For decades, such an insidious and often absurd concept has haunted and plagued the music world. Bands and artists build up followings through hard work and determination. Playing small shows to few people, bands and artist build their fanbase through personal interaction and word-of-mouth. Those who were there in the beginning often feel a special bond with their faves. When major labels come in to offer them the potential of a wider audience, the loyal fanbase feels betrayed. They don’t want to share with the rest of the world, or they fear losing that special connection. Author Dan Ozzi explores this concept in great detail with his fantastic new book, Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994–2007).
People who cried “sell out” missed the point and fundamentally misunderstood the band’s point of view. For all but one of the groups in Sellout, going to a major wasn’t just a realistic decision—it was essential. They’d peaked at the independent level; small labels like Lookout and Eyeball could only do so much, and the demand would have been more than they could handle. Furthermore, moving to a major would allow the bands more ability to grow creatively, given the wider availability of both studio time and production opportunities—things that any so-called fan should see as win-win. (The sole exception, Jimmy Eat World, were unknowns outside their little Arizona scene; “we didn’t sell out because we had nothing to sell,” says drummer Zach Lind.)
Of course, a few of the stories in Sellout turned out to be cautionary tales. Jawbreaker’s story would come to be used as evidence of how the majors ruin independent bands. Borne from the staunchly independent Bay Area underground, Jawbreaker were darlings of the punk scene. They built their following organically and developed a devoted fanbase. When they signed to Geffen in 1994, it was seen as the ultimate betrayal. For years, the band had forthrightly declared that they would never sign to a major. When they released 1995’s Dear You, it was initially met with hostility, and the band broke up not long after its release. What many of the hardcore fans didn’t realize was that Jawbreaker would have broken up had they not signed; their major-label move was a last-ditch effort to save the band. (Joke’s on them; Dear You is now hailed as a classic.)
Some of the bands that split up after signing imploded just as they were beginning to show real promise. At The Drive-In, who released the critically acclaimed Relationship Of Command via Grand Royal in 2000, broke up after exhaustion from touring and deep-seated conflict between the members. The Distillers broke up when the band went on hiatus due to lead singer Brody Dalle taking some time off after exhaustion from touring. Their album Coral Fang had been critically successful, and the split had more to do with half of the band forming other groups while she took time off.
Not every band in Sellout suffered, though. About half of the bands on the list are still successful as of 2021. Nearly half of them still major label acts almost twenty years after signing. Against Me!, My Chemical Romance, Green Day, Rise Against—all of these groups continue to thrive and release music and have only gained new followers as the years have progressed. For them, “selling out” provided longevity, while many of their peers simply called it a day, because they couldn’t really grow as artists due to the limited room to move staying independent caused them.
“Selling out” is a dying concept. By the end of Sellout, the idea seems novel; bands may be concerned about it, but ultimately it’s not a big deal. Sellout serves as an almost quaint reminder of a time when juvenile puritanism dominated the independent music scene, and illustrates how absurd that ideology was.
Purchase Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore: Amazon