I Sold Out To Write This Article

A commentary on the overuse and proper use of the term "selling out." 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.

Ultimate Guitar

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, asstoupee@hotmail.com

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123 comments sorted by best / new / date

    me: "If an artist decides that they want more people to listen to their music, the music will usually suffer" by this I meant they compromise their music in order to please everyone else. If your goal was to make music that was not only enjoyed by you, but by MANY people then that's a pretty pathetic goal. If your music transcends yourself, if you understand it, if it takes you to a higher level, then everything else, yes, even the fans, are secondary. Fans are just a bonus. If there are people who enjoy your music great, but if there aren't, then that's fine too. Don't try and please other people with your music. The greatest artists, the truest musicians, are the ones who have stuck to what they enjoy and what they believe is right. I think the fans are placing too much importance in themselves. If your're doing music because you want fans, go to a psychologist and figure out this need to be wanted. If you're doing music for musics sake, you shouldn't care about anything else, this is my main argument.
    Ok, this is the first time that I've written because this is the only article that's been worth it. So please take it as a huge compliment. You're dead-on on your analisis. I'm with you. You've definetly aptured the meaning of "sellling out". Thank you.
    I love the third slash forth paragraph in figginjerks response to saba. "What if my goal was to make music that was not only enjoyed by ME, but by MANY people? what if I enjoy seeing a room full of people having a great time listening to my music? am i selling out because I am wanting to please lots of fans by playing music that both the fans AND myself can enjoy?" Enough is said right there. I, David salute you.
    Ummmm... is it ok to be jelous of frigginjerk cause I sure am. How the hell are you so smart?
    I think you oversimplified it. Selling out is not just changing your style, its abandonig your principles for money. If a band has always had an anti-major label stance, and always said how evil major labels are, then signing to one would be selling out. I agree that some people overuse calling people sellouts- bands have to pay the bills and they really don't make as much money as you'd expect, unless they're a really, really big band. Advertising is a nice way of doing that, and if it allows great, credible bands like Mogwai to have enough cash to pay the bills, hey, i'm all for it. Too many people don't understand the concept of selling out, and use it in the worng circumstances for the wrong reasons.
    Saba: you're thinking too literally about the word "product." I'm not talking about a plastic-fantastic, two-in-one, zero-down, 0.9% APR piece of crap. when i say product, i mean the songs that a band PRODUCES by jamming and writing together. it's like if you're doing multiplication in math class. when you do 2 X 2, the PRODUCT is 4. and as for your point about any band that markets itself being a sellout, let me ask you this: what if my goal was to make music that was not only enjoyed by ME, but by MANY people? what if I enjoy seeing a room full of people having a great time listening to my music? am i selling out because I am wanting to please lots of fans by playing music that both the fans AND myself can enjoy? lots of people are in the music business because they enjoy entertaining other people. that's a noble concept. if your interests in music are too different from those of too many people, then you're out of luck. in that case, get a second job if you're serious about your songs. but just because the public likes rock music doesn't mean that musicians CAN'T like rock music. and another thing: you said "just because an artist wrote the song, it does not mean they have the right to let it go on a commercial." in fact, it DOES give them the right. they wrote it, it's theirs, and they can do with it what they want. selling out or not, they have that right.
    that's so true...i'm a punk music fan but i also love other types of music, and trust me, most punk fans are very hypocritical. but this article was great...congrats! *~rock on rock on~* imarockstar016
    Kick Me
    I did'nt read the entier article, but I agree with wut I read. Awesome article, no surprise there though.
    I wasn't particularly impressed with this article. Any band that uses their music as a product, is a sell out. There are very few bands now a days that are truly in the music business for music itself. I don't care if you're not making enough money by being in a band, get a second job. Music should not have to be abused so that you're able to get more money. Turning music into a product is a travesty, and completely defeats the whole purpose of doing music in the first place. I cant' stand it when bands allow companies to use their music for a commercial, I don't give a shit if they like that product or not, they are abusing their own music, just because they wrote the song does not give them the right to do it. If an artist decides that they want more people to listen to their music, the music will usually suffer. Stop talking about music as a product, I don't listen to products.
