Unfortunately, there was still this notion that being ambitious was radioactive. Either you pretended you didn't have any ambitions, or you had them but you wouldn't admit it." –Chris Appelgren of Lookout! Records
This is the first quote that hit too close to home when I read Dan Ozzi’s new book Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994–2007). The book tells the story of 11 bands, from Green Day through Against Me!, who signed to major labels and thus had to reckon with the concept of selling out. It spans almost the exact timeframe of my teenage years, from when I first heard Green Day in the 6th grade, to when I first started a band after a conversation at an Against Me! show. The constant and strangely opposing threads in the local scene throughout that time were “DIY or die” and “trying is bad.” We would proudly do it all ourselves but never appear to want anything too much, lest we be called a sellout.
It took 15 years for someone to jump into the fray to try and sort out what actually happened to the so-called sellouts during that time. As a friend, Dan has been telling me about the writing process for the past two years, but I wasn’t able to read Sellout in full until after its release in late October. It’s something I had to mentally prepare myself for, knowing that the infighting and scene police would surely be difficult to re-live.
The book doesn’t take a hard stance on signing to a major, or have a harsh opinion of the fan backlash, but just the objective facts of what certain bands went through are as fascinating as they are sometimes cringey. Standing in the wake of the music industry's search for the next Nirvana, Sellout is a clear look at the rise of some of your favorite bands - Jimmy Eat World, The Distillers, Jawbreaker, and more - as they took a swing at the big leagues and had very different outcomes.
Last week I finally sat down with Dan to talk about the book and the concept of selling out, both then and now. We are not yet entirely cynical, but rest assured we covered the corporate consumption of punk, DIY with a publicist, and laughing hysterically at Emo Nite.
The first thing that hit me before even reading the book was that the time period it spans is our teenage years. That’s the period where you’re forming your relationship to music. Do you feel like that time period influenced your own career trajectory or the way you approach your involvement in music?
For sure. People keep asking why I chose this time period or this scene to write about and I keep relating it to the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which is about a guy who is kind of a dumbass, but he just knows all the answers to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? because he happened to live through it. It’s just very coincidental. That happened to me in that I’m not super smart, but I happen to live through this exact time that seems sort of historic. Write about what you know, right? It actually kind of scares me because it’s like “huh, I think I’m out! I think I’m out of material now!” I think that was the limitation of my knowledge and I have to start learning new stuff. My next book will take another 20 years.
That time period was so focused on bands selling out and whether or not you were participating in "the music industry." Did growing up during that time affect your feelings about making a living writing about music?
It’s weird because when I would write critically about bands or albums on the internet, sometimes you would hear was angry younger fans being like, “wow, you could’ve just said nothing.” Those kids now, they see something on Spotify and it’s free and they’ll listen to it and if it’s not for you, you can just move on with your day and never listen to it again and you don’t have to say anything or read about it. But us, I lived through a time where I was marketed to so heavily. Sometimes with BestBuy endcaps or ads in magazines, things were just pushed on you so relentlessly. They probably spent tens of thousands of dollars to get Victory Records releases in my face, so when you finally caved and said, “Ok, I’ll spend my $11 at BestBuy to get this CD that has been pushed in my face,” and you get it and it sucks, it made me mad. It made me feel slighted or tricked or something, so it made me more critical towards music. I think kids don’t have that now because like I said, you could just take it or leave it with most things. I have a jaundiced eye to things I’m supposed to like or that are supposedly popular.
A bullshit filter.
Absolutely. Especially growing up on the East Coast in New York, you have a massive bullshit detector, so that definitely translated into how I interpret music, especially popular music.
In the book, Chris Appelgren of Lookout Records has a quote where he says that people in the scene were either being ambitious or pretending that they weren’t. I’m curious what it was like asking people who are past that phase of music about that concept. Getting people to talk about whether or not they were openly ambitious at that time, or what it was like to have to pretend like you’re not ambitious when you’re being courted by labels.
It’s funny because now that the smoke has cleared, and I will talk to people now, especially people who wanted to stay staunchly indie and weren’t interested in going to a major–the two people I’m thinking of are Tim Kasher and Eric Richter from Christie Front Drive–they’re both like, “Yeah, we just wanted to be punk like Fugazi. But looking back it’s like, what were we thinking? I’m not sure that that was the right choice.” Now that the smoke has cleared and they have bills to pay it’s like, “Wait, why did I let myself be tempered by this set of ideals that somebody else made up for me?” It put this guilt on everybody.
