What I'm about to say will surprise no one reading this, but when I was a kid I was an absolute nerd about music. I wasn't content to just find a record I liked and then listen to it, I had to get every record that band ever made and then would proceed to gobble up every detail about them I could find. I was intense about this stuff, which meant that I was regularly left completely disappointed by the books I could find on the bands and music I loved.
Combing through every Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the slim offerings at local book stores, I was able to find some books that touched on punk and hardcore. While they were often serviceable, few were ever revelatory. Even the big names in this space, like American Hardcore: A Tribal History, were deeply flawed works that kept the reader from getting more than a working list of what records to check out next—which, at the time, I was more than fine with. As an almost weekly ritual, I'd stop by these stores in the hopes that, maybe one day there would be something hidden on the shelves other than the dozens of books about Bob Dylan and some generic thing that just lists 500 popular albums you need to listen to or whatever.
Enter SELLOUT: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007) by Dan Ozzi. Now, you may outright dismiss everything I'm about to say because you know that Dan and I go back a while. But if you've ever listened to our podcast (please don't) you'll know very well that, how do I put this, sincerity and praise isn't really our bag. In fact, we spend most of the time calling the other person an idiot and making jokes at the other's expense. So know that it pains me to break from our bit to say that Dan's book, SELLOUT, is basically the thing I've been wanting to read for my entire stupid life.
This is not to dismiss the great books that have touched on the subjects Dan covers here—Post by Eric Grubbs was a formative book for me, along with Jon Resh's Amped—but what Dan has pulled off is something that I never would have expected as some teenage music nerd. More often than not, when I found a book that touched on the things I cared about, it was like reading an alien trying to understand the minutia between punk bands and the scene at large. These writers never knew the feeling of having to wash the black newsprint off their hands after reading a copy of Maximumrocknroll or the thrill of finding a copy of Cometbus for $2 and wondering what all these ramblings about the best coffee in Berkeley had to do with punk, but this was our shared cultural shorthand. Despite the fact that all the punks knew it, it rarely felt like anyone who was tasked with writing about this scene actually understood any of that.
From the first page of SELLOUT, it is absolutely clear that Dan doesn't just know this stuff, he's had those experiences, and it makes him perfectly suited to tell the stories of the 11 bands featured in this book. He digs deep, building portraits of the artists, managers, A&R people, label heads, and dedicated fans in a way that understands the symbiotic relationship between each and every one of them. It's something that made the book impossible for me to put down, and it's one that if I had read 20 years ago would have left a profound impact on my view of the scene I cared about so deeply.
SELLOUT will rightly draw comparisons to Our Band Could Be Your Life, the book that essentially chronicled the rise of '80s post-hardcore and indie-rock in a similar way, but, to me, SELLOUT feels like it's telling the opposite kind of story. Where Our Band Could Be Your Life focused on the positive artistic impacts of the bands therein, SELLOUT focuses on the harsh realities of "making it," especially when that was never part of the plan for a lot of these artists to begin with. Unlike Our Band Could Be Your Life, which dutifully explains how these underground bands ended up building an independent framework that shaped the entire musical landscape we know today, SELLOUT follows a scene that gets mined by prospectors with dollar signs in their eyes as a result of major labels finally taking small bands seriously. Bands full of people barely old enough to legally drink are run through the wringer, all because there's the outside chance they might become the next Nirvana or Green Day. For some, it works. For others, their band breaks up, their record label collapses, and their fans turn their back on them—both figuratively and literally.
Every chapter reads like you know there's a disaster looming around the corner and you just cross your fingers and hope that the people you've become so invested in won't get swallowed up and spit back out by this cannibalistic industry. Dan never paints the picture that this period of time was some utopia where artistic creations neatly intersected with commercial interest. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's not a romantic retelling of this era of music, and it makes the prospect of trying to make a career in the music business seems completely inadvisable. In doing so, it drives home the message that punk was basically founded upon: Make things because you want to make them and the rest will sort itself out.
SELLOUT is a book that finally understands punk's myriad contradictions and hypocrisies, embracing them for what they are instead of dismissing them in some overly simplified, offhand way. Living in the post-sellout era, where no one bats an eye at an artist chasing a huge check, SELLOUT understands why that label carried so much weight and why it mattered to so many people. It's because those bands were making music for the people who could never find that thing they were looking for and, when they did happen upon it, that felt like something truly special.
It's nice that someone got it right for once.
Head over to sellout.biz to pre-order SELLOUT, which is out October 26. Don't tell Dan I sent you.