    Good article. Very good article, but the argument with Saba was better. Good points.
    harm0n, i dont think you understand. selling out is left up to a lot of opinion. if youre friends have any ability to think for themselves, they wont just take the word of some dude who had an article put on ultimate-guitar.com
    ha i think i should send this article to all my friends just to show them that the bands i like arent sell outs. good job!
    bpjoyce10, i sort of agree with you in a way. I think people here take music too seriously when in the first place, music is not supposed to be taken too seriously. I'm sick of people who won't even listen to some stuff just because its not the style of music they like. You shouldn't be ashamed if you like one or two Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake songs. If that floats ur boat, sail on it, but don't close yourself into just liking one style of music. You should be open to try a lot of different things and sounds, and i think that is what music is about
    Selling out originally started by bands having to create more vinyl because their stock had actually sold out. Up till the 70s, that's what the term was used to describe, then around the mid 70s, bands were termed to selling out because they had their song on the radio. Then, in 1982, MTV hit the world. Many pop bands were obviously going to take advantage of this great new idea for music promotion, and mainly British bands were creating the videos as we were more advanced film-wise at the time. This created a new door for "sell-outs", and in 1992 (I think it was), MTV was becoming much more common and so more popular. Metallica created their first video ('One') and were deemed as sell-outs for doing so. Now, it seems if a band gets their song even heard, or advertised anywhere on the street, people are calling them sell-outs. This is all wrong. You create a single to release, you create a video to promote, you put up posters, hand out flyers and do gigs, to promote. You sign a label to get them to do the promotion for you, and they will therefore take a cut of the profits for helping. If lots of people like your music, then you're going to recieve a bigger contract, this will create more promotions, bigger gigs and the band will be noticed more. This is not selling out, this is making a living. Your defintion was correct in saying that it's "when you play music that you would not normally play", but it's not because you were offered more money before hand to do so, it's because the record label has told you to do this, and you're following their marching orders. I hope that all makes sense
    very good, 'seeling out' is used to often these days. A good example - Metallica's St. Anger album. selling out? i dont think so, just achange of style! it gets on my bloody nerves
    you can also say that to sell out a show is to have no tickets left... can be done for shows for far upcoming dates.
    as far as i can tell, all this guy is a punk fan who thinks he knows everything about music. what makes him a credible source on what selling out is? read my posts on the forum of that blink 182/no doubt concert. for the record, i used to think like most of those hypocritical punks, but now, i realize i need to stop being a tool anf hating everything on the radio and on mtv, and like whatevery i like, regardless of what other people think. i like pop-punk, and even though i dont claim that sugarcult is real punk, or that theyre particularly talented musicians, i still like their sound, and basically, thats all that matters when it comes to music. no selling out, not what label youre on, not how much your concert tickets have gone up in price. music is about music, and you either like the sound or you dont, but dont base your opinions off of things like being on mtv
    mate you're never ever wrong. i don't think haha we all love you sir jerk
    you are the king of internet articles, and the most intelligent writter in a long time. i agree with what your saying 100% congratulations
    hell dude, this happens all the time....everyone sells out, in like every single job you can get. you aer soo right
    I think selling out means giving up your artistic integrity just to make money. Every Pop-Punk band out there today has done that - of course most of them never had artistic integrity in the first place. I don't agree with every thing in your article, like i think signing to a major label from a indie label is selling out because you lose your main fan base and people you would normaly hate start liking your music without really understanding it. Basically, your music looses a lot of its meaning once you sign on with a major label.I still enjoyed your article though, it very insightfull.
    Frigginjerk: I didn't really mean your true fans would stop listening to your music once you were signed onto a major label, I just meant they would be more distanced, with a larger adience your music wont have the same personal touch.