Yeah, you were living by this set of ideals that other people were pressuring you to have even if inside you knew you wanted to sign to a major label. There was that scene pressure.
I think people are still pretty raw about it. I don’t know Green Day, but I think that that really shaped them over the next decade. If you look at how they operated. People are still on the defense about these decisions that they made forever ago. It leaves a burn. It leaves a sting.
I can’t get in anybody’s shoes per se but for a lot of people, it was their youth. What’s that saying like, “you stay the same age as when you got famous?” So I’m sure if people were going through that when they were young, it probably stayed with them for a long time. That sense of punk guilt.
Was there a main takeaway or regret that folks had about intersecting with major labels?
I think now everyone is old enough that they’ve had to consider their finances, so their mentality is a bit different. Also, they think about it in the sense that it could not happen today. 43-year-old front person whoever of whatever band could not just be like, “Hey, maybe Capitol Records will sign me.” It’s just not going to happen. So, the door is closed on that.
You want to hear if people are ashamed that they signed to a major label!
[laughs] No! I just feel like there must’ve been something in all of their minds like, “If I could go back to when I was 18 knowing what I know now,” what they would’ve done differently.
I did ask that question, “what would you do differently?” and a common answer was just I wish I would’ve enjoyed it more. You have so much pressure on yourself, you’re trying to do the things that the people in charge want you to do but it’s a rare and special time that will never happen again. I think a lot of people wish that they had been more in the moment. Whether you were on a major label or an indie label, your band was doing pretty well, you were 23, and you don’t get that time back. It’s the same way we all get wistful for our youth.
You mentioned the fact that the door is closed on that, but I enjoyed reading about specific A&R people who really seemed to love the music. You could tell that they were excited to help those bands. Like Loren Israel with Jimmy Eat World, he seemed almost like a geek about it. It made me curious if there’s still space for that at major labels today in the sense that A&R folks could say “I really like this indie rock pseudo punk band” and sign them to Warner.
Probably not, because it used to be based more on intuition. When you look at Jimmy Eat World, they hadn’t even sold 3,000 records. They were just out of high school, but there was just some guy at Capitol that really saw potential in them. And I don’t think anybody is ever gonna get signed based on weird A&R intuition. I think it’s based on: how many TikTok followers do you have? How many YouTube streams do you have? Great, we can make X dollars off of that. They just crunch the numbers. I say this in the epilogue that I think the roll of A&R is forever changed because of the period that followed this.
I think you mention in the book that now punk can be whatever you want it to be – ideally the spectrum is that you could be in a band on the weekends, or you could make it your career, and that’s all fine now. But there’s still a line and still a division there. Has there been feedback from more DIY folks, whether they’re in bands or fans, about your take on “selling out” that’s not super critical of it?
One of the things that I keep talking about is how the line that you’re talking about has blurred since the time, especially early like ’94, and now. Because in ‘94 there was this DIY punk network that developed over the '80s where there were independent clubs, independent labels, independent distributors and fanzines. Once Nirvana and then Green Day got popular, corporations started trying to buy that and so it was very easy to see what was “punk” and what had corporate money in it.
But now, even if you’re operating as what we would call an indie or a punk band, your music is probably on Spotify and they have a hand in it, you’re probably playing venues around the country that Live Nation has some handle in, so now it’s so hard for an indie band to operate in a strictly independent manner because Big Tech and these fucking big music corporations have their claws in everything. It’s so hard to keep the blood out of the water. It’s really hard to keep those lines separate and that’s why those punks in 1994 held the line so strong because they saw that once we start letting people buy part of our culture, we won’t own it anymore. And in a way, it happened, because you know, Tragedy is on Spotify.
They weren’t wrong!
In a way, I don’t know what the new rules are. Is it morally unethical to be a punk band and have your music on Spotify? Yes, you’re being exploited, but you’re going to be exploited elsewhere too. I don’t know where the line is now. In hindsight, it feels like the lines were a little more concrete back then.
If you want to play outside your town, inevitably you’re going to hit that wall.
It’s like why are you making it so difficult for yourself? I have so much respect for Aaron Cometbus and how offline he has been. But when you think about how much more of a readership he’d have if he played the game just a TINY bit, just having a website or something like that. At once I admire the hell out of him and am so frustrated by the fact that he could make it so much easier on himself if he embraced this new world just a teeny tiny bit.
