and one is not inherently bad. There are definitely varying situations.
Is there a particular chapter that you think tells the story of how the underground-to-major pipeline functions today?
Absolutely: My Chemical Romance. I knew I had to have them in the book because they really are, in my opinion, pioneers of what the music industry would become in the internet age. I didn’t realise this until I was researching the book, but they were so good at it that their strategy and the label’s strategy for pushing their album out, was so effective that it was cited in a business book.
Basically, what would happen traditionally, would be that the label would pick a single and it would push it out to kids on the radio or whatever and be like, ‘Here's what you like this year, kids’. And sometimes it worked, and sometimes the kids hated it and then that was the end of the band. But My Chem was interesting in that the label essentially seeded the songs onto sites like PureVolume and AbsolutePunk, and they would just watch the numbers and see what was resonating with kids. Then they’d be like ‘Oh Helena is the one that's popping off, that's gonna be the next single.’
So My Chem I think was really revolutionary in that instead of just dictating what kids should listen to, the label finally just monitored what they already like and followed that. They let the fans lead the marketing strategy.
If major labels do end up taking an interest in punk again, do you think the ‘sellout’ sentiment would make a comeback along with it?
Say that it did happen now. Say Turnstile became mega huge and it inspired a bunch of labels to be interested in bands like them – it would be such a different dynamic. After commercial interest in punk died down in the late 70s, punk kept going without major labels by creating this DIY network of indie venues, promoters, record labels and fanzines. For like a decade this indie network was just running autonomously, and that's why they got really protective of it when Nirvana and then Green Day popped off. That's why there was such fervour over it. It was like ‘You're not gonna buy this thing that we've spent a decade building’.
Now, we're in a situation where even our indie and DIY institutions have some corporate claws in them. Like yeah, we'll have indie bands with their indie promoters selling their records made by their indie label – but LiveNation is getting a cut of it, or Spotify is getting a cut of it. It's not like we have this pure scene anymore that we can't let one drop of blood into the water. It's very muddy now. And I think it's a lot harder to protect that, because corporate marauders already have their hands in it.
SELLOUT will be released through Mariner Books at Harper Collins on the 26th of October. You can pre-order it here.