The ” Sell-out” Paradox

Sell-out. One abusive word that can be hurled at the most humble of musicians after they experience a bit of success and decide that would prefer to make business deals in order to make a steady income rather than keep playing small local venues in order to make pizza money. To be honest, there are times when I use the word myself, but I think it suffers from a very vague definition in everyday usage.

My definition of selling out is when someone is already as successful financially as one can be in the game and then decides:

“ Why stop here? I have the capacity to sell people potato chips, nonsense health yogurts and a wide array other absolute crap and be paid shedloads of money to do it!”

Without naming names, it’s a pet hate of mine when I see a soft-drink commercial using an already super famous person to flog a few more litres of its sugary death juice. I really start despair for popstars like that. Do they really need that money? Wouldn’t the gracious thing to do be to just step aside and let someone up and coming who could do with the endorsement whore their image out while they’re at a forgivably young stage of their career? Do you really need to build a swimming pool inside of your swimming pool?

Whatever the case, it seems sellout is more often than not directed at artists outside of the pop genre or those few who dare crossover from the underground into it. Look at your typical underground act. It takes hundreds of hours of practice in order to become good enough at performing to make a meagre living doing it and even more to make a good living. If you play in a band you need to be several things at once, a competent musician, punctual, dedicated, a psychologist with the patience of saint to put up with other musicians and their egos, a networking expert, a getaway/roadie/taxi driver ect. You take all of these things and you basically have a full-time job which most musicians do on top another full or part-time job to supplement their income. It’s not easy and on top of all that everyone who doesn’t achieve at least moderate success has a ticking time bomb resting in their lap.

Age. There’s a fine line between being a young aspiring musician and becoming a grown adult with responsibilities that can’t afford to practice four nights a week and play shows at the weekend. You can’t speed across town to rescue your fucked up bass player from a crack den when you got an early start the next day and you’re old enough to give a shit about things like buying a house or installing a wooden patio. You can’t just fuck off to Europe to play small festivals that pay you in regionally brewed alcohol and bizarre crypto-currencies that always fail to ever become the next Bitcoin in lieu of actual money when you have a dog and a cat and a boyfriend/girlfriend and shit. It’s just not feasible. You start to show up to practice less, there’s less of you to go around and eventually the current incarnation of your career implodes and you become a part-timer, then hobbyist and eventually a full-blown Sunday painter. Eventually you’ll encounter others on the same path and you’ll gravitate towards each other. You’ll start a new project where everything is far more relaxed and far more sporadic. Megan will be your guitarist, She’s got faded tattoos of bands that you used to like and shitloads of stories about her children. You drink and smoke weed together about as much as you spend time playing music and it will depress the shit out of you. Because as Megan tells you another funny thing her kid said last week that isn’t actually funny at all you realize that Megan is a mirror of yourself. The reason you resent her is because she holds a mirror up to something about yourself that you don’t want to accept. Your own faded glory.

However, one fateful day after playing a small venue opening for a much younger, more obnoxious band, you are gathered around a table drinking with your bandmates and realize that you’re actually having a great time. Megan’s actually pretty cool when she gets drunk and you enjoy swapping war stories about the old days, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have work tomorrow and your other half has given you explicit permission to get drunk because you babysat/dogsat/catsat for the last month. You realize that apart from your new found domestic bliss, there’s no other place that you would rather be. Fuck making it. That pressure is gone. You’ve missed the boat for the twenty seven club a long time ago and dying of drug abuse, suicide or being murdered by a crazed fan at your age isn’t cool anymore, it’s just inconvenient and embarrassing. As you come to this moment of self-realization you feel an overwhelming sense of contentment, it makes you feel, powerful. Almost godlike.

Your attention turns to the younger band you’ve just opened for and you come to the conclusion that you’ve seen it all before. The angst, the apathy, the stupid haircuts. The singer looks like an asshole, the type of asshole that you pray you never were back in the day. All of the songs are clearly about sex and an ex-girlfriend he cheated on but is still in love with but this is disguised through metaphors because that’s artistic and shit. His girlfriend is clearly that girl slightly away from the front of the stage but he’s fucking the girl with bigger tits closer to the back with her friends. Pathetic. Amateurish. At least cheat on the road and don’t shit on your doorstep. The guitarist looks very well groomed and is possibly gay but hasn’t realized it yet,  he looks like he might end up going into real-estate contracting. The Drummer looks like the type of drug addict that could die any day now or do a 180 and end up a vegan cycling enthusiast with a shitload of kids in the suburbs, the wife works, not him. The bass player seems like an IT guy and probably will be for the rest of his life.