I see that of our friends who are of his generation, too. It’s not even some staunch anti-website thing, they just don’t involve themselves in that or social media. But it’s like, your tour would be so much easier if you just had an Instagram account or something. More people would know that you’re here if you told anyone. But then there’s also the part of me that really respects that and I wish that I could get off of social media. There's no one right way.
There needs to be a punk internet. We need a Book Your Own Fucking Life app [laughs]. Who’s gonna make that? Lauren, I just gave you a million-dollar idea.
Someone is gonna take that and run.
Your process at this point in addition to having a book published by a major publishing company, you’re also putting out zines and merch and stuff and have a DIY mind about it.
But that’s because of the internet. That’s because I have a direct measurement of how big my audience is and I can get things right to people. It’s funny because when I was growing up and making fanzines I would drop them off at a record store and then I would come back and they would be gone. And I would be like, “Wow, I got rid of zines!” That was so cool. But now that I’ve had a career as a writer and I have this audience, I take for granted the fact that if I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self that you could put a zine online and 1,000 people will buy it and you can mail it right to their house, I think that would’ve blown my teenage mind. The internet gets shit on so much for so many reasons, it’s killing the world, but that part is really nice. You can rope your followers in, and you can give things directly to them. The connectivity is awesome. Everything else is gonna destroy us, for sure.
Do you think that the ability to do that without having to push it to bookstores has enabled you to create the career that you want?
Yeah, and it’s really nuts because I did this book, like you said, with a major publisher and that’s great because they’re gonna be able to get it into places and it’s going to be able to do things that are outside of my abilities. But it is nice to know that if I have some thoughts that I can put together in a week I can get that out to people next weekend. Sellout, I finished writing in February and I had to wait until October for it to come out. Everything is so instant making fanzines on your own, I would never look down on it.
A lot of what I considered to be selling out back then and a lot of what is talked about in the book is about money and your relationship to corporations. Whereas now it seems like people don’t necessarily think about that as much as they do a need for fame. If you seem like you want to be Machine Gun Kelly then that’s not cool, but if you sign to Epitaph that’s not as big of a deal. But bands still get shit for wanting to sign to labels like that.
I don’t know if this answers your question, but I feel like you’re the only person who’s going to understand what I’m talking about. It’s harder to monitor what qualifies as selling out now, but one of the things I’m always suspect of, having that no bullshit East Coast attitude, is that I will see a lot of new, young bands who seemingly have had no backstory and haven’t put in any of the groundwork have a publicist who is pitching them to me as indie or DIY and just using those phrases like buzzwords. Even though they hired this publicist to do it. How is this DIY? Using those words is meaningless. That’s the only time I feel really suspect of artists. If you’re going to do a deal with some company, do the deal I guess, we all need the money, but don’t try to pass yourself off as some staunchly indie band when you’re not. That, to me, is what’s very weird in modern culture.
People try to take advantage of being DIY.
Yeah, so many people are doing the work and they’re just coming along, haven’t even played shows necessarily but just hired the right people and have the right look on Instagram and are just marketing themselves. And maybe that’s what you were talking about before about rubbing people the wrong way being fame-hungry.
I was trying to figure out what a band could do now, other than something socially horrendous, that would make their fanbase turn against them. The only thing I could think of was if they did something really showy.
You know when I feel that most? When I look at people younger than me looking at the concept of Emo Nite and not laughing hysterically. To me, that’s just the lamest, social media-hungry, bro shit I’ve ever seen and it’s tangentially related to emo culture but really, it’s not. It’s just an Instagram pop-up shop and people wear My Chemical Romance shirts. To me, that shit not getting laughed off the face of the earth is a great example of how generationally we’ve taken away this idea of corporate media and self-involvement being a bad thing. People are invested in it now. I was just talking with my friend the other night about how there are so many bands now who are so much better at social media than they actually are at making art and that’s a bummer. And then also, too, there are people who aren’t even making art, they’re just promoting themselves. Look at Emo Nite! There’s no product there. They don’t own anything, they’re not making anything, they don’t have any original ideas. They’ve just figured out ways to take other people’s intellectual property and art and make it marketable for them to profit off of.
::interview takes screeching left turn to avoid annoying comments section::
How much did your own fan relationship with the bands affect how you put it together? If you knew more about Jawbreaker then that chapter was going to be more fun for you.
