Yesterday, reading Cara Ellison’s blog, she made a quick comment about “selling out” on a post about Kurt Cobain.
Selling out … it’s something I’ve been trying to describe and define, mostly to myself … to attribute some kind of qualification or quantification to for some time. And I’m really just talking about music though the term applies across the creative spectrum – music is where most people apply it.
For a long time I have said that selling out is when a musician or band stops making music for the purpose of making music. It’s always been an oversimplification, but the obvious implication is that the artist(s) is now putting profit before creativity. And while that may be true in some cases, I’ve always had a problem with it because I DON’T really have a problem with people making money. In fact, I think it’s kind of crazy to expect someone to go out and make a product – consumable or no – and expect them to not want to make money from it.
So, I’m tossing out my previous definition. Instead, I lit upon something yesterday when I was mulling this over. I think the best simple description of selling out is when an artist starts “phoning it in.” When the music starts to lack passion and it seems as though they’re only going through the motions – that’s selling out.
To me, it’s kind of like Kevin Spacey is to acting. A lot of people like Kevin Spacey’s acting. I would go as far to say that most people think he’s a rather good actor. I would be one of those people. I think Spacey is capable of being a really good actor. He has all the requisite skills. He has shown in some of his films that he can really embody a role. However, the dude has been riding his early success for a long time. I’m not going to defend that point (it’s a pretty big rabbit hole); suffice to say, I think he’s become overrated.
So that’s where I’m going with this – selling out, to me, is either an artist(s) who was once good and now just kind of phones it in, or was never good but is strangely popular.
One of the best examples, in my mind, is Aerosmith. Aerosmith is a band full of amazing musicians. Individually these guys are outstanding in both their musical knowledge and their ability to play. However, they consistently put out pap. There’s that one song that’s on Guitar Hero that’s kind of good. Dream On is an overblown nightmare, but hey, it’s a ballad so you kind of have to sing along here and there. Walk This Way was improved exponentially when Run DMC covered it. Aerosmith is a musical debacle that somehow found their one-trick pony in the 80s and has been riding it ever since. Ever noticed how Every. Single. Song. they make sounds the same? The time signatures are similar. The keys are similar. The tone is similar. It’s formula rock. It’s Enfamil for the ears.
This next example is sure to be more contentious, but in my mind Metallica did the same thing with their Black Album. Sure, it can be argued that they opened up their music to an entirely new audience, but as they did so they alienated their original fan base. The Black Album in and of itself isn’t necessarily a “phoning in,” but after its success they began the process of churning out more formula rock. It was at this point that they started riding the waves of their past successes.
But heck, Aerosmith and Metallica are just more recent examples of the phenomenon. How long has the Rolling Stones been churning out the same tune? How long has Eric Clapton been relying on Cream and Derek and the Dominos (and that’s a real shame because Clapton is a monster guitarist)?
Perhaps I need to clarify the “riding their past success” point a bit. There’s formula rock and then there’s formula rock. Take Slayer. They’ve put out the same-sounding stuff since they gelled it in their 1986 release Reign in Blood. But here’s the thing – they didn’t break from their mold to achieve some kind of commercial success. They’ve been the same band forever. There’s a difference between that and a band like Nickelback who achieve an amazing degree of (stupefying) success and continually churn out songs that don’t deviate from that mold. They don’t challenge themselves creatively because they’re afraid of losing their success. The guys in Slayer don’t challenge themselves creatively because they’re afraid of losing fans. There’s the rub, I guess. Which of these points shows the most integrity?
The supposition in “selling out” is that those bands that haven’t sold out have some kind of moral high ground over those who have. I’m not making that argument. In fact, the point of this post (beyond working through a definition) is kind of to say that it’s silly to think that. Who’s laughing – the musician who ekes out an existence being true to their roots or the musician who embraces audiences that bring them financial success? Selling out, while I believe it is a real and true phenomena, is less about integrity or ethics and more about a philosophical justification that lesser successful artists, or at least those with low self-esteem, use to make themselves feel better at the end of the day.
How much of your soul do you really "lose" by making music for money? You're still doing something you feel passionate about, right? There's a line, I'm sure.
I don’t find much parity between Metallica and the Monkees, for example. Metallica is an entity whose members made their own choices and marketed themselves based on those choices. The Monkees were a marketing gimmick from the beginning. I just stopped enjoying Metallica’s music when it became noticeable to me that they weren’t making music for me any longer. Like pop music isn’t my niche, these bands that attempt to broaden their horizons aren’t really in my shot group either.
But who am I? I’m just one guy with an opinion. My disposable income isn't very, so it's not like my spending dollar is going very far. And that’s what really matters in this game. Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments.
For a little more perspective, here’s Maynard James Keenan’s take:
All you know about me is what I've sold you,
I sold out long before you ever even heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record
And then you bought one.
All you read and
Wear or see and
Hear on TV
Is a product
Waiting for your
Fairly dirty Dollar.
So shut up and
Buy, Buy, Buy,
My new record.
Buy, Buy, Buy,
Send more money.