The Myth of Musicians Selling Out

Friday, September 09, 2005

Sir Paul Sells Out

That's a powerful headline. It's also a pile of baloney. There is no such thing as "selling out" despite the best efforts of self-important artists and fans to claims that such a mythical beast exists.

The reality is that every single artist that you have ever heard of has "sold out" to one degree or another. If they hadn't, you'd never have heard of them. The only question is the degree to which one's personal taste accepts the capitalism of their favorite artists. And that's exactly what it is: personal taste. There is no set standard for "selling out": it's just a label that someone sticks on an artist for making money in a way of which they don't approve or, in some cases, for making money at all.

The reality is that every musician who ever recorded a song is in the business to make money - as much of it as possible, for as long as possible. They may create airs that they pretend to be uninterested in the almighty dollar, but when was the last time one gave away an entire album of their work to the world? When was the last time one went on a nationwide tour of free concerts? The answer is simple and obvious: never. Actions speak louder than words, so citing quotes to the contrary is useless. Show me their free concert tour and freely released body of work or believe the truth about your favorite artist: there really isn't any middle ground.

(Before the naysayers start: releasing a single song for free is just giving away free samples to induce you to buy the full product. They do they same thing in supermarkets.)

They sell t-shirts, and CDs, and keychains, and all manner of other memorabilia and none of that is questioned. They get a cut of concession sales, appearance fees, and various other types of financial compensation without a peep from the peanut gallery. What kind of sell-out is every artist who ever went on a corporate-sponsored tour? Who is more the product of corporate promotion: the Rolling Stones or Britney Spears? The honest answer is that both are. The only real difference is only in the degree that Britney's fans tend to be more honest about how much corporate money their favorite artist accepts.

They are all, at the heart of the matter, capitalists who earn their livings through the old laws of supply and demand. No different than any CEO or Working Class Joe like you or I. Their product is their music, and they are the heads of sales and development. You and I are the consumers, but none of it is a sacred relic forever beyond the impurity of the profit motive.

Some draw the line at using a song to sell a particular product, claiming that those who allow their music to be used that way have "sold out." If you love the music, then every opportunity to hear it should be a joy. Does it truly matter if it's on a commercial or on a CD? Not to a truly objective listener. But there's the crux of the matter, isn't it? If a piece of music or an artist has touched us emotionally - either for good or ill, then we can no longer be truly objective about it or them any longer. To claim an ability to be objective is either to lie to ourselves or to have failed utterly in any emotional connection to the music.

What people are truly upset about is they have been forced to face the fact that their favorite artist is a capitalist, and no one likes having reality imposed on them that way. But that doesn't make it any less true, and it doesn't mean that the artist wasn't a capitalist before they were given the opportunity to have their song used for a different commercial purpose.

On the flip side of loving a song or artist is the utter disbelief that another person would find a song that you hate to have value and be willing to pay for it. Either way, it's not the money that's truly upsetting: it's the disconnect between reality and our own personal beliefs about the music that drives the emotional response.

*** also posted to Blog Critics ***


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