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'Sellout' explores how anti-establishment views in punk puts bands in a tough spot

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

For as long as there's been a mainstream culture, there have been artists pushing back against it. But if you're the kind of band that earned its cred giving the finger to corporate suits, how do you navigate shaking their hand for your shot at rock stardom? Well, that's the question at the center of the new book "Sellout" from music writer Dan Ozzi. He spoke with NPR's Andrew Limbong about a moment starting in the mid-'90s that had major labels scouring local punk scenes looking for the next Nirvana.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It's 1993, and the band Jawbreaker is playing at a Bay Area venue called 924 Gilman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

LIMBONG: Gilman was meant for outsiders who didn't fit in at punk shows at the usual bars. It was committed to non-commercial do-it-yourself ethics. Green Day used to play there until they got banned for signing to a major label. It was a place for passionate fans and committed to bands just like Jawbreaker, who would say stuff like this in the middle of their set.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, this song is called "Scathing Indictment Of The Pop Industry." And this song is about not signing to a major label. And I'm not trying to play to the audience, but it's actually scientifically proven that you'll make more money on an independent label if you're a not-so-great punk band like us. So the smart money stays on an independent and actually gets richer, and it's - you can do it scrupulously, so think about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: Not long after, Jawbreaker did think about that and signed a nearly million-dollar record deal with Geffen. Fans weren't happy. Here's music writer Dan Ozzi.

DAN OZZI: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENT PRONE")

JAWBREAKER: (Singing) A near miss or a close call. I keep a room...

OZZI: And then they just kind of imploded.

LIMBONG: Ozzi's new book, "Sellout," is full of stories like this. He looked at the major label debuts of different bands in this genre, tracing a music industry in flux, fans betrayed by their idols and bands trying to navigate the machine.

OZZI: I wanted to, know what happens to the real people? How do they feel that people are sitting on the floor while they're playing? You know, is it worth it? Are they glad that they took a million dollars and alienated their fan base?

LIMBONG: Here's Tim McIlrath, singer and guitarist for the band Rise Against.

TIM MCILRATH: It made you do a lot of, like, self-reflecting about yourself as, like, an artist. Well, what am I here for? What do I want to accomplish with this?

LIMBONG: He says the book is illuminating because bands didn't really talk about this stuff with each other at the time, and every band that did sign to a major had slightly different experiences. Some, says Dan Ozzi, had handlers who did try to change them.

OZZI: The Donnas is a great example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")

THE DONNAS: Huh.

OZZI: They had an A&R guy tell them, like, yeah, you guys are great. What we're going to just have you do is just drop the instruments so that you can sing and dance. And they were like, what? We can't dance, number one. And number two, like, this band is like what got us here. Why would we change it now?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")

THE DONNAS: (Singing) Go on and take it off, take it off.

LIMBONG: But the picture Ozzi paints isn't as binary as major label, bad, indie label, good.

OZZI: There's people not looking out for your best interests on either side of it.

LIMBONG: Every art form deals with some variation of this question, right? What concessions are you willing to make for more eyeballs, more opportunity and, of course, more money? But money has always been a particularly sensitive topic for punk bands at any level. Here's McIlrath again.

MCILRATH: Growing up in punk and hardcore, we have this thing called punk rock guilt.

LIMBONG: The book has a line about McIlrath getting dropped off around the corner from the gig because he didn't want people to see him getting out of his manager's Mercedes.

MCILRATH: If a band is successful or if anybody is successful, we think that you have done something sketchy to be successful, you know?

LIMBONG: On the other hand, McIlrath says, sometimes the artistic concessions are worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCILRATH: It is our pleasure to play for all of you here today.

LIMBONG: McIlrath is a straight-edge vegan, so any time Rise Against plays a festival, he says there's some sponsor they don't agree with. But one time, they were booked to play a tour where the U.S. Army had a recruiting tent.

MCILRATH: This was probably the height of the Iraq War, which we were speaking out against.

LIMBONG: And it was a question, but they ultimately decided to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCILRATH: But this song about the government. And shame on the government for sending our brothers and sisters to this [expletive] war.

I always look back, and I'm glad that we were a part of that conversation instead of just sitting at home with our arms folded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCILRATH: This song is called "State Of The Union."

LIMBONG: But now, in the era of streaming, the economics of being in a band have changed. And so that guilt of taking beer ad money or a corporate brand sponsorship is nearly gone. Here's Dan Ozzi.

OZZI: Maybe we've all just dealt with it that they're just omnipresent. It's everywhere. I don't know. Maybe we've all just sort of hyper-normalized marketing.

LIMBONG: Maybe we've all just sold out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE OF THE UNION")

RISE AGAINST: (Singing) Guilty is what our...

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.