Maybe you can see where my allegiances lie in the book, but I certainly tried to make it even for everybody. The one that was very challenging was My Chemical Romance because I knew the least about them going into the project and also their fans are so meticulous that it’s hard to put one past them.
I would say that the one difference is that with a band like Jawbreaker, a band I’ve loved for 20 years, there are questions that I wanted to ask that I don’t know that anyone else would’ve asked. Like with Thursday, I had to bring up that whoopie cushion thing with Victory because I’ve found that hilarious for 15 years. There were little things I knew to ask that maybe in the My Chem chapter I didn’t know to ask. You can go and read all the press clipping with My Chemical Romance but what were the fans talking about back then? That’s the stuff that got handed down word of mouth for so long that it almost becomes lore. With Jawbreaker, I knew those things. I wanted to demystify them. With My Chemical Romance, I feel like maybe I was just doing the research and it was stripped of that other knowledge that I have.
For each chapter I tried to keep three audiences in mind at once. Number one is the person that doesn’t know shit about this band and they’re learning everything they know from this one chapter. Number two is a superfan who I really want to give at least something they didn’t know or a new context that they could appreciate. And number three were the people who were involved, themselves. I wanted them to read it and think yeah, he got it right. It’s really hard because I wanted to please those three groups at once and I hoped I did it in all of those cases. I’ve heard from My Chemical Romance fans that I did a good job with it and that means a lot because I’m so scared of them [laughs].
I’m trying to think about the conversation you’d want to have with our generation of fans. So many people I grew up with, the concept of signing to a label, or physically signing a contract, was just so sacrilegious that it completely skewed what I wanted to do or what bands I listened to locally. That’s the same for a lot of people. There are probably a lot of people reading the book whose opinions have evolved over the years.
How do you think that your view of it has evolved since your 20s?
I was one of the people that was ambitious but had to pretend like I wasn’t. But I still gave in to the opinions of some friends and bandmates. I was not on board or excited when certain bands blew up because they were from the same scene as me and that wasn’t cool to try to do that. I just don’t feel that way anymore. I didn’t feel that way when that conversation was going on in the first place, but it was so hard to express that without feeling like you were gonna lose all your friends. So, I’m just fascinated by that.
There’s probably a jealousy aspect that fuels all this stuff. Right now, I feel like it’s egalitarian and we’re all on the same level. But people would be playing the same size shows except some of the bands had a contract with Capitol Records. It did skew the scales and made people feel not necessarily even because some people did have more money. It created animosity, for sure. I mean, you tell me, because you’re a musician. Maybe that’s gone because everybody’s just working hard and everybody is just doing the best that they can and there’s no payoff for it. Like what’s the payoff, that you’re gonna do the NPR Tiny Desk?
There’s not the promise of an instant $1.5 million deal.
You don’t know anybody who has just cashed in. Everybody is doing varying degrees of being in the middle.
I think it has taken that sting off. Even if someone is trying to make it their career, the realm of possibility isn’t huge.
I’ll hear people from our group of indie rock bands gripe that “Why did this artist get Best New Music on Pitchfork and I didn’t?” It’s like, Best New Music? How much money do you get for that? Fuckin’ zero dollars. Tell me when Capitol Records gives you a million dollars to do two records and then we’ll talk about being jealous of somebody else. But who gives a shit about all this little stuff we’re arguing over?
It’s like people arguing over hype bands. Yeah, somebody got Best New Music but will they still be touring in 5-10 years? I don’t know!
Be careful of what you’re envying because sometimes being a flash in the pan is not something to envy.
That’s what I take my cues from, people who have been varying levels of independent and sustainable for a long time.
A lot of artists who I talk to who are in our group, I ask them what would your ideal situation be? A lot of them will cite Murder By Death, because they’re a band that has a very firm grasp on their audience and they cater directly to them. They’ve cut out a lot of middle-people and they work really hard as an indie band and they’ve been doing it for a long time. That takes a lot of work but to me, they are a true indie band success story. Like yep, if you’re willing to spend 3 weeks every two years sending out 40,000 records or something, that to me is DIY. I think they have a really enviable career because they’re a cult band but they’ve figured out how to make their cult pay for them to just keep getting by forever. That’s the dream, right?
