“This idea of selling out is in the past” – Dan Ozzi talks new book on punk bands’ major label debuts
Pre-order SELLOUT: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007) in our store.
Of all the many great books that exist on first-wave '70s punk and '80s hardcore, there actually aren't that many that document punk's most popular era: the mid '90s through the mid 2000s. Maybe it's because that era produced so many bands that weren't taken as seriously as their '70s and '80s forebears, but it's a crucial piece of punk history that deserves proper documentation. And that's exactly what Dan Ozzi has done with his new book SELLOUT: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007), which documents the major label debuts by 11 iconic punk bands, beginning with the major label debut that kicked off the punk explosion, Green Day's 1994 LP Dookie, and it ends with the last major label debut album that fueled ire within the punk community, Against Me!'s 2007 LP New Wave. (Dan previously co-authored Tranny, the memoir by Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace.) In between, it documents major label debuts by Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, blink-182, At the Drive In, The Donnas, Thursday, The Distillers, My Chemical Romance, and Rise Against.
The first chapter is on Dookie, though technically the book opens by talking about Nirvana's Nevermind, as the story really does begin there. Nevermind opened the doors for major labels to be scouring the world of aggressive, guitar-based music looking for the next big thing, but just as the grunge fire was fading, Dookie turned the majors' attention towards catchy, punchy punk rock. Eventually that led to the popularity of emo, melodic hardcore, and post-hardcore, all of which this book covers.
As tempting as it may be to skip to the chapter on your favorite band, SELLOUT is best read from start to finish, as it really does tell one story throughout. People reappear, as some of these bands were scouted and signed by the same A&R reps, or started out on the same independent labels as each other, or crossed paths in other ways. Jimmy Eat World's chapter largely focuses on Static Prevails, their 1996 major label debut, but they reappear in the My Chemical Romance chapter, when a young MCR opened for Jimmy Eat World as they were supporting their massive 2001 breakout LP Bleed American. Thursday's Geoff Rickly (who's pictured on the cover of the book) is just as crucial to the My Chemical Romance chapter as he is to the chapter on his own band. The impact of Dookie is inseparable from the story of Jawbreaker's major label debut. In the chapter on blink-182's Dude Ranch, Mark Hoppus talks about wanting to record with whoever produced Jimmy Eat World's Static Prevails (aka Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino). The Donnas became the second band after Green Day to jump from Lookout! Records to a major. One of Against Me!'s major tours was a Fat Wreck Chords package tour headlined by Anti-Flag, a tour which also included Rise Against. So on and so forth.
As chronicled in the book, many of these bands faced tons of backlash from the punk community when they signed to a major, and as Dan Ozzi puts it, the line between major label punk bands and indie label punk bands in the '90s and 2000s "was the dividing line in that entire era." But now, over a decade since the last album documented in the book, major labels aren't really scooping up punk bands anymore and criticisms of "selling out" don't really exist like they did in the '90s and 2000s. We're now far enough removed from that era that we can look back on it a little more objectively, and SELLOUT does a great job of showing that major labels weren't always the enemy, and that they were often staffed by people who really believed in these bands and who could really do great things for their careers. The book of course tells the stories of bands who imploded under major label pressure (like Jawbreaker and At the Drive In), but it also tells the story of a band like Rise Against, who worked their asses off until a financial push from Geffen changed their lives forever.
Dan is a punk lover and expert who lived through this era in real time, and his enthusiasm throughout the book is addictive, but SELLOUT also succeeds because it doesn't sway you think one way or another. It doesn't paint major labels as the enemy of punk or the saviors; it just tells a fascinating history of an era of punk that can't be talked about without diving into the impact of major labels. Whether you saw Green Day at Gilman or just casually hummed along to "What's My Age Again?" on the radio, there's something in this book that will grab you.
SELLOUT comes out October 26 via HMH Books & Media (pre-order), and there's also an accompanying photo book, Major Label Debut. Ahead of the release, I caught up with Dan to discuss the "sellout" premise, what went into choosing the 11 bands featured in the book, demystifying the role that major labels played in punk, the difference between a major label debut and a "sellout album," albums he wished he could have included, why the book ends with Against Me!, and more. Read on for our chat...
