12 bands who succeeded by never selling out
The cry of ‘Sell out!’ is kind of a joke in rock’n’roll. The minute a band progresses in any way shape or form, someone who liked their first demo – or even a non-fan looking for a way to vent about their own shitty life – will claim that the artist in question is just in it for the big bucks. Meanwhile, selling out varies from genre to genre, with underground extreme metal bands getting called out for doing interviews at all. There’s really just no winning with some people.
At the end of the day, selling out is really about betraying one’s principles or changing one’s sound in order to make the wrong people happy or line one’s pockets. And while plenty of bands have done that to a certain extent, there are a handful of acts who have made their bank on staying true to what they believe in. Not only that, but these bands also would’ve been less successful had they ever bowed to pressure; that they have remained true to their guns is crucial to their success.
Here are 12 legendary bands who answer to no-one but themselves…
The kings. After the monumental success of Nevermind, Nirvana could’ve easily released a candy-coated pop-rock record and welcomed universal praise. Instead, the band dropped In Utero, featuring a song named Rape Me and a cover that could’ve been used for a Carcass album. The argument could even be made that Kurt Cobain’s suicide was in part influenced by feeling crushed by pressure to be the rock star everyone wanted (though addiction and mental illness was a likely factor). Say what you want about Nirvana, but you can never claim that they danced for the man.
Not selling out is an intrinsic part of Converge’s whole identity. The band’s churning emotional hardcore is all about honesty and loyalty to principle – the exact opposite of giving in to pressure and financial stress. With each merciless, unwavering album they release, the boys from Salem further cement their status as the hardcore scene’s patron saints. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the dream: to become more famous every time you release a record that most of society would deem unlistenable?
Some might argue that death metal pioneers Cannibal Corpse “sold out” by appearing in the Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. But the band never stopped playing the monster in that infamous scene, and anyway, it’s not as though they changed their music after appearing on the big screen (their next album included a song named Fucked With A Knife, for Christ’s sake). Even as they’ve become bigger and more famous, the kings of gore have never wavered from their themes of violent, perverse murder – which is why we’ll always love them.
There’s a reason that Tool’s Fear Inoculum was such a massive success, and it isn’t because the band did a promotional campaign with Taco Bell leading up to it. No, Tool have always done things their way, laughing at their own fanbase for being sour over them not playing the game. Especially in the ’90s, when the band were at the forefront of California’s growing metal movement, they had every opportunity to write a hit for radio hit and lend a sample to P. Diddy. Instead, they remained true to their weirdo vision, resulting in even their between-song interludes becoming chart-toppers.
From the outset, Fugazi weren’t about having anything handed to them, to the point where they championed the DIY aesthetic by booking their own tours, printing their own flyers, and so on. By the time the Washington, D.C., stalwarts were deemed legendary in the mid- to late-’90s, they could’ve just bought into their own hype and shilled for any number of junk food or lifestyle brands. But like many bands on this list, Fugazi knew that their success was only as strong as their word, and shunned mainstream recognition in exchange for the satisfaction of a job well done. Better to stay in the waiting room than swallow the pill.
High On Fire
How does a band who launched their career making brutal stoner thrash about monsters win a GRAMMY? Simple: keep making brutal stoner thrash about monsters. High On Fire never once deviated from their MO of making heads bang to killer riffs honoring H.P. Lovecraft, and for that they were awarded the Best Metal GRAMMY in 2019 for their song Electric Messiah, beating out more presentable acts like Trivium and Underoath. If you’re going to make outlaw music, don’t pull your punches – go full outlaw.
While plenty of other death metal bands have just become laid-back biker dudes, Napalm Death haven’t forgotten the punk-rock protest ethos that drove their grindcore roots. Whether they’re raising money for fellow musicians or literally fighting Nazis, the boys from Birmingham are always about using their powers for good. The closest they’ve ever come is having their song used in a TV show – not exactly lending a song to the Trump campaign.
Rage Against The Machine
For Rage Against The Machine, selling out would be the ultimate sin. Instead, the band took every opportunity at their disposal to bite the hand that feeds the rich – from shutting down the stock market to lampooning politicians and talk show hosts in their videos. For all their hard work, the California gang possess a career that is for all intents and purposes flawless, driven by moral activism and a need to speak truth to power. For most bands, putting a burning monk on their album cover would be career suicide; for these guys, it was a game-changer.
What it would mean to sell out is a relative term, and it’s worth mentioning that Norwegian black metal duo Darkthrone were probably never asked to sell toothpaste or burgers. But not only did Darkthrone focus on steadily releasing solid, interesting albums while other members of black metal’s second wave leaned on their kuh-razy reputations, but they’ve also refused to play live even after being offered shitloads of money to do so. Proof that for some bands, black metal will always be about the music first and foremost.
While plenty of bands are happy to perform anywhere so long as they get paid, Pearl Jam refused to play nice. At the height of their fame in the mid-’90s, the grunge giants discovered that Ticketmaster charged a service fee at a charity gig, gouging fans for their good-natured attendance. In return, the band boycotted Ticketmaster’s venues, instead erecting their own arenas in rural areas to play shows for fans. They also filed a monopoly lawsuit against the company; while it unfortunately fell part, the statement was important. It’s heartwarming to see a band this huge take a hit in the name of what’s right.
Given how many Swedish death metal bands from the ’90s and 2000s went wholly listenable later in their careers, it’s amazing that Meshuggah have held out so long. It’s especially impressive as djent, the genre they helped create, has become more and more mainstream. At any point, Meshuggah could’ve written a song with a steady, headbangable beat and a big chorus, and would’ve been hailed for “crossing boundaries” and “giving fans what they want”. Instead they’ve remained off-kilter, much to the chagrin of live audiences. Now if we could only find the downbeat…
For some reason, the idea of the Melvins selling out feels especially uncomfortable. If the kings of Washington alt-metal wrote a pop-rock tune or starred in a razor commercial, it would break our hearts. The salty, only-music-matters attitude of King Buzzo and co. is so much of why they maintain their status as underground royalty. Thankfully, the band have never even toyed with the idea, making catchy, stomp-along sludge rock that remains safely outside the mainstream consciousness. Exhale a sigh of relief.
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“I feel the same way most people do in that I have to disagree,” Dave Grohl says of the Nevemind album cover lawsuit.