The Changes of a Generation: Blurring the Lines of Selling Out

The following editorial comes from aspiring music professional Emma Guido.

As that soap opera comes to a commercial break, the TV screen lights up with the Pepsi logo and a familiar, yet slightly off-putting sound engages with the advertisement. It’s the Foo Fighters. The new Fall Out Boy album came out this week, but when it blares on the radio, it sounds like a debut pop star’s newest hit. The passionate subculture of music fans, the group outside of society’s mainstream radio listeners, can’t help but ask themselves, “What’s going on?” The dramatic and infamous words “sell out” have haunted the rock music community for years in its days of intense solidarity and common purpose. The intention of art for its pure enjoyment and appreciation was simple for these musicians to live off of. Anything else was selfish and greedy. “This suggests that, once artists become successful, no matter what their prior beliefs were regarding making money from music, they become very concerned about it. In the impression of some, they ‘sell out’” (Gans). The stigma associated with “selling out” left artists at a loss for how to approach their music career. However, times have changed and opinions are swaying. The question of an artist’s integrity in the issue of selling out is a conversation of the fans and music community, however a lack of understanding of the industry’s atmosphere can blur perspective. The new wave of piracy, streaming services, and other listening platforms highlights a gap in pocket that used to flourish with money. The very low income that highly successful musicians have been getting is proof that the lack of profit in one area of the industry needs to be compensated elsewhere. As these changing commercial opportunities enter the music industry, today’s musicians need these ways of income in order to survive as a culture, and the remaining cries of “selling out” are left to bitter fans who are trying to resist their own subculture’s means of survival.

At one time, the thought of altering style for mainstream engagement or advertising with Pepsi was infuriating to the subculture of music fans; those “sell outs” made their art for their own income and not for the meaning of rock and roll. This opinion holds strong even for many older artists, like Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, who stated iIn Tom Hawking’s article on the issue of “selling out,””, “They’ve taken the music of my generation, and all this music I treasured so much and they’ve associated it entirely with selling and I actually really deeply resent it… The fact that the culture is co-opted and made to be entirely about money, that’s what I resent most of all.”. This statement assumes that a commercial use of his treasured music is strictly used as a method to sell an item or brand, stripping the song of any greater value or integrity. However, the fact that this song is being broadcasted to mainstream audiences, or the dominant culture, can be a sign of appreciation over appropriation. He is leaving out any argument for the significance of the subculture’s exposure to this group and how the artist can benefit from it. The belief that the culture of music has been corrupted by the industry and the desire for money is what rock and roll fans mean thrive off of when they use the term “sell out.””. It is a call for resistance against the interaction between mainstream society and their sacred subculture that lacks full and proper understanding. Long time musician Henry Rollins stated, “I wonder if it ever occurred to people that the reason the music of these interesting and alternative bands is being recruited [for advertisements] is because their fans are now the ones calling the shots. In other words, we have arrived.” This begs the question of the real issue at hand; the music subculture supporting these bands are not as concerned about how they are making money, but of their ownership of the band’s music once it reaches mainstream audiences. The moment that their culture collides with a hit radio channel or mainstream brands on the television screen, it creates a “contact zone” (Pratt) that this subculture is uncomfortable with facing. In her text Arts of the Contact Zone, Mary Louise Pratt explains this conflict: “The idea of the contact zone is intended in part to contrast with ideas of community that underlie much of the thinking about language, communication, and culture that gets done in the academy” (525). In the eyes of the diehard music fans who have lived by the rules of rock and roll, this exposure of their treasured culture to mainstream audiences is immediately assumed to be a shocking sign of betrayal to what they have loved about the music. Calling these adaptive musicians “sell outs” is the community’s way of dissociating themselves from a changing culture; it’s an act of resistance serving as an attempt to survive without surviving.