The idea for the book at least somewhat dates back to your 2015 Noisey article on punk bands' major label debuts, though obviously you took the book in a more serious direction. At what point did it hit you that the premise of that article could be turned into an in-depth book?
Growing up through the era of punk that I did, that major label controversy was something that was just like omnipresent among my fellow music fans and friends, so I feel like that idea of bands selling out was such a culturally ubiquitous thing that somebody just had to like, pull out of the air. And then I realized that it had never really gotten any proper documentation; it was always hearsay or gossip or shit-talking on the internet, but nobody had ever really explored the reasonings behind these deals. So that was kind of what prompted me to turn it into a book.
You mentioned on your Substack that this era of punk is kind of underrepresented in the history books, but when it came to writing a book, what drew you to the selling out and signing to a major narrative, rather than just a history of '90s and 2000s punk?
I feel like that was the dividing line in that entire era. It really started I think with Green Day, and things were never really the same after that. I think maybe I said in the intro of the book, that like, a lot of punk bands hated major labels throughout the '80s but it was almost more in theory than in practice, because major labels weren't actually interested in punk bands in the '80s, you know? Like it was a cool flag that punk bands got to fly, like "yeah, fuck Capitol Records!" or whatever, but then after Green Day, it actually became real and tangible. And then a lot of the more aggro punks drew a line and had no tolerance for major labels. So I just feel like whether a band was a major label band or an indie label band was such a dividing line in the scene at that time. So it kind of seems impossible to document this time without mentioning the commercial success that it enjoyed.
You lived through this era of punk, but what were some surprising things you learned when doing the research for the book?
Living through this as a teenager and a young person -- like, anytime you heard the phrase "major label" or "A&R rep" or something like that, you just had this like shadowy image in your mind, you know? Just like a vague enemy, a vampire. But now being a little bit older and having worked in some capacity in the music industry, you understand that there are just actual people who really do care about this kind of music and about helping bands like this, so one of the most surprising things was just to talk to these actual A&R guys who worked for Capitol or whatever it was, and you're just like, "Oh, you're not some shiesty motherfucker" -- I mean in some cases they were -- but a lot of times it was just guys who came from the hardcore scene, who maybe even used to be in bands or on Revelation Records or whatever, and they just really cared about this music and they really wanted to help bands get bigger. So that was one of the more interesting things, just like demystifying this vague, shadowy major label world that I had feared and hated my entire life.
Yeah, and the book even kind of demystifies that too. Like you'll see as it goes on that some of the comparatively younger bands got signed by the same A&R reps from earlier chapters, and they're like, "Oh, you signed some of the bands that we grew up listening to."
Yeah, and like, Jawbreaker is the second chapter of the book and that was like a real wake-up moment for punks, where it was like, "Whoa, this experiment could go really bad for people," but then like a decade later, when say Thursday went to a major label, people felt like they had learned the lessons of Jawbreaker -- not just the bands but the people working at the major labels, some of whom maybe really loved Jawbreaker back in the day and now they have a job at Capitol or whatever. It almost like crossed a generation, where we saw what happened and then tried to improve upon it.
One of the things that really stuck with me from the book was in the Rise Against chapter, how Geffen pretty much let Rise Against just be Rise Against until they started to notice the band's work ethic and that they were keeping a steady fanbase, and then poured money into the single, rather than rushing them into something and then dropping them if they failed.
Yeah, I think, you know, obviously record labels are in the business of making money, and they tend to put gasoline where the kindling is. So something that's said in the book a lot by many people is that record labels put out like 100 records a year, and the president only gives a shit about the two that are doing well. So in a case like Rise Against, yeah I'm sure the president of their label didn't even know who they were, until they started looking at the SoundScan numbers, and they're like, "Wait, this band that we put no money into seems to be selling how many copies on their own? Maybe let's put some marketing money into them." So I think all these bands that signed to major labels thinking the people who worked there were just going to make them into stars were really naive. The ones that seemed to do the best were the best that went to a major label and were like "We're gonna work really hard until the boss takes notice." And Rise Against is probably the best example of that, workhorses who eventually did well enough to get the attention of people who could loosen the purse strings.
