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The Hot Topic: Selling Out

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We’re back, and this time it is not only personal, it’s obsequious. It has been nine months since the Mondo Brethren got together for a collaboration of such monumental importance that even David Hasselhoff has to take note. In that time scientists have made progress on the Project, the gurl has admitted certain admissions, and with the help of Jack Bauer, one El Bicho squirreled his way into our midst.

So, get comfortable (but keep your pants on), light up your smokes of choice, turn down the lights and let us amuse, bemuse, entertain, and stimulate your intellect with our pondering pontifications. For here it is, the Hot Topic:

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: Mat Brewster
RE: Selling Out

From the horizon comes the giant, 4X4 truck, climbing like a lion over the mountain. Flying along the great plains. Rumbling through streams and rocks, and mud it goes. On the soundtrack comes the thunder of a bass, the roar of a guitar and Roger Daltrey singing about “Baba O Reiley.” On the screen, words flash about how amazing, astounding, and down right awesome this new vehicle is, and that you can buy it for a low, low cost.

Across the land, a grumbled chorus can be heard chanting, “sell-out!”

Never mind that the Who themselves declared they had sold out way back in 1964.

We’ve seen it all before. Selling out is the worst insult you can label an artist and yet it seems fans throw the word about like cotton candy and at the slightest provocation. It not only happens when an artist allows his/her song to be used to shill products, but whenever they make a change to their own style, when they suddenly gain an influx of fans (whether they asked for them or not) and even when they change pants.

Did Pete Townsend sell out when he used his music to sell automobiles?

The short answer is yes. The long answer starts with its own question, that is, so what? It is easy to sit in my comfortable office chair, having written exactly zero songs and complain that Pete sold his soul for a buck. But if the ad man came running to me, would I be so good as to stand by my principles? Would I hold tight to my musical integrity when literally tens of thousands of dollars were offered for it? I’m not so sure.

I have a friend who is in a little funk/hip hop/psychedelic trio. They are very serious musicians who take their craft and their art to heart. Not long ago, through some various connections they were offered a job as the house band for a club in the Cayman Islands. The trip there and back, plus the lodging would all be take care of. They would be given an expense account and a very decent wage. The only catch was they couldn’t play any original music, but had to play the classic hits of the '80s. Without question they all agreed to go.

Later I joked with my friend that he had sold out for a week’s vacation. He laughed and whole-heartedly agreed. When they got back they went right back to playing the music they loved, and being serious musicians. Did the trip make them less of a band? By selling out, did the music they were creating become any less? I don’t think so.

As a fan, I like to believe the music I love is special, that by liking it, I am made special, too. And there is something amazing about finding something great, that hasn’t been overblown to gigantic proportions. When a great band is relatively unknown, it makes you feel like part of a secret society. But when that band is suddenly being played relentlessly on MTV and Top 40 radio, that specialness wears off. It is easy to blame the band and call them sell outs, than to own up to the fact that their greatness is universal.

This is not to say that something isn’t lost when a band sells their music for corporate gain. When Pete Townsend sells his music to a commercial, it cheapens the music. Whenever I hear “Baba O Reiley” these days, instead of raising my hands for teenage rebellion, I picture a giant SUV roaming over the mountain tops.

When an artist begins to realize the fortunes that come with commercialization, I suspect it is difficult not to make the music they are writing after simply a corporate shill. To me, that is the true sell out. Whenever an artist writes for the masses instead of their heart, they have truly sold out, regardless of money made.

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: Aaron Fleming
RE: Selling Out

Ah, the old sell-out debate, a contentious issue for sure. The accusation of selling out is bandied about so frequently that it's readily noticeable on the tips of tongues everywhere just as soon as a band (since music is almost custom-built for this type of discussion)
begins to sell albums that aren't CD-Rs wrapped in cheap photocopy. But what is selling out, and what precisely is being `sold out' in this process?

Herr Brewster pinpoints two main areas in this debate: the use of artistic creation to explicitly sell commercial products, and changing that artistic creation (or the way in which it is created) with the express objective of attracting a wealth of fans. I must say that in itself gaining a large amount of fans does not confer sell-out status; although I like as much as anyone to enjoy something not yet plastered all over the cultural zeitgeist, but this doesn't necessarily reflect the actions of the artist in question, and I think placed at the core of the notion of selling out has to be the artist.

The cries of "sell-out" echo so resoundingly so often because we assign especial prestige to artists, who are perceived as independent of the toils of everyday life – as unique and distanced from the homogenised labour that permeates society. In the reification of
artistic creation, it's all too often forgotten that not only are these individuals forced into the socioeconomic reality of requiring money to live, but they too share the neurosis and psychological failings of the human condition.