    I completly agree with everything you wrote, selling out is overhyped, the music buisness is overflown with music of all kinds, and "making it" with you'r own has alot to do with luck. So if you really want to make a living as a musician you might need to "sell out" eventually..
    "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.)" I disagree. As you said, it's called "staying alive". Marketing oneself inappropriately (e.g., Christina Aguilera) is selling out, not being commissioned to write a song or changing one's style.
    I've got more: However, selling your music to a huge corporation so that they can hawk their wares is prostitution. Brian May is a corporate *****. I have zero respect for the man who is ruining Queen's once great reputation. A Pepsi ad? With a bunch of dumb corporate puppets with breasts (and Enrique...) Come on. No grey area here. Rock+corporations=bad. Rock+conformism=bad. Does anyone remember the band Corrosion of Conformity? That's what rock's all about. As Jack Black hammers home in school of rock it's about sticking it to The Man. The Mainstream does not like music. That is why pandering to it is bad. I like telling people about the bands that I like and it's cool when they like them too - however, if the person hates rock music in general, but then says 'ooo, i like those Darkness/Busted/Lostproph ets' then alarm bells start ringing. That was a long rant/ I apologise. If you have read all of this congratulations.
    Basically Saba is taking a very purist approach and i think thats fine. Sell-out is when you were not a mainstream band and then you change your sound to make it more appealing to a wider audience because you think it will make you more money. For example, the Lostprophets are sell-outs. They had a pretty heavy sound on their first album but now it's all been cleaned up with 400,000 worth of production. Now they're on Top of The Pops and CD:UK playing mainstream garbage. If you play heavy music then you have to accept that not many people are going to like it. But you have to have the artistic integrity to stand by that decision. I write music and I enjoy it when people like my music. I feel quite honoured and proud that people enjoy something that I created. But the kind of music that I write is fairly accessible. Pop-punk bands are mainstream orientated. They have no artistic integrity, meaning or anything else. But they sell loadsa albums because their sound is accessible, the vocals are clean, and the melodies are strong and familiar. That's the kind of music that they play. People like it. It's essentially easy listening. If you put on, oh I don't know, Cannibal Corpse it is a struggle to listen to. The guitars are heavy and thrashy, the vocals are harsh as hell and the sound is very messy. They like playing that kinda music and fair play to them because they continue to do it. There's no money in it - most people only know the name because they're so controversial with their lyrics and artwork. But they don't tone it down for anyone. That is the big difference. I am a really huge fan of Avenged Sevenfold. They have released two albums, and until recently were signed to Hopeless records. Despite the fact that 'Waking the Fallen' is a brilliant album, it is a struggle to find in most music shops because Hopeless records don't have much money for distribution and promotion. They have now signed a deal with Warner Bros, presumably for their next album. It will be intriguing to listen to that. For me I think that a major label deal will make A7X even stronger, because they have an epic sound, like Rammstein, and this is helped by bigger production costs. What they will probably lose is most of the screaming vocals. Personally i don't like screaming much, and I find it really prejudices people against the music. Whenever i say 'listen to this' I always skip it to tracks that have clean vocals and nice guitar, because in general people don't like screaming. Are they selling out? Yeah, cos they're almost certainly gonna change their sound to make it more acceptable to the mainstream. But in their case it will make them stronger because I think that they are on the fringes of the mainstream rock (which is different from mainstream music) now. I would compare their situation to that of Iron Maiden, who are heavy metal, but have clean vocals. 'A7X to be new Maiden' you heard it here first.
    hot DAMN there are a lot of responses to this one. A friend of mine once accused Metallica of selling out with the "St. Anger" CD. I damn near kicked his ass. I didnt LIKE the CD, but to accuse Metallica of selling out is preposterous. Anyway, good article
    I thinks people should drop the term "selling out" all together. selling out and poser go hand in hand to incredibly lame term's ( unless your one of those weird ass kids that shove each other down in the halls )
    papa kilo
    just a minor point for anyone who cares (not many, but hey). The term "sell out" originates in the military from when officer commissions were commonly bought and sold, around the 18th-19th centuries. To sell out was to grab the money and run - giving up the chance of honour, glory and medals, and taking the easy option. It was also commonly seen as a cowardly thing to do, generally as a result of an officer having disgraced himself with his commander. Hence the derogatory usage. Pedant stuff over, now you can go back to slagging off nu metal
    anyways, i'm through arguing with you. i have more fun doing what i do than i've ever had doing anything else. i'm doing exactly what i love, and by very definition, i am not selling out to anyone. no further responses on this issue.
