Writer Dan Ozzi on his new book Sellout and the rise of punk on major labels
Writer and journalist Dan Ozzi knows punk rock. Having helped Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace write her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, Ozzi is well aware of the pitfalls inherent to a once-independent band signing to a major label. That idea gets explored in full in his latest book, Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007), out this week from Mariner Books at HarperCollins.
In Sellout, Ozzi traces the rise from independent punk rockers playing basements and VFW halls to arenas and stadiums around the world. Beginning with the story of Green Day, Ozzi follows the rise of punk bands like Jawbreaker, At the Drive-In, Thursday, and more, in a story that sees each of the 11 bands explored in detail, along with a grander narrative of what this all means for the scene in general.
It’s a fantastic read which is nearly impossible to put down, which made me all the more excited to hop on the phone with Dan Ozzi last month to discuss the process of creating Sellout.
Dan Ozzi: Sort of. This idea of going to a major label was prevalent in Against Me’s story and certainly in that book but I think for the bands in my book, the story that they’ll point to as being the biggest story of crossing over into the mainstream was Green Day. But for me, watching it firsthand, was Against Me. I just remember the fervor with which they were met and I remember because I was one of those angry kids. That really planted the idea. Then certainly, it intensified as Laura and I were working on that.
I appreciated the fact that, in addition to each chapter being the story of each of these bands, it’s a narrative that builds on what has come before, where you have each of these bands are talking about the experiences of those who came before them.
I will just say that for everybody that I talked to–some people, it seems like ancient history and for other people, they’re still angry about it. I felt it was sort of endearing. I respect people holding grudges for forever, you know?
“Grudge” is a very interesting term to use just because it seems as though many fans took the bands going to major labels as being a very personal affront.
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that overlooked in this era of “selling out” is that people like to say that their anger is rooted in a band signing with big corporations, and selling their art, and selling out a scene that they were a part of, and blah, blah, blah.
I mean, when you found a band that was maybe a local band or a small indie, you could go see them at a VFW hall for ten bucks. It felt like they were yours and special and personal but then, when they ascend, you kind of get priced out. They start playing bigger places that maybe you can’t afford to go to. Their tickets sell out or something like that, and it seems like you have less access.
Getting personally scorned? It’s a real thing, especially if you’re a young person.
I’m reminded of a scene in Mark Spitz’s book, How Soon Is Never?, which is about a journalist who tries to get The Smiths to reunite. He’s recalling a story from when he was in high school, when he hears you know one of the jocks walking down the hallway whistling “How Soon Is Now?” and he loses his mind because he’s like, “You already got U2! Let us have this!” It just seems like that scene constantly replays itself in the punk rock scene.
If we’re going to go one-for-one, I think my favorite example is a song I thought about it all the time while writing Sellout: a Propagandhi song, “Less Talk More Rock.” All of a sudden, after Green Day and Fat Wreck Chords and all these sort of pop-punky bands were blowing up, there started to be more and more types of non-punk kids coming to shows: the jocks, the assholes, the boneheads, right?
They started coming to these shows and Propagandhi, being a Fat Wreck Chords band, were seeing some of that influx and they wrote a song that I–to this day–think is one of the most important punk songs of that generation. They just drew a line and were like, “If you’re going to slam dance to this song, knock yourself out. But just so you know, it’s explicitly clear that this is a song about me having a same-sex encounter with a friend. So if you’re cool with that, knock yourself out.”
“Okay, if the jocks are going to come in, this is what they’re on board for.”
In The Donnas’ chapter, it’s also about the latter-day disintegration of Lookout Records. The Distillers chapter is not just about The Distillers, so much as it is about Brody Dalle talking about stuff that she’s never discussed before. It’s macro and micro at the same time. How do you make that balance?
I really look at it as one story, and I think each band has their own identity in their chapters.
But this is the insane part: I had an Excel spreadsheet and it was color-coded, where I literally had certain themes that I wanted to just check in on every once in a while. Like Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll or Epitaph Records or just the bands circling back, ’cause Green Day makes an appearance in just about every single chapter in this book.
It’s hard, ’cause I wanted to tell this story of the entire era through the lens of these bands. So you have to constantly keep checking yourself as to what’s the overall big picture? What’s the smaller story? Like you said–the micro and the macro at the same time.
You were able to talk to most of the major players, but who did you try to reach that you were disappointed you couldn’t get?