Surely what is being sold out are an artist's own principles. Principles which we can only extrapolate from prior examples of their work. So, over time we learn that such-and-such are the ideals that this person holds dear as an important value. But does one not change over time? Can one not discard and acquire new principles?

I would say so.

Then how can we judge at all? Well, we confer our own values upon said artist, a projection which in many ways place ourselves in their position. Though of course this is a fallacious method to make a judgement, as Mat says, would he crumble to the sounds of banknotes being proffered his way? Only speculation and conjecture is possible.

In short, what is being sold out is our own ideas of what an artist should do, which is predicated on the special esteem we ascribe to them.

With this in mind, and returning to Mat's dual areas of selling products and attracting fans en masse, I would view both these in a negative light. It's clear that what links the two is money. The utilisation of a song in an advertisement brings revenue to the artist, but it also strips a certain amount of cultural credibility from the piece as it takes on a purely functional purpose. Changing to attract fans increases sales and opens the gates to an array of synergistic marketing.

As a Marxist I see both of these as wretched and, on the whole, pointless, but also it must be borne in mind that people need to make a living. So, and I'm reminded of discussions with The Duke on this matter, shilling products can be excused when the alternative is poverty or having to give up creative endeavour to get a 9 to 5 job. But when it comes to someone with easily enough money to live on, then I cannot think of any good reason not to view them as corporate whores.

That's my ideological position, which in the end comes down to a mere subjective outlook. But what can be taken from this, that is, the valorised role of artists in society and the fact that we're even tackling this question, is that creativity, after all the garbage spectacles of capitalism have been pealed away, is seen as the most valuable and admired tropes of the human condition.

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: Mark Saleski
RE: Selling Out

Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It's no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you're in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.

I wish I had written the paragraph above. So succinct. So eloquent. But it wasn't me. It was Tom Waits. Waits walks the walk, not only refusing to sell his music for corporate advertising, but going to far as to take companies to court who attempt to sidestep his refusals by hiring 'soundalike' artists.

This Waits quote resonates with me because obviously it's how I think and write about music. The idea that music is more than product — that it often carries emotional import to the listener — is a powerful one. That's why when I do hear things like The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" or Regina Spektor's "Better" in the context of a television theme or an ad, I feel a shadow of disappointment. Sure, those artists own their music and can legally do with it whatever they like. Still, I can't help but feel that the intensity of my memory has been compromised against my will.

Yes, the music is made and is sold. There's no getting around the commercial aspects. But there's a difference between great art that happens to sell and art that's made to sell.

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: Mary K Williams
RE: Selling Out

I would like to know, how do you not sell out? How can an artist for example, not redirect his work towards a mainstream audience on occasion?

When we start out young, figuring out our talents and dreaming of the future, how many of us never EVER dream of ‘making it big?' For some, that’s all they think about. Others just want to have a little recognition and respect from peers, but it’s the rare person that doesn’t have some little image of being at a podium or another, channeling Sally Field, “You like me, you really like me!” Suppose a young girl sits in her art teacher’s office, listening to the likes of, ‘you have superb talent, you need to take this further’ – you think that this girl didn’t have a flash of a fantasy involving her work hanging in a tony Manhattan gallery some day?

I loved Mat’s example of his friends’ experience in the Caymans. Some talented dudes taking a break from their standard work (their own original music) and stretching their musical muscles in a different direction. And they happened to get to do this in a beautiful location, AND get paid! This is absolutely fantastic, and nothing to be ashamed about. I can’t consider it a ‘sell-out’ even though, as we’re learning, the term has varied and subjective meanings.

There has to be – there IS – a discernible difference between exploring different kinds of genres in your field; and a musician planting tidbits of gossip here or there, that will result in full blown write-ups, and further result in record sales. I think when we look at the more derogatory association of ‘selling out’ – it could mean an artist trying to overtly manipulate their fans or the media in order to gain publicity. The sellout is the tipping point of over-saturation of a given artist whether by design or circumstance. Not to mention the earning of a heap-load of extra cash.

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: DJRadiohead
RE: Selling Out

What constitutes selling out? Is selling out good or bad? Who gives a fuck either way?

There are a lot of issues at work here and I have given several of them some degree of thought. Here is as far as I have gotten with them:

The relationship between an artist, their work, and the fans is a complex one on many levels. When an artist creates a work, for example a songwriter writes a song, that song belongs to the artist. It's his. They can do what the fuck they want to with it. They wrote it. They own it. It's theirs. Period.

