Q&A

Q&A #2- Is it now acceptable to “sell out”?

Each week I take a question and try to answer it straight without rambling or going off-topic. I don’t always succeed. This week- is it now acceptable to sell out?

Selling out is a concept which came largely from punk rock. The idea was that if a band allowed their music to be used for any kind of commercial purpose by big companies they had sold their credibility and should therefore no longer be taken seriously by true music fans. It all came from ideas of sticking it to the man and being crazy anarchists and blah, blah, blah. Anyway these days it seems that when a band “sells out” people barely bat an eyelid. There are many bands who are still seen as very credible underground or counter-cultural figures who have taken part in activities which would previously have seen them labelled as sell-outs. So is this the position we’re in now?

I guess first we need to work out exactly what selling out is. This is pretty tricky because it really depends on how puritanical you are. Selling out could be collaborating with a big corporation (eg James Murphy’s 45:33 which was commissioned by Nike), or signing to a major label (just like the still-considered-pretty-credible Hot Chip, and thousands of others) or allowing your music to be used in an advert (I don’t think I need to give an example here). For real puritans it could even just be appearing in a major music publication or signing to a label at all. That’s part of the problem- selling out is something everyone thinks about differently. What might seem ridiculously over-zealous to some would be blindingly obvious to others.

Still, if we stick with a rough definition of selling-out being signing to a major or allowing your music to be used in an advert what then? Well there are still plenty of bands who’ve done one or both and are not considered sell-outs. Now why is this? Possibly it’s because we have a different attitude now. After all in the 80s we were all told about how we needed to dream big and succeed as much as possible, and whilst this may not have been directed at the indie kids exactly, perhaps it’s trickled down somewhat. It seems also we’re more relaxed about selling-out these days because we no longer fear or hate big corporations in the same way. You can see this as a good or a bad thing, but it’s a simple truth- bands now often see corporations as more of an opportunity than a daunting opponent. In fact some people have made an almost Warholian craft out of making the big boys finance their work. In that case maybe we should invoke that dreaded term post-modern. Is a feature of the post-modern society an acceptance of big corporations and therefore a “post-selling-out” position? It would seem easy to argue so.

One of the most convincing and obvious reasons smaller bands want to sell their music to the corporations though is because of the changed landscape of the music industry. Back in the days of punk it was far for a reasonably well known band to make a decent living without having to sell out because people still bought their records. These days, when everybody gets all their music online and still thinks it’s totally justifiable (though that’s a different topic for a different day) smaller bands are much harder pushed to make a living. And of course comes the argument “they can make their money from touring”, which of course they can but really, if you were given the choice between driving round the country with no rest or making a quick easy buck just by selling some songs which would you honestly choose? Maybe this is why we’ve come to accept selling out, we’ve just realised that in many cases it’s not as feasible for bands not to do so anymore.

Personally I have a lot of confusion over this issue. I still do (possibly naively) believe in those old punk ideals about not selling out. But it seems that everyone does it, and that it’s a necessary evil in today’s musical world. Because if I was going to be puritanical and cut myself off from all the “sell-outs” I have a nasty feeling I’d have to ditch a whole load of artists I really love. I guess we just need to accept that this is the way things are now. Selling out is here to stay, and maybe we just need to accept that. Though it’s still totally acceptable to call out bands with an anti-capitalist bent, ok?

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