Pop Playground
Selling Out: Be Fruitful and Multiply (Your Fanbase)

for the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Selling Out.

All around the world, fifteen-year-old boys who've just had their lives changed by The Shins are strumming away on their guitars in the bedrooms, dreaming of being in a band. Well, that's still vaguely the dream of a lot of us, even those in our twenties who can’t even think about boys with guitars without cringing.

But in what elysian meadows does our anonymous star-to-be dream of frolicking?

Having a day job, gigging at night, and ending up out of pocket?

Is it a life of murky three-star reviews and ill-conceived features in the NME?

Having a moderately well-patronaged e-mail list wherein adolescent girls talk about him in a hilarious sexual manner, and everyone else enthuses about vinyl-only B-sides?

Charting at Number 27 for one week and then dropping out of the chart forever, all the while saying how they don't matter anymore?

Or supporting Turin Brakes in a series of dodgy venues with blue lighting in the toilets to stop people shooting up amidst the sheer despair of everything ever?

Does he fuck.

Hate Coldplay behind your indier-than-thou persona all you want (and their music gives you ample ammunition, I concede), but it's they who are living a boy's adventure tale; filling stadiums, having a good quantity (quality if possible, but not essential) of fans and making money.


For the fan, the call of “sellout!” is made at the exact point where the aspirations for the band held by that fan and those of the band themselves diverge, and the first insult that springs to mind is shouted or posted to the obsessive fan mailing list with the scorn of a jilted lover. Their band has cheated on them with ten thousand other lovers, none of whom FEEL the way they do.

You could group the accusations into three categories. The first is that the desire for money, or even the acceptance of it, taints all that has gone before it. You see this when an artist identified (not necessarily by themselves) as non-mainstream deigns to license their work for commercial purposes. (Heaven forbid anyone should actually make any money off their art.)

A reasonable way of approaching this situation is to say that the artwork itself hasn’t been changed or destroyed—it’s still the same song, or the same creation, it’s just being heard by different and almost certainly a greater number of people. But a search on your preferred message board will provide ample arguments to the contrary, and probably be unintentionally sidesplitting too. Such arguments often reject visceral enjoyment of an underground touchstone based on nothing more than what a 20-second snatch sounds like—you won’t enjoy it on as many levels as I do. The art cannot be reduced to soundbite or content—it has to be experienced holistically by someone who understands it; its history, context, its meaning. Licensing and marketing denies this, and so must be denigrated and discouraged.

The second is that commercial success—i.e. selling lots of records and tickets to your concerts—is inversely proportional to quality. Five million people buy a Daniel Powter album (horrible, I know), and five thousand people buy a Devendra Banhart album, therefore the latter people must like their purchase, say, one thousand times more. Or they just have better taste, are part of some cultural elite of educated aesthetes, and anyone who dares pander to the common man or woman is operating on a lower level of artistic merit. The more people it reaches, the less connection it has with each individual listener. But that's rubbish. We, as readers, writers and consumers, need to get off our high horses and stop assuming that what we don't like has no intrinsic value just because we can't see it.

The third approach is that bands are often accused of changing their sound or style in order to garner more popularity, success and therefore money. The music changes, and that special element which made the sellout-accuser such a fan in the first place (enough to be hurt by the change) is revealed as not an essential feature of the band's sound or persona, but rather an accidental quirk of history, an artifact of a lack of a ambition, a decent budget or experience. The fact is that a lot of these things are ironed out when the band gets serious, or a serious amount of cash to work with, and the band are "found out" by the fans to be about something else other than what was assumed entirely.

Look what happened to Liz Phair. She lost all her cred—which had proven somewhat resilient—in the space of one four minute pop song, and she’s going to get brickbats for showing that despite the increased freedom which success brought her, she will not automatically be going back to what she did before—as if she should be saying “Well, you know, I quite like it here being semi-popular.”

But why are any of these things bad?