You don’t miss any of it, and you’re glad you don’t. You know what time you’ll be home at and who’ll be in bed with and take comfort in that fact. The younger you would call you a sellout, the older you doesn’t give a shit. Maybe you’ll even relent to what your bandmates have been suggesting and start playing covers….

This is one road to go down and the road of success from what I’ve seen and heard is not enviable. Especially not nowadays. Social media and the rise of the gutterpress on the internet has made life for a young celebrity hell. Any semblance of a normal life that extremely famous people had before the invention of the internet is well and truly gone. Marlon Brando could have probably thrown on a pair of shades and gone to McDonalds, Justin Bieber and Billy Eilish? Not a chance. Poor them right? I’m not suggesting that anyone feel sorry for them, but I would worry about anyone that becomes famous below the age of 25 nowadays because any concept of reality is completely out the window. It’s also impossible for Bieber to sell out. He’s such a mainstream popstar that he’s not just allowed to endorse whatever product his handlers decide he should, he expected to do it. Billie would probably get a bit more flack.

Nevertheless Bieber is not alone, because in Hip Hop, as far as mainstream hip hop is concerned, the concept of selling out doesn’t really seem to exist. Since it’s beginning there has been a strong focus on financial prowess being a desirable attribute and dare I say it, a good thing. It’s perfectly fine for rappers to diversify their business interests and become fashion label owners, fragrance designers, headphone technology pioneers or restauranteers. The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well and while I doubt every hip hop artist who ever released a perfume or fragrance spent years in Italy or France honing their nose until they came up with the perfect combination of ingredients, their fanbases don’t seem to have turned against them too much for it.

The most violent hatred of perceived sellouts seems to come from the alternative rock and heavy metal scenes. This however is the type of criticism that I’ve never managed to get my head around. The proponents of the theory that anyone who plays in these types of bands and so much as attends a job interview not wearing an ironic t-shirt with an offensive slogan is a filthy corporate shill are always particularly bitter in their assault. I’ve met people who seemed to feel personally betrayed by bands who crossover into the mainstream and start going on tours that allow them to support their families and get a mortgage. I think if a band changes their sound so significantly that you don’t like them anymore then it sucks, if they did it order to get on the radio and sell more content, it kind of sucks even more. However, I don’t feel anyone should be expected to suffer unnecessarily just for the voyeuristic pleasure their fanbase.

What I mean is that there are certain people out their whose idea of an ideal musician is an incredibly gifted, tortured genius, who was orphaned by the police murdering their parents and has some form of undiagnosed mental illness that prevents them from pursing any kind of normal profession. Basically Van Gough with a guitar. This person pours their heart and soul into their work so you don’t have to and receives, nor should be interested in receiving, any substantial financial compensation. In typical cases when bands are accused of selling-out their accusers are long-term fans who claim to have supported them since their inception.

” They used to be good before they sold-out” ect ect…….

The key thing that I’ve never understood about this attitude is that by definition almost everybody walking the on the face of the earth is a sell-out. Everybody either works for somebody or owns a business. One could argue that a group of musicians who have managed to figure out how to make a decent living from a mixture of releasing content, performing live and endorsements have far more street cred than someone who works directly for a massive corporation and isn’t being paid to produce any kind of creative content. If you’re a pretty big wheel on your local punk scene and are a manager in a fast food ” restaurant” then who is the shill really? Nobody wants to pay to come see you flip burgers live. Worse yet, there are people who are in highly desirable positions in massive corporations who carry the same attitude. You’re angry because your favourite band has watered down the subject matter of their major label debut but you’ve spent the last month flying to business meetings across the country/globe so you’re already filthy rich CEO can afford an even more ridiculously expensive car.

You could argue that you are just not a creative person, deep behind your counter-cultural facade there is an unrelenting pragmatist who just wants to be entertained, buried under your mohawk there is a simple, almost conservative personality which likes your dinner ready when you come home, your lawn cut and your favourite artists to be revolutionary and uncompromising. You’re the kind of person who buys ridiculously over-priced, limited-edition box-sets that bands release when they start running out of drug money. You may even post unboxing videos on youtube.

Whatever the case, as an artist, your bank account and your integrity should be two completely different entities.