I asked this thing on Twitter a while back where I said, “Which would you rather do, make one brilliant work of genius and then never make anything again, or make things that are good or very good for a long time?” Me personally, I would take the latter, because I just want to be a working artist forever and the majority of the people in that poll agreed with me. But there are some people who just want to be a big blaze of glory, and that’s cool. But to me, what Murder By Death is doing is cool. Just having a good career for a long time.
I think that that’s where people miss the mark in criticizing bands who went to major labels or just who went to get out of their hometown. For most people it wasn’t about being able to have that one hit song on the radio, it was about being able to have a career in music and knowing that you could keep going for years. I remember when my old band played with The Gaslight Anthem and we were playing big venues for the first time and I was like, “oh, this is what you all do? Yes, I would like to do this all the time, please.” And it wasn’t about being fancy, it was just that you get to easily play music comfortably for a long time.
It’s like when you’re playing Oregon Trail and you’d put it on Hard Mode, Meager Rations. That’s what everybody in punk really got off on, making it the hardest setting. I’m gonna make music on the advanced level.
I feel like Sellout rustled some things loose in your own approach to music. Not to turn the table but I can’t not be a question asker: If you could give advice to your younger self, what are the things that you’d want to avoid?
These are opinions that I’ve had for a while now, but it really is what you were saying about Oregon Trail: don’t do things just to make it difficult, just to say that you did it without anybody’s help. I think of that as the shoot yourself in the foot school of punk. Trust your gut as to what is being true to yourself and what is being cheesy. What’s pandering or not. It has nothing to do with whether or not your band takes a press photo.
I started being in bands when I was pretty young, and it was a completely different set of rules. Someone who is 19 right now won’t have the same opinions that some of my friends had. If you want to have not even a career but some longevity in what you do and a sustainable thing, even if it doesn’t pay all your bills, just get your music in front of as many people as you can, ask for help, have a manager, who gives a shit! Do you want to do this in 10 years, or do you want Pitchfork Best New Music? What’s important? You can have both, but which is more important to you? I think so many kids weren’t thinking about that. I could talk about this shit all day. I knew that reading the book would bring this up for me.
It’s a really cool set of rules we all imposed on ourselves! I still do that today. I just made all this merch for my book, and I was trying to operate on distro prices in 1997. I don’t want to charge more than $20 for a t-shirt but prices for shirts have gone up. It sucks, but I made my t-shirts $25 and that rustled me the wrong way, but there are younger bands who don’t give a shit about that who grew up on Supreme stuff and they charge $35-40 for a shirt and don’t give a fuck. Here I am fretting over whether $5 more for a shirt is not punk.
When I’ve released fanzines, a lot of work goes into it and a lot of my own money goes into it upfront and I will lose sleep over whether or not I should make the price $13 or $12 and fretting over that $1. Amazon is making a billion dollars a minute and who cares! Who cares that I’m charging $1 more? I do, because I grew up in this era where I thought people were gonna come at me with pitchforks if I didn’t do it right.
I felt the same way when I started selling our shirts for $20, but no one said anything! No one cared! Because everyone else is selling them for $25 or $30, which seems to be the normal thing now.
I love that story with Rise Against where Tim was talking about being from the Chicago scene where it was very cutthroat and if you didn’t screen your own 7”s yourselves you’d hear it from people. I think that helped them because they went to a major label but they operated at super cheap, penny-pinching, like that Fugazi economical every dollar counts mentality and it probably helped them because to their label it seemed like they’re some little band that’s cheap. So let’s give them a little more money and see what they do with it and it turned out they did really well for themselves!
It’s fun to think about.
Looking at a 19-year-old when we were 19 years old vs. a 19-year-old now, their priorities are so different. I feel no parallel with them at all. They just grew up with the internet. They just hyper normalized all these corporations being in your face all the time. To even exist on the internet you’re already playing the game and you have no agency. It’s hard to just be an artist because it feels like we’re just making things at the behest of Facebook. We’re all employees of Mark Zuckerberg. It sucks. When I see real, true art these days it just blows my mind.
Thanks again for being here and at least scrolling this far, if not reading the whole thing. I mentioned touring with The Gaslight Anthem with my first band, and now you can see a coincidentally "where are they now?" version of that on our upcoming tour with Brian Fallon that starts in January.
I put all my remaining prints up on my webstore and Etsy, including one that references the classic lesbian love story Carol, because of course it does. Only a few of those left! Happy Carol and Therese's First Date to those who celebrate.