Getting your message—your music—out to new people is a beautiful thing. If it weren't, people wouldn't be writing about music in a critical capacity, discussing it with mates, making mix tapes or starting MP3 blogs. Saturated radio airplay should be something to aspire to, not bemoan the existence of. The dominance of certain styles of music, certain artists should act as a pointer not to "what's wrong with music", but what's actually connecting with listeners.

The cry of selling out assumes a kind of musical communism—that success is to be avoided, that expensive production values don't make a song any better, that more copies sold don't make a song any better—but does so in a way that assumes that listeners aren't equal, and that some listeners have inherently better taste than others, and are more worth reaching than others. The twelve-year-old girl squirming with delighted anticipation as she peels the plastic off her Backstreet Boys single is wrong, but the music critic who appreciates it on a technical level is right because he also listens to the New Pornographers and Dizzee Rascal or whoever else is a name worth dropping this month.

History, and the writing of it, can be subjective, despite the desire to document things exactly as they happened. Music history is perhaps one of the few areas where the winners are often forgotten. We're going to be spoon-fed the line that some song that got into the top 53 on Pazz and Jop or some album that some critics really liked was influential and important. But what has to be remembered is that the mid-00s are going to be remembered for Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Gwen Stefani, Crazy Frog and the Pussycat Dolls more than any obscurely acclaimed curio.

Equally, performers need to understand that the key to being influential and successful is to get on the radio, circulated on the file sharing applications and doing something to foster entryism—call it selling out if you wish—so that their music gets to the people who'll love it, buy it, start bands of their own, and challenge you, rather than those who call bullshit the minute a radio-friendly hook gets thrown into the mix.

Commercial failure but underground success—not so much that they’ll get noticed and signed to a major, mind you—is actively romanticized and encouraged. Major changes don’t happen this way. Disco and punk supplanted the excesses of 70s rock not by sneaking up by stealth, they did it by being popular with people who liked to go out and dance and have a good time. The late 90s teen pop explosion did it with irresistible songs with sharp, pointed hooks. Hip-hop is today’s king because it took its underground base and tilted its expertise towards the commercial. Hip-hop’s got the right idea about selling out too—its exponents blend assurances that they’re still real with snapbacks towards their detractors—as if to say “yeah, I’m successful, and you’re jealous”. And these genres’ popularity allow those who wish to dabble in uncommercial waters within those genres are free to do so. Nobody forces you to aim for the top if you don’t want to.

But a culture in which the term “selling out” even existsindicates that for whatever reasons, fans and critics are telling artists not to reach for the stars and the airplay charts. The best way for a scene or a style to thrive is competition - the music business is, despite the often genuinely benevolent nature of people involved, a capitalist venture. Get your song on the radio, get your sound out there where it can be heard by other people, who will come to your gigs, form their own bands and challenge you. Play for yourself, certainly, but don't shut out anyone else, or there's nothing to reach for.

Selling out, as an idea, assumes—and it’s a big assumption—that the listener knows better than the artist and that listener knows what the artist really would want to do if it weren't for external pressures. We've all indulged in it, even on Stylus. But to do so under some guise of objectivity achieves nothing. Selling out, as it's accused, doesn't really exist. Name a band you thought sold out, chances are that jettisoned aspect was never considered that important anyway.

Selling out in the sense of getting airplay, selling records and getting your music out there, though, is important. So important, bands will do things for this to happen. And if we love them, we should be encouraging them to do so, not sniping from the sidelines. To do so is to encourage sameness, mediocrity, the lack of progression or challenge. But I'm not an indie enthusiast, so what would I know? I cheer on my favourites on the pop charts, willing their singles towards the top so they'll retain commercial viability and thus keep putting out new and better singles. That's the kind of passion (and high charting is the kind of ambition) that's not seen enough in criticism and fandom outside pop. It’s a trend that’s worth picking up on.

By: Edward Oculicz
Published on: 2005-10-12
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