We've all heard the criticisms that get thrown at major labels, but I think your book also shows what these labels really could do for these bands. What would you say were some of the good things about punk bands signing to majors?
To preface that, I will say that something more than one person told me, and I think gets implied or directly said in the book, is that the myth was that the indie label was gonna do right by you, and the major label is gonna fuck you over. But there were a lot of experiences where the independent labels were not always watching out for the artists' best interests either. And they're often run by people who don't have the best grasp on accounting files and royalties and things like that, so that was one of the things that got demystified for me, was that the indie label does not always have your best interest in mind either.
And then to answer your question, it seemed to be the things that drew bands to bigger labels were 1) international distribution -- which was something that smaller labels often were not able to do -- and 2) the radio. The radio is just this like, vague, weird machine that unless you have a man on the inside, you're just not gonna translate to radio. A couple indies have done it, but it's a lot harder for them I think than a major label. So those seem to be the two things that really drew people to majors.
In the Noisey article, for blink-182 you had included Enema of the State, whereas the book focuses on Dude Ranch, which obviously is technically their major label debut, but also Enema is their "sellout" album. And similarly, Static Prevails was Jimmy Eat World's major label debut, but I think fans would've said Bleed American was their sellout album. So I was wondering, did you kind of struggle with or consider the difference between the major label debut and the "sellout album"?
Yeah, for sure, and those are the two definitive examples of that. But, the book is hanged on the premise that I'm going to cover the major label debut album, regardless of how the fans felt about which one was the sellout one or which one ended up being the breakout album. But the cool thing about the book is that since it is so long and kind of intertwined -- like, the Jimmy Eat World chapter does largely led up to Static Prevails, but then I had some pages on Clarity, and then later in the book -- I think in the My Chem chapter -- I got to cover Bleed American, to show how far they came in the time covered in the book. blink too, like that chapter is largely leading up to Dude Ranch, but then, the end section is all about Enema and how it had an even crazier success with MTV and became a pop culture phenomenon. So of course I couldn't leave those in the dark, but Static Prevails and Dude Ranch had to be the linchpins because of the premise of the book.
The book ends with Against Me!'s New Wave, and you end by saying that's sort of the end of the era of punk bands jumping to majors. So, music nerd that I am, my first instinct was to try to think of an exception.
I have one that you might say, but go ahead.
So I was wondering if you considered The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten.
Aha! I knew that was gonna be the one. You know what, that's an interesting story and I don't wanna create too much gossip, but The Gaslight Anthem and Against Me! I believe shared a manager at that time, and I feel like one almost led to another. Like those two were not anomalies of each other, I think they were sort of interconnected in that way. But on that note, was anybody really mad about The Gaslight Anthem doing a major label deal? I don't know that they were. It seemed like Against Me! was the last of that anti-sellout fervor, because so many of their lyrics had been about priding themselves on DIY ethos, they even made a documentary about how they were never going to a major. And so to me, that was the last one that people got really mad about. Maybe The Gaslight Anthem did get some blowback, but I don't really remember it as fiercely as New Wave did.
No I think that's true and a good point. I mean, the anger for Against Me! signing was so loud.
And I wanna say on the record, I was one of those kids! I've talked to Laura about this, I still don't like New Wave as an album [laughs]. I love Against Me! so much, like one of the most important bands of my life, and I was one of those kids -- I was actually thinking the other day about how when CBGB had their last shows, they did these crazy underplay shows and Against Me! did one, and I remember trying to get tickets on Ticketweb, like refreshing the page over and over again and not being able to get tickets. And I remember being so mad at, like, losing my grasp on this band. Like that's what it felt like. I've been thinking a lot about how this era of being angry at a band for selling out, you know, like you can cling to this ideology of "Oh, you know, these huge corporations that control the world are buying up our scene," and yes, I think there is legitimacy to that, but really I think it comes down to people were just bummed on a personal level. Like, this band that I loved and I used to see at this little VFW hall -- I can't afford to go see them now. People were just bummed on a personal level, and I felt that with Against Me!. So I think everybody likes to talk this punk ethos, but I think really it just comes down to it just hurt that your favorite band was being taken away from you in a way.
