Hey everybody, it's time for another Frigginjerk article. Today, I'm writing about the concept of selling out. I'm writing about this topic because I hear this term being thrown around a hell of a lot these days, and almost nobody uses it correctly. Every band that gets any publicity from any kind of media seems to be labeled as sellouts by one person or another. So, let's get to my operative definition of selling out before we go any further:
"Selling out is when you play music that you would not normally play, and are only playing it because you were offered more money beforehand
than you would receive if you were to play what you wanted to play."
Source: The FrigginJerk Encyclopedia of Musical Knowledge (aka, my almighty brain). So that's what we're working with here. Let's get to some scenarios.
If you change your style for your own reasons, and end up making money from it, then that's not selling out. A good example of this would be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All the members of this group became millionaires after they released BloodSugarSexMagik, which was the crowning accomplishment of their hardcore funk/rock days. BSSM was that rare album where the label simply let the band go to work and they created something that was not only musically brilliant, but extremely marketable. Kudos to the Peppers for that.
The Peppers had no real reason to ask for more money from their label, and the label had no real reason to ask them to alter their sound, since BSSM had done so well anyways. But then something happened. The band grew up, and got off heroin. By the time "Californication" came out (in 1999, seven years later), the Peppers had a much more mellow, melodic sound, and (save for a few songs) you wouldn't know them to be the same band as they were in 1992. The fact is, the Peppers, in the course of making music that they enjoyed playing, had evolved, and the result was still good. The album sold remarkably well. I think this can be credited to their great musicianship, meaning that regardless of how it sounds overall, they still know how to make a tune work.
Selling your music to a company for use in a commercial is not selling out. It's just selling your music. When I write a song, I am writing it so that everyone can enjoy it. It becomes a public work. I retain copyrights on it, so that I can profit from its use, but I am still creating something for everyone to use. They can play it on the radio, they can play it on TV, they can play it over the loudspeakers at a hockey game, and they can put it on compilation albums. How is it any different to put it on a television commercial?
The obvious argument there is that my song then becomes a sales device for a product. But when a local rock station plays a song, they are using that song to sell their station to listeners. "If you listen to us, we will play this song..." A few classic bands have licensed their work to corporations recently. AC/DC and Aerosmith are now featured in Ford commercials, and Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" is being used in Cadillac ads. When people rant about this type of thing, I ask them this: What if Aerosmith likes Ford trucks? Think about it. A bunch of all-American boys, who don't do anything unless they can overdo it... there's a chance that they like big, bad Ford F-350 trucks to tool around in. If you like the product or are indifferent to it, why not let your song be associated with it?
The point is that all a commercial does is add one more venue for your work to be showcased in. And if you don't like the product, then don't agree to have your song in the ad. Having your song on a commercial won't get you any further in the music business, so it's not like you're selling out to get ahead. It's just another source of income from your original work. But there is a fine line to this commercial business...
Recording new music for a commercial, and writing it specifically to sell products is selling out (ie: Justin Timberlake's "I'm Lovin' It," or Britney Spears' Pepsi jingles.) Why is this selling out? Because if you hadn't been approached by the company and offered some money in exchange for a song, the song never would have been written. The song would not have existed if there had not been an offer of money in exchange for writing a song for a corporation. When you write a jingle for a company, you are writing for money, to someone else's specifications, and you are writing for the company, not for the public. The company retains rights to the song, not you.
And there is a grey area on this issue as well. When Outkast penned the song "Hey Ya," and they included the phrase "shake it like a Polaroid picture," they were probably just referencing the common knowledge that you must shake a Polaroid for it to develop. However, the Polaroid Corporation heard the song, and offered them a commercial spot. So the song was original, and (probably) honest, but it still included the company's name. That's a bit of a grey area, but I would say they Didn't sell out on that one.
Another grey area would be Brian May (guitarist of Queen) recently collaborating with Britney Spears, Pink and Beyonce to adapt "We Will Rock You," for a Pepsi commercial. The song had already been written, and released independently, but now they are re-recording the same song for a commercial. The verdict on that one probably depends on Brian May's personal feelings about the song about musical integrity. But it's even more complicated since the original writer, Freddie Mercury, is now dead. Definite grey area.