The subculture of rock music has immense ties to itstheir past; the values of integrity and respect are highly regarded and the intensity of their feelings towards the art they commonly admire has formed into camaraderie and loyalty like no other. “A generation ago, refusing these kinds of offers was a way for bands to telegraph where they stood, the sort of thing that showed their allegiance to the underground and their community” (Hopper). This attitude they have towards their ownership of the culture results in their strict cultural mediation of it. Pratt describes this as “ways for people to engage with suppressed aspects of history (including their own histories), ways to move into and out of rhetorics of authenticity; ground rules for communication across lines of difference and hierarchy that go beyond politeness but maintain mutual respect; a systematic approach to the all-important concept of cultural mediation” (529). Their culture’s exposure to the mainstream audiences that they have nothing in common with is against everything they believed they had the power to control and maintain. With this in mind, it seems to be evident that the issue of “selling out” is from the use of the term itself. The subculture tries to mediate what the mainstream gets to have exposure to by making that part of their culture no longer a part of their community anymore, otherwise calling them a “sell out.””. As Duncombe explains in his text, “Ccultural resistance can also be seen as an escape from politics and a way to release discontent that might otherwise be expressed through political activity” (161). The music community is discontent over the ways their favorite musicians, and leaders of their culture, are using their art as their career, and and therefore acting against their decisions by verbally casting them from the culture with a term like “sell out”. Though a sense of betrayal is common for the subculture’s group when their favorite musician takes a turn towards mainstream audiences, the contact zone that comes of “selling out” provides cultural insight and critical adaptation for musical communities. Though the protective and headstrong nature of the music community is commendable and an important part of its presence in today’s society, ignorance towards the realities of the music industry can poison their own purpose.

As a group that takes and appreciates art for what it is, the music subculture relies on their head, the musician, to take a stand for them through this art. However, the fans live in a one sided world of passion, whereas the musician needs to balance their passion and their business behind it. Because of this, the leaders of these communities and the communities themselves can never be on the same page. The music industry has massively changed since rock and roll ruled the world; the new forms of music consumption haves left most musicians struggling to make money, and therefore struggling to keep their art alive in their culture. Author of the scholarly article “"Selling Out" and the impact of music piracy on artist entry,””, Joshua S. Gans, analyzes how music piracy and less lucrative, or anti-artist, platforms affect the ways musicians format their business, stating that “this decline in revenue may be associated with a decline in costs as well as a diminished role for publishers. Consequently, the relevant welfare issue is whether there has been a reduction in the supply of quality music or the entry of artists” (Gans). This suggests the near fatal position that the culture of music is in, due to a lack of care for the art. The musicians who do care, and their fans that have the same passion, need to be financially supported by outside sources like advertisements to keep the cultural spirit of music in tact. In the Buzzfeed article, “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock” (2013), author Jessica Hopper, consistent contributor to Buzzfeed, asserts that the change of income in the music industry forces its musicians to “sell out” and suggests that the blind accusations from the fan community is not grasping how this act of resistance is harmful to their culture. She talks with indie artists Tegan and Sara about their recent search for the right brands to represent: “‘A tiny sliver of bands are doing well,’  says the duo’s Sara Quin. ‘The rest of us are just middle class, looking for a way to break through that glass ceiling. The second ‘Closer’ got Top 40 radio play, we were involved in meetings with radio and marketing people who said, ‘The next step is getting a commercial.’ I can see why some bands might find that grotesque, but it’s part of the business now’” (Hopper). She supports this claim by comparing and contrasting the values of rock culture in the past and present, presenting facts about the current changes in the music industry, and evoking ethos from interviews with real, surviving musicians of the industry. Hopper’s purpose is to provide readers with an understanding of how “selling out” is today’s musicians’ way of survival in order to diminish the sting of the infamous term. Because of the author’s sincere and fair minded tone, she writes for an audience who are uneducated on the topic, yet open to learn more about the reality behind their own culture. Selling their music to successful advertisements and reaching bigger audiences needs to be the goal for musicians at this time in the music industry if they want to stay relevant.

