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Book Review: 'Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore 1994-2007'

The title of 'Sellout' is somewhat ironic; author Dan Ozzi notes that after Nirvana, major-label deals weren’t as reputationally fraught as they were for ‘80s punks like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
The title of 'Sellout' is somewhat ironic; author Dan Ozzi notes that after Nirvana, major-label deals weren’t as reputationally fraught as they were for ‘80s punks like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

December 02, 2021

You might be tempted to grab Dan Ozzi’s new book Sellout as a holiday gift for a young punk rocker on your list, so they can learn from their elders if and when they ever have the opportunity to sell out themselves. A word of caution, though: they’re probably never going to have that option.

“Against Me! might be the last punk band a major label ever cuts a check for a million dollars,” writes Ozzi in an epilogue, before going on to acknowledge that’s in large part because no label has seven-figure checks to toss around the way they did in the salad days of the pre-Napster era. Major labels still exist, and they have new ways to flex their muscle in a streaming world, but there will never again in the foreseeable future be the before-and-after transformation experienced by the bands chronicled in Sellout.

The book’s title is somewhat ironic; Ozzi notes that after Nirvana, major-label deals weren’t as reputationally fraught as they were for ‘80s punks like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. The irony lies in the fact that, as Ozzi writes, those bands never had much chance to move millions of units. They “were viewed internally at labels as prestige signings - a way for a company to buy themselves some cred and win the respect of critics.”

The book, which covers 11 bands chronologically, starts with Green Day, who were thriving on the indie label Lookout Records when Nevermind blew up. The label’s co-founder Larry Livermore tells Ozzi that Billie Joe Armstrong wasn’t exactly angst-ridden at Green Day’s decision to sign with Reprise Records. “Don’t worry,” Armstrong told Livermore. “We’re gonna be fine.”

That, of course, is an understatement. Green Day’s 1994 Reprise debut Dookie came as a balm to MTV and to radio programmers who recognized the continuing appeal of guitar-driven punk but who weren’t sure just how long they could lean on the dour genre of grunge. “It reminded me of the Beatles meet the Buzzcocks, with a little of the Sex Pistols’ snotty attitude,” remembers Dookie producer Rob Cavallo. The great rock ‘n’ roll swindle was about to up the ante.

Although their major label signing got them banned from the indie-obsessed Bay Area club where they’d cut their teeth, Green Day didn’t look back - and, in fact, neither do most of the artists Ozzi spoke with. They all experienced growing pains, but in Sellout the major labels don’t come off as the problem. Creative differences, substance abuse, and identity crises all were in play - and, significantly, Sellout is surprisingly free of the scenario where a label forces a band to work with an ill-suited producer. By and large, these bands are all pleased with their major label debuts; or, at least, they don’t think they could have made better albums at the time.

One telling anecdote comes from one of the book’s lack-of-success stories, Jawbreaker: recognized today as emo pioneers, but seen as commercial disappointments when their DGC debut Dear You dropped in 1995. Frontman Blake Schwartzenbach remembers stepping from Jawbreaker’s candlelit studio into the “fraternity party” atmosphere Rancid were cultivating in the same complex. “I work furtively in the shadows, and try to get an honest take when no one’s looking,” Schwartzenbach tells Ozzi. Rancid “had a showbiz attitude, they were so confident and in their zone, and we were trembling and melting down. It was pretty clear to me in that moment that I was totally not geared for this kind of business.”

Nor were the bands’ fans altogether heroic. As punk rose in popularity, bands started encountering crowds radiating the kind of toxic energy that infected the infamous Woodstock 99 festival: less diverse and inclusive than the indie crowds that nurtured the bands in their early years, more entitled and pointlessly raging. Bands like the Donnas found new opportunities even as they faced the same sexism their predecessors fought; punk bands were playing Total Request Live, but also facing the kind of tabloid attention that media exposure brought, as when the Distillers’ Brody Dalle divorced her husband (a member of Rancid) and took up with Josh Homme. “Move Over, Courtney Love,” read a headline in The Guardian. “The Rock World Has a New Woman It Loves To Hate.”

Even if Jawbreaker never made it big, emo became the new wave of punk rock as the record industry’s power peaked at the turn of the millennium. If you’ve dismissed My Chemical Romance as pretentious poster children, Sellout might inspire you to revisit their catalog; Ozzi portrays them as a pivotal band who rose to popularity as much despite their major label deal as because of it. They built MySpace buzz before most labels knew what to do with the site; fortunately for Gerard Way and company, Reprise was savvier than most labels and wooed fans to online platforms with exclusive tracks, monitoring feedback when selecting singles to push on record and radio.

My Chemical Romance, with their gender-fluid style and restless creativity, also pointed the way toward a return to punk’s inclusive roots. As the bottom fell out of an industry struggling to pivot from CD to streaming, the next generation of punks would rise up through a system that assumed they and their fans would do the heavy lifting; while they couldn’t replace the gilded perks that $18 jewel boxes bought, the fans did nurture a resurgent indie ecosystem built on live shows and multi-platform engagement.

(In one of the book’s most wince-inducing episodes, the Donnas recall a disastrous DualDisc release - music on one side, DVD content on the other - of their album Gold Medal. When one track turned out to be faulty on every single copy of the release, Atlantic allowed fans to trade their DualDiscs in for good old-fashioned compact discs. “Feel free to keep the special black velvet limited edition cover.”)

If terms like “multi-platform engagement” make today’s punks wince - perhaps including that young punk on your gift list - Sellout at least might reassure them that being responsible for your own marketing isn’t an entirely unwelcome alternative to dropping a disc with the stakes being Green Day or nothing.

The book’s final chapter is devoted to Against Me!, who held out against major label offers for an unusually long time before taking that last, legendary million-dollar check. Their Sire debut, New Wave (2007), sold a mere 107,000 copies; their follow-up, White Crosses (2010), was leaked online and faltered. When the band walked out of a frustrating meeting where it became clear Sire wouldn’t be picking up its option for a third album, the label’s new darlings Linkin Park were in the waiting room. Against Me! leader Laura Jane Grace would become a legend - but on her own terms, not the industry’s. After the Sellout years, she didn’t have a choice.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club Picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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