What is so complicated about that? When a song connects with an audience, it takes on a new life beyond the control of its creator. When a song connects with an audience, it becomes sacred and personal. This is where the conflict between artist and audience begins. Consumerism might not be evil, but it sure isn't sacred and when those two seemingly competing ideas are asked to co-exist, it feels tantamount to a betrayal and said betrayal goes up our collective asses sideways.

When you distill this all down to its basic elements, it is all pretty fucking silly. The song is bigger than the artist or the audience. If Bruce Springsteen wants to sell his half of "Across the Border" to Taco Bell to peddle chalupas, it should have no bearing on what I do with my half of the song.

This is the TiVo and iPod generation. We, the end users, the media consumers, watch shows on demand and buy and listen to songs in the order and context of our choosing. Blocks of programming are rendered pointless, the concept of the album is eroding. An artist can no more insist we hear their music as they intended than we can insist the artist treat their creations to suit our contrived and convoluted sense of ethics.

To: The Hot Topic Team
From: El Bicho
RE: Selling Out

“Sell-out,” a sleight uttered by those who think their definition of “cool” should be of any consequence to a musician. Aside from the normal delusions of self-importance created by the ego, I am not sure what makes a person think he has been crowned arbiter of a musician’s status. Probably some romantic ideal of the bohemian artist, read about in worn paperbacks and glossy magazines, which ceases to exist after said musician hits the big time, presuming that condition ever occurred in the first place.

Music creates such a deep bond that a presumptive sense of entitlement infects people. It’s rather selfish and obnoxious for fans to place musicians into this bizarre form of bondage. You would think the pleasure of a song would be enough. Usually when a stranger gives you a gift, it is met with gratitude not a demand for more, especially when nothing is given in return. Oh, sure, there’s fanatical devotion, but if that could be spent, Gene Simmons wouldn’t have sold KISS Kaskets.

The term “sell-out” is bandied about when a musician alters his work, usually considered to be an appeal to a larger audience, or when Madison Ave. is using a generation’s teenage soundtrack to pitch products.  Both of which are done to make money obviously.

No one wants their favorite band to be appreciated by the huddled masses. Friends are perfectly fine as is a small group who know their stuff, but when people you don’t like enjoy your music, it turns you uncool by association, and that ain’t cool. It’s bad enough once the mainstream music magazines take notice, but when Us Weekly writes a feature, the publicity appears to reach whorish levels.

The worst is when your mother likes your music. You have to immediately drop that band from your collection. Sure, at first, it will seem like a great set-up. Your friends will come around, hang out and drink, mom will joke around, cook, and everyone thinks she’s the coolest. That’s great until a few weeks go by and you come home to find Paul and mom in bed  together smoking a joint. You spend the remainder of the year startled by ringing phones in fear that the voice on the other end will say, “Hello, I’m Janelle from The Jerry Springer Show.” There’s no song yet, blues or country, to help you get over that calamity.

Others want to place a musician in stasis for perpetuity, capturing them at the precise moment in time of the recording, but the truly talented musicians want to expand and explore. I feel embarrassed for all the people who booed Bob Dylan and called him “Judas” because he wanted to play electric. After all that great folk music he created, probably more than anyone in that same time period, it wasn’t enough. I feel indebted to him just for “Masters of War,” but these geniuses didn’t care. Like a high school sweetheart who doesn’t want his girl going off to college and leaving him behind, they said don’t be who you want to be. Be what we want you to be. We know better even though we couldn’t create the music you did. All he wanted was to try something new, something that excited him, to explore other modes of music. Apparently folk music fans had no use for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Tangled Up in Blue.” Their loss is our gain.

I do understand the shock and pain of hearing your favorite band spilling out of the TV in an effort to pimp merchandise. The first time I heard Jane’s Addiction, my band, from right here in Los Angeles, selling Coors Light with “The Mountain Song” I must admit I did feel a wave of nausea. These guys had trouble getting the video aired back in 1988-89, although they eventually did with black bars covering miscellaneous naughty bits, but were now considered safe enough for Middle America.

I did some research and found out that after Strays and its supporting tour, which had a number of cancelled dates, the band found itself in a great deal of debt, so they sold the song to cover their losses.  Completely understandable from a business perspective, so any complaints from detractors ring hollow. Why they couldn’t have picked a better beer than that watery swill known as Coors Light is best left for another time.

Back to the original question, “Did Pete Townsend sell out when he used his music to sell automobiles?”

