Is the concept of selling out past its sell by date?

Is the concept of selling out past its sell by date?

Is the concept of selling out past its sell by date?

Recently I saw a Gucci ad which uses Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’ in its campaign ad. And during the Super Bowl, millions heard the mash-up of the Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary” and Flo-Rida’s “Good Feeling” during a Miller Lite ad. Most people in my age group get annoyed by this.

If you asked most kids these days how they’d feel about their favorite band or singer loaning their songs out to a commercial, I doubt they’d be inclined to raise an eyebrow.

But if you were a kid of the alternative rock persuasion of the late 80’s and early 90’s you can remember a time when it was a bummer to see one of your favorite musicians selling out. Neal Young even lampooned various artists selling their artistic souls in the 1988 song and video: “This Note’s for You”.

When the college radio craze creeped across suburbia, we thought artists like Iggy Pop, The Buzzcocks, New Order, The Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain & Tones On Tail, were far too subversive and left of center to ever shill beer, cars, etc. But that was as they say, a long time ago, because all of them have lent their song to one or several commercials.

And when the alt-rock revolution did hit the mainstream in the early 90’s, there was a self-conscious effort by bands to try to offset their new-found fame by declaring they’d never sell-out  (albeit one funded by multi-million dollar major labels). It became a badge of honor, a barometer of authenticity.

When Moby sold every single song off his major hit album  “Play” for commercial use, justifying that this would give him artistic freedom in the future, he was slightly vilified for selling out, but he was simply ahead of the curve (He recently licensed his cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” for a BMW ad.)

Around the late 90’s the GAP launched a series of ads which featured music by indie bands like Low, among others. It seems that ever since then, the stigma of doing commercials has lifted.

The notion of selling out is of course entirely subjective. Kurt Cobain was one of the biggest to hurl accusations of who he considered sell-outs, whether he was bashing Pearl Jam or the Pumpkins for being “careerists” , or saying how much he hated “corporate” rock bands like Guns’N’Roses.

But he had no problems whatsoever with Wal-Mart releasing censored versions of his albums, because he wanted to reach as many fans as possible. And that’s the problem. Every artist wants to have an impact. It’s the terms that get sticky, and cause internal pressure and strife. How does one deal with and internalize becoming a human commodity? That was of course one of many factors that led to his suicide.

These days, it’s the best way for a an artist to get heard. Indie and Alternative rock bands like M83, Fun, Grouplove and others benefit hugely from selling their songs. Radio just can’t break an artist like it could pre-internet culture. And name me a car company that hasn’t used electronic music like Massive Attack or The Chemical Brothers?  Given that genre of music has never shifted in massive units, even in its heyday, can you blame them for getting a cut?

And selling out doesn’t begin and end with commercials. It could also be applied to reality television: I’d never in a million years have imagined that musicians like Dave Navarro and INXS would allow their presence on a crappy reality show, or that Iggy Pop would be on American Idol (but his Carnival cruise ad should have been a hint). Navarro is the worst repeat offender, having done many reality tv series, but as he has stated, since the music business is hurting, this is the way he can make a living, since music videos are dead as a marketing tactic. This could be true, but it’s still uncomfortable to watch.

And does selling out begin and end with marketing?  When a band or artist do a tour that plays their most successful albums from start to finish, or a band where the members loathe each other reunite, can that be seen as anything other than a cash grab?

And I’m still getting over Chris Cornell’s  Timbaland produced solo-record from a few years ago which seemed a desperate move at remaining relevant. But was reforming Soundgarden just a retreat from that critically fatal musical error, or an organic movement?

In the end, selling out isn’t in the common vernacular anymore.  Bands could get away with boasting how they’d never sell out when people were buying their music in large quantities. Since that’s now harder to come by, they go for what they can get. And it’s getting harder to blame them.
We all got into these bands when most of us were either living under our parents roof or at college with the strange Generation X cocktail of cynicism and naiveté.  We didn’t buy what politicians were selling, but we also hadn’t had time to wrap our heads around making a living and how economics rule our lives, no matter how distasteful the reality.

Who hasn’t taken a job they didn’t like, or did a task they thought was beneath them or try to impress their superiors? We all have. That’ll take the wind out of any idealist or ideologue, and make it harder to point any fingers. And when I said college radio swept over suburbia, that’s also telling. What were kids in the sheltered suburbs doing questioning other’s making a living? It becomes harder to defend, although it still seems oddly important for those of us who grew up in that brief time where underground music broke into the collective consciousness. But those artists was literally selling out, economically speaking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to procuring more advertisers for my blog. Michael’s gotta eat….

What are your thoughts on musicians selling out? Does it still get you riled up, or do you see it as a non-issue? Comment below.

About SLIS

Middle Aged Gen-Exer obsessed with Alternative rock, metal, cult movies, comic books and cable TV.

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7 Responses to Is the concept of selling out past its sell by date?

  1. Dave Dierksen July 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Good article, man. Like you, I’m of a weird mind on this. For commercial use, I generally don’t have an issue with. It is a good way to get your music out there today when radio and MTV suck. Wilco signed off an entire record to Volkswagen, and they went on record as saying they actually like the product, so why not? The funniest one was the New Pornographers, who had a song in a University of Phoenix commercial. They thought at the time they were lending their song to an actual insititution in Phoenix (they’re Canadian, so they’d never heard of U of P). They were a little miffed when they found out the truth, but laughed it off.

    One problem I have is overexposure. The Black Keys must’ve sold their big hit to anyone who would buy, and I had to hear it in every goddamn TV show promo and ad for the next two years. I kind of hate the Black Keys now because I got so sick of that song. I would like to see bands be more discerning with who they sell their songs to.

    To me, I define selling out as a complete compromise of the art you create. If you write for an audience over yourself, whether it be because you’re greedy, or something more understandable like trying to sustain your career, then you’re selling out. And it doesn’t even make me mad – just admit you’re doing it.

    My favorite artist to ponder is Metallica. Starting with the Black Album, they clearly changed direction and made certain strategic moves (hiring Bob Rock and making videos). I still wonder – was that just because they were trying to reach a broader audience? Were they also digging the kind of music they were writing in the 90s? If the answer to the second question is Yes, then more power to them, even though I thought most of the music sucked. But now they’re making thrash music again (a lot of which is pretty great), and they’re breaking into the old deep cuts live. Is it to win back the OG fans? Is it because they finally feel established enough that they can? Most importantly, is that the music they want to be writing/playing, or are they just listening to Rick Rubin’s advice on how to stay relevant? If that’s the case, they’re still selling out. And yet I’m OK with it because I dig the music. I find Metallica fascinating in that regard. They’re a band of contradictions to be sure.

    At least they’re no Aerosmith. I’m not sure the last time they even wrote one of their own songs. Now that’s a fucking sell out.

  2. admin July 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Thanks man.

    Yeah, anytime you bring in additional songwriters, I think its game over. Metallica are hard to peg; I kind of thought they also wanted to play music that was less physically demanding? Whenever you do those 5 or 6 minute down picking/fiery solo technical playing that can be pretty wearing. And they likely saw a side benefit of getting more exposure? It’s hard to know.

    I agree though; it’s when the music starts pandering that it feels compromised. Commercials don’t bug me too much, except when its a terrible product. Remember when Filter did that Hummer commercial a few years back? Ugh.

    But if a band as politically subversive as Massive Attack does commercials for Lincoln cars it’s interesting. They gave all of their proceeds from the Lincoln ad towards the Gulf oil spill cleanup. I love biting the hand that feeds…

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