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OK, so you're a 'Sellout.' Now what?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

"It's actually scientifically proven you'll make more money on an independent label if you're a not-so-great punk band like us" Jawbreaker singer and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach once told an audience in 1993. This, he said on stage, isn't an empty play to the crowd, but rather good business advice. "The smart money stays on an independent, and actually gets richer. And you can do it scrupulously. So think about that."

Not long after, Jawbreaker would sign a nearly million-dollar record deal with the label Geffen.

And they weren't the only ones. Immediately following the massive boom that was Nirvana, major labels began scouring local indie punk scenes looking for the next big thing. But if you were the kind of band that earned its cred giving the finger to corporate suits, how were you supposed to navigate shaking their hand for your shot at rock stardom?

That's the question at the center of the new book Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore 1994 - 2007 from music writer Dan Ozzi. The book uses the major label debuts of 11 bands to examine a music industry in flux, fans feeling betrayed, and bands just trying to navigate the machine. "I wanted to know, what happens to the real people," says Ozzi. "Is it worth it?"

Some chapters are straight-ahead success stories (Green Day, Blink-182, My Chemical Romance). Others, less so. Which brings us back go Jawbreaker.

"There are stories about kids sitting on the floor while they would play their major label songs, kids turning their back. They got spit on a lot," says Ozzi.

It didn't matter that their only major-label release, 1995's Dear You, was the hardest the band had pushed itself. Or that it was seminal in shaping what we know as emo today. Kids simply weren't buying, and the band eventually broke up.

It's easy to get cred for never selling out if nobody's buying. But when you're really faced with that decision? "It made you do a lot of self-reflection about yourself as an artist," says Tim McIlrath in an interview with NPR. McIlrath is the singer and guitarist for the band Rise Against.

He found reading and participating in Ozzi's book illuminating because bands going through this weren't talking with each other about this stuff. "Maybe it was a combination of people were either embarrassed to talk about it, or still processing how they felt about it."

And every band had a slightly different experience. Some, like the all-female band The Donnas, had label reps trying to micromanage and change their image.

"They had an A&R guy tell them 'yeah, you guys are great. What we're going to have you do is drop the instruments so you can sing and dance,'" says Ozzi. Which was a problem because they couldn't dance. But also, why change now? Being who they were got them their success.

But the picture Ozzi paints in the book isn't as binary as the virtuous independent label vs. the evil and greedy major labels. He interviews various people from the corporate entities who came from punk scenes and really, truly wanted what was best for the bands. And there are, of course, shady actors coming from the indie labels, too. "There's people not looking out for your best interests on either side of it," he says.

Every art form deals with some variation of this question — what concessions are you willing to make for more eyeballs, more opportunity and more money. But money has always been a particularly sensitive topic for punk bands at any level.

"Growing up in punk and hardcore, we have this thing called punk rock guilt," says McIlrath. It's a feeling of insecurity, of second-guessing if the choices you're making are reflective of your values. Sometimes this pushes people to make somewhat ridiculous choices (there's a line in the book about McIlrath getting dropped off around the corner from a gig because he didn't want people to see him getting out of his manager's Mercedes).

But sometimes "selling out" afforded the band artistic opportunities it wouldn't have had otherwise. For instance, during the height of the war in Iraq, Rise Against could call George Bush a liar in front of a small crowd of punks and, well, sure. Big surprise, there. But in front of a wider audience, where the cars in the parking lots are decked with American flags and "support the troops" stickers? Ozzi writes:

Sometimes, McIlrath saw his words lead to shoving matches and fistfights in the crowd. In more extreme cases, the band dodged cans that were thrown at them or were called f****ts or p*****s. McIlrath felt empowered by the combative atmosphere and enjoyed going into battle each night... It was as though the band had grown into their name.

Of course, now in the streaming era, the economics of being in a band have changed. So that punk rock guilt barely exists anymore as most bands happily take beer ad money or agree to corporate brand sponsorships. Because just as you can't pay your rent in punk cred, you also cannot escape marketing. "Maybe we've all just dealt with it," says Ozzi. Or, maybe we've all just sold out.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.