What does selling out mean?

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Update: Brad F has a response here where he takes issue with my logic and adds some new points on the topic.

Dinklage sez: I sort of learned not to accept those roles, where I'm playing a sight gag ... 

We, as organisms, have the ability to reflect on our world and lives and express ourselves. It's a natural state, it just happens. Art represents the many ways we communicate these ideas to others.

Once we were living in large enough communities, several issues came up. One biggie is art in the service of power. Like propaganda. Some fellow coined the phrase the pen is mightier than the sword. Another issue is art used to sell things, or the intersection of art and commerce. This is especially relevant today as we live in a global consumer age and the people who run it have the power. What effect does all this have on music and the cultural communities around it?

This is nothing new or controversial. Talking about these issues shouldn't bring up shock, panic or defensive behavior. But, I find that when I bring this idea up, especially in relation to the actions of PR and advertising companies in arts communities, it causes a lot of fuss - predictably, from people within the advertising/PR community themselves.

One rebuttal I often hear is that selling out is a dated concept and there's nothing wrong with making money from your work. 
In itself, that comment is bizarre. It's a stock phrase with little logical connection to the initial objections or inquiries. It is designed to divert the discussion away into pointless metaphysics. Consider:

Doing commercial ads destroys the integrity of the music and breaks the trust needed for artists to build a long term following in a community based underground scene. 

Selling Out is a dated concept, it's unfair to attack a band just for making money.

There was, of course, no attack on the general idea of making money from your art and the response is nonsense. But it comes up so many times I feel it's worth looking into. So, what does selling out mean?

I've heard that phrase many times before. Growing up a die hard music fan you always hear something like "Oh, so and so, has really sold out." It appeared to be a negative term equating money with a decline in the quality of the art.

Let's say there's a band. They write an album of songs and they put it on the net at their website for free download with a donations button. People love it and donate loads of money, they also play shows and people happily fork out cash for their excellent performance. There is the possibility of making a lot of money here.

Some people refer to this as selling out. Just the act of making money at all. This model represents a direct relationship between an artist and someone who connects with them. There is no third party. 

There is another concern that I heard. When artists become affluent, even through legitimate means, the change in lifestyle may result in the edge the material used to have disappearing. Sometimes I heard people refer to this as selling out too. That's a big area, loaded with assumptions.

Also, some people say that if a band starts with the goal of getting rich, they will choose certain songs and styles that pander to the power mongers of the art markets. The whole process is then selling out.

Close to that is the idea that if a band is signed to a large corporate record label, the commercial drive and helmsman-ship of that large business will affect the art - in the service of making big money (thought of as greed.)

Now, say a band puts themselves about as an indie band or whatever. Not a session player creating jingles, someone who firstly puts themselves out there as an artist. They then get approached to create a song or video that will be used to advertise a product. Maybe even just appear in an ad to lend the product their fame and endorsement or credibility. The band do this and get paid for it. The meaning of the song has now become, buy this car, or whatever.

The concern is that the art is no longer desirable and trust has been broken. From the sub-culture point of view: who bases their cultural identity on "buy this car." It's insulting to the individual. The artist can no longer be trusted as independent. They are a spokesperson for a third party. Outside of the waves of ideology, sane people can sense these things naturally. If your face or your work is plastered all over a Pepsi ad, they are not going to take it seriously. It's an obvious affront to fans who come to music as a sub-culture in which they can explore ideas, identity and belong to as a group.

Can this be called selling out?

We'd assume it was done to make money. Although in the Shanghai scene there's no real long term affluence to be gained from it.

This is what I'm concerned with. And the overall point here is that just discussing these things at all is not a bad thing. We should be opening up understanding, not closing it down with fake-contrarian aggression designed to protect self-interest.


I find this issue especially relevant to the Shanghai scene at this very moment. We have just hit a real lull in the scene, especially when it comes to local band activities. The younger bands who should now be the experienced leaders of the scene were largely pulled away into artist management for commercial gigs and ads etc. There was nothing there and it killed their momentum, drive and long term activity. The ill effects that I have often debated with other people here have fully come to be.

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Best published on August 9, 2012 3:55 AM.

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