After cutting his chops in the New York anti-folk scene of the early 1990s, Beck’s “Loser,” which would end up becoming one of the unexpected anthems of Generation X, was released on the indie label Bong Load in 1993. A few months later, Beck was signed to the Geffen subsidiary DGC, and went on to become massive.
Only in the 1990s could a Japanese noise band sign to an American major label and play the main stage at big music festivals like Lollapalooza, only to be dropped a few years later. Such was the case with Boredoms’ deal with Reprise Records.
Johnston turned down a deal with Elektra because he believed Metallica, one of the label’s biggest acts, were agents of Satan. He broke the news to his then-manager from his room in a mental hospital while major labels fought to sign the guy who created the iconic “Hi, How Are You” T-shirt worn by Kurt Cobain. He ended up signing with Atlantic in 1994 and was dropped by 1996.
The Afghan Whigs
From playing small clubs in Ohio to signing with Nirvana’s old indie, The Afghan Whigs had the cred and the chops to be massive enough to sign a big deal with Elektra in 1993, only to split with the label after their album Black Love didn’t do well commercially. The band would sign with Sony/Columbia for 1998’s 1965, then break up until this year’s acclaimed reunion.
Jawbox/Shudder to Think
When you think Dischord records, you tend to think of Ian MacKaye and his legion of indie warriors. That’s probably why it came as such a big surprise that these two bands signed to major labels (Jawbox to Atlantic, Shudder to Think to Epic), with some degree of success for both bands.
Made up of members from straightedge stalwarts like Bold, Youth of Today, and Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand may have been the ultimate post-hardcore band. So post-hardcore, in fact, that the band put out their first full-length on Polydor Records.
The 1990s should always be remembered as a magical time when a band comprised of Jon Spencer (of noise-rock band Pussy Galore and his Blues Explosion project) and his lead singer wife, Cristina Martinez (who had no problem with getting completely nude at live performances or for album covers) could make it with a major. Their band Boss Hog put out one album on Geffen in 1995 then reappeared in 2000 back on an indie label.
Drive Like Jehu/Rocket From the Crypt
It’s interesting to think that in the early 1990s, somebody at Interscope Records thought signing two bands featuring John Reis was going to be a fruitful deal. While Drive Like Jehu would record one album of music sometimes classified as emo (before emo became a dirty word), Rocket From the Crypt made it several years before signing to Vagrant Records.
The Jesus Lizard
The two words that best describe The Jesus Lizard’s sound and live show were always: dark and confrontational. Yet thanks to a split with Nirvana, the major labels wanted a band with a lead singer that Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad described as sounding like “a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth.”
In possibly the strangest story of a band going from an indie to a major (and then suing their indie a few years later for the rights to their back catalog), the noisy Texas band known for their near-riot live shows and eye-catching name actually had a massive hit with the 1996 song “Pepper.”
Babes in Toyland
Not quite grunge and not considered part of the riot grrrl movement, either, the Minneapolis band could certainly be mistaken for both. While the 1992 album Fontanelle (complete with Cindy Sherman photograph for the album cover) and the 1995 follow-up Nemesisters sold well, the band lost its contract by 1996.
Green Day were the band that signaled the end of the post-Nirvana indie gold rush, and the beginning of the pop-punk era, but signing them away from their indie label Lookout! probably wouldn’t have been considered a safe bet if Nevermind had never been as big as it was.