My answer would hinge on whether or not he retains the rights to The Who’s music. The Beatles sold Nike sneakers, but that wasn’t their fault because Michael Jackson owned the rights at the time. If he does, the answer is obviously yes, but since I don’t pay his bills I really don’t care. I’ll just say, “Thanks,” for “My Generation,” and consider everything else a bonus.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Guiness Crowley

    Just wanted to chime in on one point. I only get on my soap box when I hear a song I grew up with being used to sell products.
    I love my music. I hate advertising. I feel raped by it every day. Advertising is a chattering whisper of insanity that seems intent on never letting me forget that I am nothing more than cattle. The fact that advertising is a lie and that it is an infuriating waste of money is only overshadowed by the rage I feel when it tries to obtain my favor by wrapping itself in the trappings of my most cherished memories. I don’t care if a band sets out to write a new song for a commercial, but don’t whore out a song that has served a different cause for years just to give a corporation a back door into my affections. Don’t give them the songs that we celebrated our youth with to market garbage to me in my middle age.
    These songs have a special backdrop in my mind. They were always the soundtrack for the best times of my life. The times when I felt free and strong and had the deepest faith in my souls potential to escape this psychological labor camp we call life.
    There are many good things here in this life, but there are also a great many things that give me reason to suspect that this might actually be hell. When I hear a Janes Addiction song behind a beer commercial or a Violent Femmes song behind a burger king commercial I am not transported back to the nights with my friends that I never wanted to end… rather I am hurled into every moment where I was watching the clock, waiting for the horrible experience to be over.
    I find myself back in college, at an interview in a nearby Uni-Mart, trying to keep a straight face as the store manager asks me where I see myself within the Uni_Mart family in 5 years. I was in college. I needed some pocket money. That was the extent of it. Before the commercial that whored out my music my answer to that store manger would have been “If I’m still here in 5 years I’m burning this store down with me in it”. After the commercial that whored out my music the answer would be “Well sir, I hope to one day follow in your fine footsteps and hopefully earn the responsibility of running my own Uni-Mart”.
    Do you see? Can you feel it? It is the death of something once sacred. It is the corrosion of the unshakable belief that we are more and we will never give in.
    Those songs and those sentiments are forever tainted after they promote a product. Especially when that product is rarely as good as it claims to be and usually turns out to not only harm us the consumer but probablly harmed many other people on it’s way to the market.
    When I’m 3 drinks in and feeling a bit beaten down by the day and “Mountain Song” plays on the juke box I don’t feel that purging chill down my spine as the music softens my bodies hold on my soul and lifts it out to take a quick nourishing dip in the ether. I don’t feel that because it doesn’t happen, not anymore. What does happen is I get to the point right when the chill down my back would release me but then I lose focus on the promis of heaven and start thinking about Coors Light, because that’s what this song is about now.
    So instead of swimming in the rejouvenating spirit of my childhood I find myself fuming about yet another gateway back to my youth that has been blocked by a corporate sponsored toll gate. That’s why I think it’s a sell out. The only way it would be forgiven would be if all the money made on the transaction was donated to something of value like cancer or aids research. If I knew that the band did it for that reason then I could look the other way and pay the toll.

  • Artists DON’T sell their music to adverts, music publishing companies do. Major artists MIGHT get consulted as a courtesy, to keep them sweet, but technically it’s entirely out of their hands…

  • Janelle, glad everything is OK now, and this little online community is doing some very big things, come back and visit again!

  • Janelle aka Ashley

    Mary, I googled my name last night and came across this online journal community… and I also ran into El Bicho using my full name in his entry on this page. I wanted him to remove my last name… which he did… but I found it a little unnerving having a stranger use my full name in his journal. I have been communicating with El Bicho and everything is A-O-K now. Just a little weird running across your name on the internet. I have, however, worked for the Jerry Springer Show and was just curious how El Bicho got my name.

  • Well, gee, I wanted to see who Ashley wanted to talk to. Probably wasn’t me : (

    (not really upset : )

  • Oh, and Temple’s comments are currently being tagged as spam by the new anti-spam software on the site, which means I have to release them manually. It will learn that he’s not a spammer in a day or two, possibly faster if he makes a lot more comments. It’s happened to quite a few people, including me.

  • Sorry, but that’s bad advice – and clunky too. All anyone has to do is click one of the links above to the author’s own blog. Ashley’s comment has indeed been deleted…

  • Ashley, assuming you are talking about the authors of this piece. Go ahead and post a comment with your email and who you’d like to speak to. The comment will be erased because they don’t like personal info on the site, but the comment will still have made it to Mat you can forward it.

  • Ashley

    How do I e-mail an author of one of the blogs?

  • Are comments held in pending now too, because I tried to post my #8 a few time and it never showd. Now I see it’s there. And, yes, Mat, that makes more sense. Thank you.

