06 June 2007

Buying In to Selling Out

So there's been this enormous brouhaha about Wilco "selling out" because the band's members are letting songs from their new album, "Sky Blue Sky," appear in ads for Volkswagen. Some people are just losing their minds that the band has gone all commercial. The feedback has gotten so intense and negative that Wilco has released a statement defending its credibility on its website, and frontman Jeff Tweedy's brother-in-law has posted a lengthy defense of the band on his blog.

I think the in-law's blog post does a fine job defending Wilco, so I won't do that here. But what I would like to consider is this notion of "selling out." I mean, I can completely understand why fans of a lesser-known band would be up in arms about their beloved rockers (or rappers or folkers or whatever) suddenly making themselves available to wider consumption. Surely the possibility of mass appeal will also result in the dulling of whatever edges made the band so cool and appealing in the first place, right? Lose your soul to make a buck and get played on Disney Radio. To me, that's what "selling out" means.

And because that's what it means to me, I don't think signing to a major label--or even letting your songs get used in commercials--necessarily constitutes selling out. To me, you've only truly sold out if, once you've broadened your exposure, the sound of your music fundamentally changes in ways that seem designed to court a new mass audience.

Take Liz Phair: She's like the queen of selling out. She went from slash-and-burn post-punk goddess to glitzy rocker to pop princess.

Or did she? Her approach to pop stardom always struck me as really intelligent, and this article articulates why.

Okay, okay. So if you can't say Liz Phair sold out without using some po-mo asterisk to explain yourself, what about the country group Sugarland? Total sell-outs. Jennifer Nettles used to be this indie folk-rocker from Atlanta who sang all these dark songs about her broken home and burning sexual desire. Now she's in a group that makes fun ditties with power chords. And you know what? That total, unabashed selling out upset me for a minute, because there's no denying that Sugarland's music is pretty vapid when compared to Nettles' solo work (or her work in the duo Soul Miner's Daughter).

But as I've written, I've gotten over it. The old Jennifer Nettles is dead, but the new one is great in her own way.

The other major sell-out I can think of is Nelly Furtado, but god knows I've written about her enough on here.

So apparently, I can't get that upset about an artist selling out, nor can I be quick to accuse them of having done so. How about you guys? Any artists that "sold out," thus forcing you to drop them forever? Or have you made the journey with them, perhaps embracing them as a mass market act and then replacing the indie hole in your heart with another obscure sensation?

(I feel like I've only brushed the surface of this topic here. There are so many more questions to ask and consider... but a blog post can't be a term paper. I'll think more about it and get back to you. But I'd love to hear all your thoughts. Anything you've think I've overlooked on this topic?)

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At 1:21 PM, Anonymous katy said...

I agree with you, but doesn't it seem to be the general rule that artists who are wildly commercially successful cannot seem to maintain their early genius and fresh perspective? They might be able to come up with some good material here and there, but it seems hard to maintain the creative edge once you've bought the house and the cars.

Filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are always the first to come to mind on this topic -- we could maybe call this the "Jar Jar Binks effect" -- but it really is true in music, too. One example: not to say that there aren't great R.E.M. tracks after 1995, but the albums that are consistently amazing are from before they were top 40 staples.

It probably isn't so much that they are changing their music deliberately to sell more, but more that commercial success changes artists themselves, and affects their work, and affects their artistic judgment. Maybe you're easier on yourself when you think of yourself as already validated by selling gazillions of albums.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger symbot said...

This is an almost impossible question, in the same way that it's almost impossible to decipher creativity within the current capitalist context. Profit has gotten itself so ingrained in our everyday values that things like "independence," "creativity," and "passion" are almost impossible to consider as unique human experiences.

Part of me wants to do what some of my friends do and rule out the idea of "selling out" entirely. In an almost sophistic move, they look at artistic merit, entertainment value, and market value as entirely independent domains, and they don't bother letting their opinions cross-polinate between these areas. It's a good way to make judgements much simpler... if you can do this kind of compartmentalization, you can say "Sure, I hate the Bosstones, but it's not because they sold out... it's just because they stopped making good music."

You can't maintain this kind of straightforward opinion-forming process when you allow for a concept like "sell-out," which suggests that a band's market position has an effect on how much you like them... or, even scarier, on "how good" they are.

So what if a band "sells out" but still makes great music? What if they actually improve once they get signed to a major label? I can't think of an example where this has happened, but as a hypothetical situation, it's important to consider. Would you still hold their commercial success against them, even if it was deserved, and non-destructive?

It sounds crazy, but I might. Why? Because it's a band I like, a worthy creative force, validating a bloated, greedy, diseased music industry.

That's why I still give some credit to the term "sell-out"... I come from a music scene (punk) where the personal integrity, the loyalty and authenticity, of a band counts in my estimation of them. Sell-out is more a social judgement than an aesthetic one, but in some scenes and creative cultures, they have to go together to keep the community coherent.

There's a lot more to be said on this topic, but that's my initial two bits. If you want a great illustration of the dangers presented to music by the music industry, look at ska... a vibrant scene in the mid-90's, discovered and exploited by the music industry for everything from MTV singles to movie soundtracks, and the subsequent collapse of the scene itself when the mainstream lost interest in the genre.

At 8:55 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

To me, I couldn't give a fig about an artist selling out or not. What matters to me is do I like the result? Do I like the music, movie, art, whatever?

I guess I'm kind of like Symbot says.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

Thanks, Symbot, for an excellent post.

I absolutely agree with everyone here who has said that liking an artistic product can often trump how that product was made. That's what I mean about my developing relationship to Sugarland: I like their music, so I can't be bitter about their decision to sign with a major label, even if it means another type of music I like (i.e.--the type made by Jennifer Nettles, the solo artist) is now down an artist.

But another part of my response is connected to my impotent loathing for corporate America. I hate seeing every stadium and concert hall get named after Staples and Hi Fi Buys. I hate feeling like everything in the country literally belongs to a corporate entity, up to and including the entire town in Florida that Disney once owned.

Yet I feel like I have to get over that frustration just to get through my day. If I boycotted every artist that was connected to corporate culture, I would lose the experience of lots of great art.

(Plus, it's not like the blog isn't beholden to Google.)

Rrrgh! I don't know how to talk about this without getting sidetracked onto endless conversations about capitalism, the maintenance of integrity, the need for revolution, etc. Symbot is right... it's an almost impossible question. But it's good to examine it one little piece at a time.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Bernie said...

In my mind, there is a difference between being passively affiliated with corporate culture -- as in signing with a major label, having your songs on iTunes, etc -- and actively selling your music to a corporate entity so that it can be used to sell a specific product -- as Wilco and many others have done.

When a song becomes connected with a product, it loses its power. I realize everyone is tainted somewhat by corporate culture, but in most of the passive cases the music can transcend it all and exist on its own. That's not true if a song is directly part of a marketing campaign.


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