Signing to a major label is not selling out. People claiming that all major-label-associated band are sellouts makes me roll my eyes. I mostly hear this from punk fans, as they are the some of the most hypocritical music appreciators of all. As soon as a band signs a little piece of paper that allows their music to reach more fans with greater ease, and allows them to receive proper promotion for their live shows, people decide that they have totally abandoned their biggest fans, changed their sound, lost their values, and sold their souls to the record company demons.
Now, to be fair, sometimes this is what happens, and it becomes very obvious, very quickly. And sometimes, bands are created by record companies for the purpose of selling a million albums (such as the Monkees). But to think that any band that signs a record deal is selling out is absolutely ridiculous. The Beatles were on a major label. So were Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, etc... People don't realize that there are more benefits to being on a major label that just the money that goes into your pocket.
If you have a record deal, the company advances you the money to rent a studio, pay the engineers, and to record and master your album. Then they pay to have the CD's pressed, and shipped to stores, they pay to promote your album, they distribute the singles to radio stations, and they pay for you to make your video. Often, they also advance you some cash to pay for the costs of going on tour to support the album. Can indie labels afford all that? Probably not. If your band is good enough that millions of people want to hear and see you, then you need some means of getting your product to them, and a major label with big money is able to do that. It's not impossible to accomplish this stuff without a major label contract, but you personally assume the risk of losing money if your album or tour tanks.
However, signing to major label upon the condition that you change your sound is selling out. This is pretty simple. Regardless of what you get in return, if you change your sound in order to get your sound out to more people, then you are really putting someone else's sound out there. The fact is, if your sound is really good enough to be financed by a major label, it doesn't need to be changed. But labels are also always looking for an average band whose sound they can mold into something that will sell a few million singles, and then they can discard you when your second album bombs because it's nothing like the first one.
Not every band is going to sell millions of albums, and if a label needs money to pay it's way between albums from mega-star bands, then they need to sign some average bands to get by. If you sign a deal where the company wants things their way for the first record, and then you can do whatever you want for the second album, watch out. You are getting snaked. If your own sound is truly good enough for everyone to appreciate, then the label will probably not ask you to change it too much. If they do, I would suggest visiting another label.
Leaving your underground label because you aren't making enough money to live is NOT selling out. It's called staying alive. Sometimes people decide to sell out in order to stay alive while still being a musician, and that's their business. I do feel a little sympathy for people who need to sell out in order to keep on making music at all, because even if you're not playing exactly what you want, it still beats working construction all day. But on the other hand, if you can't hack it with your own sound, then you probably shouldn't have gotten into the industry in the first place.
The underground label fad is, in my opinion, a result of average bands covering their asses. It's easy to say "we're not on a major label because we don't want to sell out, and it's not the 'punk' thing to do." Punk fans eat that kind of rhetoric right up. But often these bands aren't on major labels because they are no damn good, or sound too much like bands that are already famous. It's true that some bands get offered major label gigs, and turn them down every time, and that is respectable. But if the band is really that great, they should be able to find a major label that they can get along with. There are dozens of them out there.
If you are willing to starve and toil at a day job because the labels aren't signing bands in your genre, then that's respectable. If you started your band but didn't "make it" before the market got oversaturated, and are now willing to go pop, then you are in it for the wrong reasons. But once again, I will state that I have a level of respect for anyone who can be successful in the music business, regardless of their genre or sound. I may not like the music, but if you are able to do it day in and day out, and still profit from your efforts, then my hat is off to you, because even if you DO sell out, you still have to put on the show, and you still have to do some work.
At the end of the day, if your job title is "musician," and you make enough money to live comfortably without a second job, then you've got it pretty good, regardless of what you did to get there. I may not like the music you are presenting, but you're doing better than most of us. Selling out is basically compromising your principles in the interest of financial gain. If you get a bad feeling in your stomach when you are agreeing to a deal concerning your music, then you are probably selling out. It's a different threshold for everyone, but I encourage all of you future rock stars not to ignore that little twinge in your gut when you sign your record deals. I'm gonna stop right here, because I think I've said all I need to say.
Contact Info: Tom Leblanc, aka FrigginJerk, firstname.lastname@example.org
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