The 2021 book Sellout by Dan Ozzi covers the major label debuts of eleven Punk/Hardcore/Emo bands from the 90s to 00s, how they got there and how it went.
In terms of musical era and style, this lands firmly in my teenage and student years. So, with one exception, I’d certainly heard of all the bands before, even if in some cases I wasn’t familiar with all of their material.
Reading the histories of each of the bands, it doesn’t look like the signing to a major label had a huge effect on its own, it was more in combination with other factors already at play. In most cases existing problems in the band were amplified by the new pressure to be successful and sell lots of records; first to prove that they were worth it, and second to try and recoup the money the record label had just spent on them.
Those bands that suffered the most after signing to a major label already had other issues. Jawbreaker and At The Drive-In were already exhausted and on the verge of collapse, the change to a major label didn’t help, but I also don’t think not doing so would have helped them much. They would probably have dissolved anyway. Jawbreaker had an especially difficult time, because of their previously strong pro-independence stance.
Bands like My Chemical Romance and Blink-182 didn’t seem particularly affected, the latter even less as they had never claimed to be particularly ‘independent’ and we’re very up front about being happy to get help in marketing their music.
While some bands did get a rough ride from their scene for signing with a major, like Green Day and the Distillers it’s hard to attribute this some move as being strongly linked to what happened next. In Green Day’s case it was clear that Lookout Records was not big enough an operation to deal with their success, and so moving to a major label seems like the only real option, and it clearly looks to have been the right move, both for their careers and for their ability to reach a larger audience, helping to make Dookie the mega-hit that it is.
One example that shows how different these effects can be is the story of Jimmy Eat World, who coming from Mesa Arizona were not part of a large local scene that they could ‘sell out’, and they managed to get a modest major label deal very early in their career. This allowed them to make a good quality first real record, Static Prevails, before they had built a fan base outside of their region. This record didn’t lead to any particular success on its own. They still had to tour relentlessly and unglamorously, while being on Capitol Records, to be seen and to build a following. The critical thing the record deal gave them was a second album, an opportunity they used, convinced it would be their last, to record the amazing Clarity, a record so different and varied to any other album of the time in the Emo/Hardcore/Punk scene. Without the conviction that they would be let go at any moment, they may not have attempted such an ambitious album, and we would all be much poorer for it. As predicted they were then dropped by their label after that album, and before their greatest commercial success with Bleed Amercian. In each case the results are largely down to what the band does with the opportunity they’re given, and luck, than the opportunity itself.
All these histories are very interesting, not only on their own, but in comparison - how did the different bands deal with the same issues? but the book does struggle to find any major narrative linking the various bands or events.
There is also a lot of survivorship bias in the stories, given that all the bands had some level of success, even those that imploded quickly afterwards. There are probably countless other examples of bands who were signed to a major label, but didn’t get anywhere at all; or worse, recorded their record, which was then locked away and never released, as printing and releasing it would have cost the label more money they didn’t think they’d ever get back.
Given the title there is very little discussion of what ‘selling out’ exactly is, and why in these musical scenes it has such a negative association. Perhaps because it’s a very vague concept, meaning different things to different people. In Rise Against’s experience, coming from a very independent minded Chicago hardcore scene, not hand printing their own album covers was already selling out by some.
It would have been really interesting to dive a bit into this scene specific cultural taboo - where did it come from, why does it exist?1 Perhaps compare the situation in other genres and scenes; do you have the same taboo in hip-hop, electronica or folk? If not, why not? Bob Dylan was famously booed for going electric, and breaking with the acoustic folk tradition from which he’d grown - but is that a related social phenomenon, or something separate?
The narrative the book does that include is the changes in the record industry during this time, and how streaming music and the internet undercut the labels’ power, and their ability to make money. Starting with Green Day, a major label was the only way to get your music out, promoted and heard, at any scale. By the time My Chemical Romance are approaching their deal, most of their fan base was grown on the internet. Fewer bands and artists now chase the idea of a major label, partly because they can offer less money than they did before, and partly because of the direct engagement between the band and fans via the internet, means a lot of the traditional promotion that a larger label would do has been replaced. You don’t need to pay someone in a city you’ve never seen to hand gig posters to try and drum up an audience. Now you’d do it online.
While this theme is woven through the stories of the various bands, it’s also never really discussed as a stand alone topic, each chapter is focused on one band. This thread rarely makes it beyond a side observation to give context to the situation the labels were in when they were trying to sign the particular band we’re currently reading about. Perhaps that’s all it needs to be, and the focus is very much on the bands, but it does make the book a series of short stories, not one narrative.
As a collection on band histories, it’s a fascinating read. If you know any of the bands and interested in learning more about them, or putting some of their music in the context in which it was created, then it’s certainly worth your time. If you’re looking for something a bit more coherent or in depth either on the nature of emo/hardcore/punk scene, or the changing nature of the record industry in the last thirty years, it will leave you wanting more.