To me, the absences are the book’s biggest flaws, so I tend to steer clear of specifically mentioning them. I will say that, after a few months of working on the book, I had to just concede to the idea that this could not possibly be a completionist story. Some of the people in the book aren’t even alive, so there’s no way that every single person in the book could be present in it.
I will say that if anybody passed, it was usually polite and they had their reasons, but when they did that, it galvanized me to go even harder in my research. I was like, “This guy is not going to talk to me. That’s fine. Let me find two of his friends and also his dentist, and then I’ll get the real scoop,” I’m not saying I did it as like any sort of “gotcha!” but it was almost a challenge to me. “Why doesn’t this person want to talk? I wonder what they don’t want to talk about?” That would send me into these other research holes.
This time period in music was the transition between ‘zine culture into online cultures. I have to imagine that gave you a lot of research possibilities and a lot of rabbit holes?
I could feel the research changing as by chapter by chapter and yeah, in the early days, researching Jawbreaker and Jimmy Eat World in 1995 and 1996 were a huge pain. Nobody wrote about Jimmy Eat World for the first several years of their existence—save for the Phoenix Weekly—and Jawbreaker? It was all fanzines. The research was just going down these old Geocities pages to try to find blurry scans of fanzines.
As it went on to the early 2000s, then I started using the Wayback Machine a lot because stuff was written on the web, but it’s been lost to time. I was looking at At the Drive-In’s website in 1999, going through their Thursday’s tour updates on their blog in 2002—and then something funny happened. Then you had an explosion you could probably trace around where My Chemical Romance starts–where the internet really pushed them to be a big band–so, all of a sudden, then there’s a lot more that you can find online.
I guess the advantage with Green Day is that they were so huge and, obviously still are. But in addition to that, you’ve got Aaron Cometbus, who has repeatedly documented his first-person experiences in being there, which I always find fascinating.
You just said something that I would love to put on record, which is that Aaron Cometbus is probably the most important writer around today–the most important documentarian. He’s been doing it forever. I feel like whenever we talk about music journalists, it’s all these very online people, and Aaron gets omitted. He has set a bar for punk journalism that has not been met since.
When you’re looking at these albums, are there parallels that you see in any other scenes going along? Before we got recording, we were talking about the recent spate of ska books. There’s the whole Sub Pop Northwest explosion, but in the course of your journalistic endeavors have you seen any other things that correlate to this?
Maybe, but I feel like this era and this scene was very specific in producing this sort of muddy gray area. In the ’80s, I think it was just cool for rock bands to road dog it and play for no money. But also there was not a huge financial platform for independent rock bands at that time, so it was much cooler to have cred. It was more important to be credible, I guess.
The period that followed this sellout period, we got The White Stripes and The Strokes, and all these bands who didn’t seem to give a fuck about any of that. It was just like, “Yeah, I want to be in a huge band. I want to date models and I want to make money,” and didn’t really give much second thought to the idea of artistic integrity.
The part that I documented I feel was unique was this weird moral gray area, or it just felt bad or something. This guy’s offering you a big check that could change your entire life, but then you feel bad about cashing it. That sentiment was pretty specific to this one little slice of independent rock.
So many of those early punk bands that were on major labels tend to get ignored in the whole discussion. All those CBGB bands? They were on not just major labels, but labels that were prestigious.
That’s what put that fear into the punk scene, because what came after it? The entire period of the ’80s, right? In the late ’70s, the Clash, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols on major labels. They become huge bands but then, after that, once punk became not commercially viable anymore, major labels lost interest.
You can count on one hand how many bands of that vein went to majors in the entire ’80s, right? The Replacements, Husker Du, and Sonic Youth: that’s pretty much it. The ’80s was a time where punks got to be like, “Fuck major labels! You’re never buying us up!” But they weren’t interested in buying up these punk bands, so I think that in the ’80s, punk got to be pissed off at a hypothetical scenario. Once Nirvana and then, later, Green Day came along, it became much more real: “Oh no! This guy from Geffen is actually offering this band a million dollars!” All of a sudden, you’re faced with a real choice.
That era of the ’70s and that commercial interest in punk really kicked off this return that came in the ’90s. A lot of the bands that I had talked to—Against Me or whoever—were really drawn to the idea of, “We want to go to Sire Records because they had Patti Smith and the Ramones back in the ’70s.” It was prestigious for them.
Dan Ozzi’s Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007) is out this week from Mariner Books at HarperCollins.