The Noisey article has way more albums than the book, so I was wondering, what went into the process of narrowing it down to the 11 that you chose, and are there any you wished you could have included but for whatever reason couldn't?
The book goes from 1994 to 2007, and in ideal world, I would've had an album every year or so, and I came pretty close to that. So there were a couple of Sophie's choices where I had maybe three albums in one year that I wanted to cover and I had to cut and just decide on one. Cave In's Antenna was one that I really wanted to dig into, because what a crazy story, right? They went from being this like, proto-metalcore/hardcore band to this like space rock band to a band just trying to make this radio rock single for RCA that never panned out, so that was one that I really wanted to cover and I didn't get to. Anti-Flag is another crazy story where they were like courted by Rick Rubin. And by the way, I should mention too that I did do a lot of these interviews, and I'm gonna start running them on my newsletter, so cutting room floor stuff that didn't make it into the book will have a home eventually. But those were ones that I wanted to cover. And also, I wanted to have a good mix of genre, like keeping it within the frame of punk but seeing how it went from emo to hardcore... and I did not get to ska but it would've been cool to throw Less Than Jake or Reel Big Fish in there. And I wanted to have a little bit of diversity with gender; I knew I wanted The Distillers and The Donnas in there for that reason. So yeah, I tried to make it a pretty well-rounded book, and sometimes I think that hurts the book, like I think that some people who might pick up the book because there's a chapter on Jawbreaker or At the Drive In might look down their nose at the fact that there's a My Chem chapter or something like that, but I tried to link it all and so how actually this one crazy explosion that happened in 1994 with Dookie led to all these residual effects for the next 13 or so years.
I'm glad you're doing the cutting room floor interviews. Having just watched the documentary, one of the ones I would love to read about is Anti-Flag.
You know who else is another one too? I just did a podcast episode with him, which again I'll put in my newsletter: Texas Is The Reason has one of the craziest major label stories I've ever heard in my fucking life. I felt bad that I didn't include it after I heard it, but the album technically was never made. It was a very close near-miss, so I guess it technically wouldn't have even fit into the book. It got away on a technicality. The two-sentence version is they basically got two and a half million dollars and then at the very last minute they were like, "Nevermind, we don't wanna do it."
For the chapters you did include, was there anyone you tried to interview for the book but couldn't?
Yeah, and I'm hesitant to say which because to me those are the weak spots in the book, so I don't wanna give that away for readers because maybe readers won't care. But I will say this: any time somebody turned me down -- it was usually polite -- but that lit something in me where I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna overcompensate for this so much. Like I couldn't talk to this one person I wanted to talk to, so I'm gonna go and get three other people who knew you, or something like that, to give even more depth to it." I took those rejections as like personal failures, and a challenge to be like, "Okay now I'm gonna research this even more."
For the past few years, it's seemed like we lived through the era where punk was popular and it's never gonna be popular again, but now there's the whole thing with Travis Barker and people like Machine Gun Kelly bringing pop punk back to the mainstream. I was wondering your thoughts on if that could lead to another mainstream punk boom.
I don't know if I can predict where it's going to go in the future, however I will say that I think this idea of selling out... it seemed like now was a good time for me to document it because I feel like that part of it is in the past. I'm curious to see how this book will do among different generations, because when I talk to young bands now, they don't know what the hell I'm talking about sometimes. There was a punk band I knew that a couple years ago -- I think Dr. Martens or Vans or something like that was like, "Hey we'll give you six grand if you go play two shows in South Africa and film it and we put our logo on your flyer," and they were like "Fuck yeah, because then we get to go to South Africa!" But like in 1995, that would've gotten you run out of town! Having some brand's logo on your flyer. So I don't know where punk and the business behind it will go in the future, but I think that an era of it is effectively over, and that's why I thought it was time to document it.
Dan also has two book events coming up: one at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus Bar on November 6 at 2 PM, where he'll be in conversation with Thursday's Geoff Rickly, and one at LA's Permanent Records Roaddhouse on November 11 with Jonah Ray.