Facing the Music: Does Success Equal 'Selling Out'?

John McGovern


Rock and roll was once at the forefront of rebellion, a powerful force within the counterculture. In the aftermath of Woodstock, as the fire of the glorious counterculture died down, the early- to mid-70s marked a lull period for ambitious musicians dedicated to fighting “the man.” Part of this had to do with a growing awareness of the inherent paradox in the ethos of this new, rebellious music: that the music railed against the system but also operated within that system. The lack of a solution to this Catch-22 culminated in the origins of punk rock.


The rise of punk occurred in the mid- to late-70s – hitting both sides of the Atlantic. American groups, such as The Stooges and the Velvet Underground, provided aesthetic fuel to this emerging cacophony of sound. A number of American bands became focused on an ideology that stood for much more than a clichéd middle-finger waving that would scare the middle masses. This new movement prided itself on its independence and operation outside of mainstream culture.  Thurston Moore, the frontman of the iconic 80s art-punk band Sonic Youth, asserted that punk was “like a nihilist hippie movement.” But in the end, as the Sex Pistols appeared on the cover of Investor Review magazine as the "Young Businessmen of the Year," the death knell for punk and its DIY ethic had been rung.        


Today, with the rise of the Internet, changes in the music industry have occurred far more quickly. Steven Hyden of the AV Club writes, that "Today, 'indie rock' has gone from describing a philosophical and business outlook to being a not particularly helpful genre tag." The distinction between what defines an "indie rock" band and how far a band has to go to "sell out," depends on the time period. Now, unlike in the 80s and 90s, the two are mutually exclusive.


The prevalence of the question of selling out can be seen in shows like “Portlander,” where the search for authenticity is mocked in sketches about bohemian life. The never-ending parade of technological advances seems to contribute to this overwhelming search for credibility and legitimacy. Another example occurred on “The Colbert Report,” where The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend appeared on the show in a “sell-out off," where the bands mocked the number of times they had sold their music for advertisements, implying that the notion of selling out is archaic. While “The Colbert Report” was mocking the ethos of independent music scenes, the bit represents another example that the original notion of “selling out” is much easier to compromise and that bands that wish to stay entirely self-sufficient must not be willing to quit their day jobs.


The rise of the Internet has pushed artists committed to operating apart from "the system" further into the fringes. Any artist who insists on remaining “indie” must forget that the Internet exists, and work through tight mediums. As Rob Horning of n+1 Magazine wrote in June 2011, “The total-corporate state may have arrived without our really having noticed it.” Branding becomes much easier. Thus authenticity, which the independent music scene focuses a significant amount of energy on, must find new ways to be expressed.


Ultimately, when an artist’s music is  shoved in the faces of principled music fans with standards and appears as a product, as opposed to an individual piece of art, fans will reject the music. While the implications of selling out may have changed in the new millennium, the traditional meaning of the accusation still holds. When a band begins to sound more accessible and marketable, at the expense of artistic integrity, those dedicated fans will be ready to scream “sell-out” and scoff at their once beloved artist now appearing in Rolling Stone or playing at MSG.

Of course, whether or not a band has legitimately sold out is subjective, and often a sign of elitism that critics point to in the independent music scene. But when the market takes music, a highly personal art form closely tied to memory and experience, and exploits it, it’s  understood that fans will be disillusioned.


Nevertheless, “indie” fans must change their standards for whether or not a band has sold out, unless one is content with hardcore and other genres clinging to the fringe. They must recognize the economic factors and pressures that force bands to play a festival sponsored by Miller Lite, or sell a track to a TV show owned by Viacom. Any intelligent fan will recognize that the notion of selling out  is ultimately not that important and that a capitalist economy thrives upon cultural hegemony.


In an February 2010 article in Pitchfork, about the decade in indie, Nitush Abebe describes a schism created due to the increasing commercialization of "indie" music, "On one side, there's a large audience who listens to popular indie as a matter of course, looking more for solid records and strong songs than any huge feeling of strangeness or experiment." The notion of selling out thrives in the other side that seeks "strangeness or experiment."


Avant-garde and underground music, by nature, cannot be turned into a commodity, and in many ways, exist as a reaction to the mainstream culture. This explanation clarifies how selling out remains constant. So, if one is an ardent believer in taking down the corporate state, they probably shouldn’t be listening to indie records in the first place. Turning music into a serious, political issue not only detracts from its purpose, but just seems misguided. Instead of complaining about which band sold out or constantly refining a tedious framework of who has or hasn’t sold out, the focus should move beyond banal analysis, criticism and discussion of what cultural commodities a person has consumed.

Photo of Vampire Weekend on main page: Soren Solkar

Photo of the Black Keys: Pitchfork

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I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; thanks for share.


Great article, but I have a couple of small criticisms; one, if I copypatse, "Portlander' into my google, willl it ask me if I meant "Portlandia"? Secondly, you had me, 'til this paragraph, "Avant-garde and underground music, by nature, cannot be turned into a commodity, and in many ways, exist as a reaction to the mainstream culture. This explanation clarifies how selling out remains constant......"  Not quite right, in my opinion. In fact, it's because avante-garde and underground music can be commoditized that any distinction remains.Thanks for a thought-oprovoking read.


This is a lovely thought unless you actually want a career and make a living with your music.  If you're a hobbyist - that's all well and good.  But if you're a professional musician - than your music IS a commodity.  Or you're broke. This is just the same hogwash that keeps artists poor and at the mercy of unethical record labels. It's the MUSIC BUSINESS - not the music starving and playing in my mother's basement. Not only isn't the use of your music in a TV Show, commercial or film "selling out", it can make your music accessible to a huge audience.  Just ask The Fray... It's called the Music Business, I'm Your Music Business Coach Debra Russell


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