In any career where the identity and presentation of a person is important to their success, accusations of “selling out” are just a part of the job. The profitable changes in the music industry forces musicians to craft a “commodified persona” (Bunten), in which they balance their integrity with marketability. In the scholarly article, “Sharing Culture or Selling Out? Developing the Commodified Persona in the Heritage Industry” (2008), author Alexis Celeste Bunten, senior researcher with the FrameWorks Institute, asserts that the self-commodification of tour guides is rather a way of sharing and interpreting a culture than selling it out, and does this with her specific created terms like “commodified persona.” Bunten appears to write in hopes of explaining the intentions of people within the industry to the people outside of it. Her ideas parallel the similar issue in the music industry. “Self-commodification can be broadly defined as a set of beliefs and practices in which an individual chooses to construct a marketable identity product while striving to avoid alienating him- or herself” (Bunten). A music career strives on self-commodification, regardless of the culture it surrounds. If a musician wants to make their art as a career, this process of finding market value is a necessary component, whether they like it or not. It is crucial for the community of music fans to understand the career dynamics of these artists in order to keep their culture alive. Though some think that acceptance of self-commodification or selling out is tarnishing the name of their culture, it’s important to consider the notion that this attention-grabbing, money-making tactic is one of the last remaining ways to preserve the culture. If musicians are adapting to the demands of society while still trying to remain true to their artistic mission, they need to be able to rely on their following in order to grow it and maintain the influence of rock, especially if their growth is purely due to the fact that their artistic vision changes its style. During the transition of commercializing ideals in the music community, especially in the 90s, this issue was damaging to the accused or conflicted musicians, only damaging the culture they were trying to contribute to. “Kurt Cobain went through this conflict up until his tragic death in 1994, taking the accusations of being a sell out very hard. Having the ability to write great hooks and catchy melodies should not be criticized but commended. As one community figure remarked to me recently, ‘“art is a state of mind; and for one person to slag another person’s vision or opinion is crap’” (McMartin). The fans that shame the leaders of the subculture for creating a commodified persona are blindly picking off the advocators for their cause and only diminishing the unified strength of the community.

The desperation for survival in the harsh and fast paced music industry has dropped many musicians’ need to prove their integrity among the community. This embrace of consumerism and commercial profit has blanketed a lot of the music industry, but has been simultaneously saving the very culture that is fighting it. These uneasy fans are not realizing the good that can come from change and mass exposure; a contact zone can turn into a safe haven if approached correctly. Pratt explores the complexities of this idea when explaining an observation of clashed groups: “Along with rage, incomprehension, and pain, there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom – the joys of the contact zone” (529). The resistance of the music subculture will miss out on the unpredictable experiences and feeling that can come out of this cultural fusion. Their contact zone with mainstream culture should not be intimidating or off-putting, but relieving in the fact that another group can appreciate their culture and keep the music going. Musician Macklemore observed this conflict first hand with his single “Wings”:  “If there was any trace of irony by Wings being one of the official songs of the 2013 All Star Game, that’s great. That means that we won. The song about consumerism was embraced on a national level, and played to the entire country of sports fans that tuned in. More people download the song, got the truth (the actual/full song) and we converted strangers that didn’t know who we were into fans. If that’s selling out to you, word. But to me that’s nothing but an all around win” (Hawking). Commodified musicians have created a combination of culture and an appreciation of art that goes far beyond selling an item or just pleasing society. It’s a hard reality for stubborn music fans to accept, but the artist’s utilization of the music is all in favor of the community. Duncombe had this experience in the punk rock community and came to a significant observation: “When I heard Iggy Pop’s proto-punk anthem “Search and Destroy” used to sell Nike sneakers I felt sick, but I also learned another important lesson: the politics of culture is not predetermined. Culture is pliable; it’s how it is used that matters” (161). It’s normal to feel uncomfortable by change from your own culture or community, but if the use of the culture is in favor of a community’s self expression and survival, it needs to be recognized. A Toyota commercial with an uplifting and inspirational indie rock song isn’t there for background noise; it drives emotion, captures attention, and gives meaning to the moving picture on the screen. Bringing these artistic visions into a new setting utilizes the culture in a significant and progressive way without dirtily exploiting it, so that more of the world can support the movement of music.  

There has been a distinct lack of understanding between musicians and their fans in the changing tides of the music business, and with this comes a blurred perspective of an artist’s integrity that is tearing the community apart. It is crucial for music subcultures to accept the intertwining of business into their culture, and to open their minds to change. If given the chance, recognizing these cultural interactions can lead to “the joys of the contact zone” (Pratt) and even bring their beloved culture to a new level of appreciation and expression. As these changing commercial opportunities enter the music industry, today’s musicians are responsible to do what they need to in order to survive as a culture, and headstrong fans have to leave the term “sell out” behind and explore the possibilities of this change in order to support their survival.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.