Tales from the Jugular

The Politics Of Selling Out

By: Frank Hill
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2003
Have you ever put on a new cd from one of your favorite bands and after a few listens you say to yourself, "This sucks. They really sold out." You feel an internal letdown from building your hopes up, anticipating the enjoyment of new material and spending the cash that you were so eager to part with. Your cd ends up traded off for something else or put in your collection to gather dust, there only as a testament to your inability to get rid of it or break a streak of cds.

First of all, I want to look at instances where a band could be seen as sellouts:

1. New Commercial Sound
The band you like releases a new cd that sounds like other popular bands thus pissing you off.

Issue: Some musicians don't want to play the same stuff for years and years and they try out something new to them. Musicians change personally as they get older and it can affect their music. You get this a lot when bands start out and have that "youthful anger" then the years pass and they don't sound mad at the world anymore.

Issue: Though it's popular, the band may really like that style. They may even like playing the popular stuff better. How do you know that the band is denying themselves if you weren't in the studio and literally in the heads of the musicians? If they didn't come out in an interview and flat out say in a simple terms that they wanted to make stuff that they didn't care about and sell a lot of records, then you don't know.

As far as being a sell out is concerned:
Having a non-commercial sound and changing it to another non-commercial one = OK
Having a non-commercial sound and changing it to a commercial one = BAD

2. Loss of Uniqueness
The band with the interesting sound you liked before now sounds like other bands you never liked.

Issue: Hardly any bands are truly unique sounding. In most cases, bands fit within a sub-genre and they only seem unique when looked at from other genres. It's like the oddly-dressed folks who are different from the standard jeans/t-shirt crowd that will expound upon them to "be themselves and do their own thing" while in an arena full of similarly dressed people "being themselves and doing their own thing".

Issue: The market moves toward a band's sound as more jump on the bandwagon and as honest as the band is, by retaining a style, they become a part of the mainstream and can be rejected for it.

As far as being a sell out is concerned:
Incorporating other genres to your sound = OK
Incorporating currently popular genres to your sound = BAD

3. Making Money Off of Art
A lot of us are purists who want to believe that the musicians we like feel an internal passion and that their music was made solely as "art for art's sake"; that it was made with a purity of vision untainted by desire for money and they put it on records to sell because they want to share their vision. When we see them try to make money, we can feel negative about it. Well, the reality is that if you're not a rich musician and you don't make money, you don't eat. I also wouldn't believe any musician who says they don't care about money unless they were giving cds away at cost.

As far as being a sell out is concerned:
Making money off of art = OK
Wanting to sell millions to get millions to hear your stuff = OK
Making art to make money = BAD
Selling millions to have millions = BAD

4. Broad Appeal Occurs
Some bands go from being unknowns to overnight sensations with a new record and their old fan base hates them for it.

Issue: Bands can't always control their popularity. Even without a company behind them, some bands do what they always do, and within the industry they hit the right chord and the right moment and become famous.

As far as being a sell out is concerned:
Spontaneous appeal that makes your music popular = OK
Hiring people to make you popular = BAD

Money and high album sales don't seem to be that troublesome. I've never heard anybody call Ac\DC sell outs for making a mint off of the 15 million+ sales of "Back in Black" but Metallica's "Metallica" and Def Leppard's "Hysteria" which sold as well got them branded like a steer at the Double-A Ranch and split their fan base. Many metal bands don't sell well at all, but have constant fans. If those bands went commercial and still didn't sell then it's too late and they've already isolated what little fan base they had.

I think that generally metalheads are fiercely independent individuals that are generally conservative even within sub-styles of music. Instead of music being a background for the moment, they experience the music on a deeper level and make the music a part of themselves. Metalheads are probably the most loyal fans in the industry and they will follow their favorite groups for decades. Fans are loyal because they know what commercial music sounds like and with the band they've rejected it. If they know that a band is making songs that they can market to as many people as possible then it really doesn't speak to them anymore.

Mind you, selling out doesn't mean that the music is now bad, but past history is very important here bands will need to weigh that against what they've already put out and how their fan base will react. There seems to be a direct relationship between a band's original music style and the listener's opinion. I'd almost bet that the further a band's sound is from commercial music, the more pissed off the fans are when the band goes to a sound perceived to be commercial. Thus you have AC\DC who didn't change much in sound, coming out OK, but Metallica and Leppard getting shit on by the old-schoolers.

Maybe we could just say that selling out is "when you do what everybody thinks you should be doing".

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