  • Vern Halen

    I’ve always thought the songs you write are like your children – some of them make you proud, some are brilliant, some are full of mischief, some are quiet but deep, some are successful (as in rich & famous). On the other hand, some end up working for a company you don’t like, but if you’ve brought them up right, they’ll do you proud anyway on some level.

    I’m biased here – I don’t watch a lot of TV anyway, so it mostly doesn’t bother me.

  • Mat Brewster

    Re: Comment Three

    The gist of my part of the post was that it’s ok for a musician to sell his work for a commercial. In the comment I was trying to express that I have, in fact, been angered by a musician doing just that. I understand folks who get pissed off when they hear their favorite band on a Coke commercial.

    However, having never been offered millions of dollars by Coca-Cola to sell my music, I can’t really say what I would do.

    Point being it is easy to sit on the sidelines and judge, but a different story when you are staring at the wads of cash being offered to these guys.

    Make more sense?

    While heroin certainly wasn’t the cause of the suicide, I suspect it didn’t really help matters much.

  • Mat – #3. Now riff please …

    Heroin doesn’t really cause suicide or even suicidal tendencies – it is suicide, but millions of people have that shared monkey rider. Also, you take drugs, more often than not because of something I your life that’s eating at you.

  • I can’t go on, this is too depressing. Singh will be over in the morning with the books, you can see for yourself. Maybe we should call back the Budweiser guys and see if they still want “Reelin” for the malt liquor commercial. You didn’t tell them what I told you to tell them, right? Tell me you didn’t.

    –Walter Becker, in a memo to his agent

  • Cobain, essentially killed himself because he saw the future, with a significant factor being intense stomach pain.

    …and then there was that pesky heroin addiction.

  • Mat Brewster

    Can you point out which comment makes no sense, and I’ll try to make it clearer. My opinion on the whole concept are mixed and ever changing, so I’m sure I may not always be particularly precise.

  • Selling out is subjective.

    If a ban dlike OK GO, starts out marketing their music and puttin git to commercials as often as possible, they aren’t selling out. That is, unless there can be considered some kind of referse sell-out where they go Gothemo (one word, roll with it). And I don’t think that can be considered.

    You definitely have sold out when, well, take Nirvana for example. Kurt Cobain and the grooup was famous for their “Corporations Still suck” t-shirts and similar sentiments. Hell, Kurt didn’t like Pearl Jam’s music (still can’t quite figure that one out) They walked a line of having cred while still sounding fairly commercial (insert your own interpretation here).

    Cobain, essentially killed himself because he saw the future, with a significant factor being intense stomach pain. He didn’t think he had the power to keep the essence of why the music was important to him. Dave Grohl obviously had more of a commercial “sell-out” bent (and I’m not trying to knock the Foo’s) in that he wanted to be in a different space musically.

    Almost lost my train of thought there. When I heard Jewel’s “Intuition” for the women’s razor and Liz Phair’s “Extraordinary” for the WNBA, I paused, but didn’t curl up and die too badly. (I did send a CD single to a friend who wrote a book called “Intuition.” Both women had already taken steps with their music to become more mainstream. Extraordinary is over-the-top mush and has no internal integretity anyway – except as a feel good tour de force.

    I want “Fuck and Run” over a Nike commercial, but, yeh, that’s just me.

    But if I heard Ani DiFranco anything on any commercial that wasn’t a PSA for something, I would be stopped in my tracks and consider it a dark, sad day.

    Fugazi? The Same. There are others.

    Mat’s comment makes no sense, respectfully. You’re a music fan with feelings for music. If something strikes you as wrong, well it’s your musical milieux. That doesn’t mean all opnions are created equal, but …

    Simply put, the idea of whether something is a sell-out is where the music began.

  • Mat Brewster

    Yeah, I definitely have felt that sting, and have made more than my share of derrogatory comments towards a given artist for selling out, but hey, nobody has ever offered me a dime for anything artistic I’ve created, so I don’t have much right to knock others for doing it.

  • I’ve been all over the map in terms of how I feel about this sell-out question. Like El B, I admit I have occasionally groaned when I heard a song I like in a commercial. On the other hand, I don’t have to marry that song to those commercial images. I have a choice in the matter.

    I also think ElB said what I had intended to say when I was trying to explain the triangle of artist-song-fan.

  • Mat Brewster

    It’s hard to argue with a guy like Tom Waits. The guy walks his talk. I got nothing but respect for that. Still, I can’t really knock other folks for making the decision to make a few extra bucks on the side.

    With people like the Who I have a hard time caring that much since songs like “Baba OReilley” have been played by radio stations for so long and at such repetition that the song has lost most of its shine long before it hit a commercial.