    Wipers4Ever: if your main fan base is SO cynical that they refuse to listen to a band based on what label they record with, are they really such good fans? there's nothing wrong with wanting to reach more people, or wanting to make enough money to eat.
    ^ how many ways can i say it? the music I love to make, that moves me, that challenges me, is music that MANY people love to hear. WHAT IS SO HARD ABOUT THAT FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND? why do you think that the only true music is stuff that nobody likes? all i'm hearing from you is this: if people like it, it's crap. if nobody likes it, or if people are shocked and offended, and refuse to listen to it, then it's good. why does art NEED to be offensive? why does art need to be something that nobody understands? there's such a thing as context. if you're playing rock and roll in a crowded bar, you don't stop the whole thing to play an acoustic instrumental that drones on for ten minutes. it's not even a question of artistic integrity, it's a question of not getting your ass kicked by drunken bar patrons. i don't worry about shocking or not shocking anyone. if i shock someone, great. if not, that's great too. the point is, I have come to discover that what i love to play is what people love to hear. end of story. i don't play stuff that i don't like to play. what i want to know is this: what kind of bands do YOU listen to? what kind of music do you play?
    continued... Frigginjerk: your name stays true. "i don't enjoy it when people listen to my songs and go: "huh? what the hell was that? that was meaningless." therefore, I don't play songs that cause people to react like that." You pussy. You absolute pussy. You don't have the balls to stick to something that may shock or make people not like you, you're just there to please and make people like you, not having the guts to stick to what you believe. I can't believe you're willing to tell everyone that. You're just a clown, a little magic act, nothing of significance. Who are you to write an article about selling out when you're obviously doing it everytime you perform? I think we all need to have a good hard look about our intention for playing music. If you want fame, if you want to make it to the cover of Rolling Stone, if you want to appear on MTV all the time, if you want your face shoved down everyone's throats, if you want everyone to know who you are, you're a sell out. If you want to create art, if you want to create something that moves you, if you want to challenge yourself emotionally, you're an artist. Everything else is secondary.
    Good god people, you say music is an 'art form' and yet still say it depends on the people. What a complete contradiction. Saying music is an 'art form' is implying it is art, with this i totally agree. Here is the definition of art from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: "Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature." So what does that mean in terms of music? This means it has to be something that YOU create. YOUR interpretation of what YOU feel around YOU. By manipulating your music, or having the mind set of 'What would my fans to want hear?" is basically saying "How can I make my interpretation the same as theirs so they like me?". This is what you are saying, this is what you want to dedicate your life to, something fake, something to please others instead of having the balls to stick to what your interpretation of things are. You want fame. The majority of you want fame. You want to be interviewed by all the major magazines out there, be in your video clips, have your face on the front cover of Rolling Stone and all the others. Fame is what you want, praise, someone telling you that your music is good. This is insecurity. It is nothing but insecurity. Your music should be what matters, your music should be what YOU feel, what YOU want to hear. Wazman: "Its a givin that I'm going to like it but its other peoples opinion that really matters". It's other peoples opinion that really matters? That is actually pathetic. That means that when they don't like your music anymore, you're gonna try to get them to like you again, and that's what's going to drive you to do music instead of the music itself. You seem to all say that its the music that drives you, but then if it is recognized, its going to be what the fans think and what they want you to do. You're going to become a slave, and you're gonna drag music along with you.