What is selling out? Is the accusation still relevant?
I remember hearing the word “sellout” a lot about 7 or 8 years ago. I hear it less and less these days, as it relates to music, for good reason. Many bands are still able to tour and produce new recordings ONLY because they are willing to allow commercial use of their songs, tour sponsorships and other less common means of monetizing their content/personas. Before, a corporate sponsor usually meant an artist (who was not really an artist at all in many cases) had probably figured out that his or her 15 minutes were at the 14.5 minute mark and wanted to secure some kind of post-popularity survival. Or said artist wanted a LOT more money. Maybe because they blew it all on coke or an expensive party habit. Maybe because they were generous and thought it was all going to keep rolling in forever. I mean, how many people who end up being one hit wonders actually know they will be one hit wonders? Probably not very many.
Now, go to a show and you can meet band members standing behind the merch booth right with the fans, signing and selling. Bands that, a few short years ago, would have maintained that false wall and distant, unattainable persona. Noo-one calls them sell-outs. What happened? What changed?
There was a well-attended panel at SxSW talking about how “subcultures” (or niches) can prosper (make the moneys) without “selling out”. Like it’s a magic trick, and maybe there are rules. Listen, if someone wants to call you or think you are a “sell out”, nothing YOU do or say will make that person change his or her mind until someone calls that person out for being an ass-hat. And I have to ask. Is it always necessary for the curators and taste-makers of the world to make a living off it? I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to do so, but I’m also not suggesting it’s always appropriate. Certainly, I would never attack someone for taking a buck for having really good taste and magical powers of discovery. I am saying that typically ad-trickery, sneaky ads, obvious under-the-table swag and cash for critical art-love and questionable partnerships/sponsorships CAN be a bad sign. And you cannot blame folks for making at least some assumptions. Then again, I tend to write only about stuff I love, which some people see as a red flag. I usually simply side with the fictional, animated character Thumper when it comes to my critical focus. If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say “nothin’ ” at all. Well, isn’t that quaint? Of course this doesn’t apply to my non-music articles or music-biz articles. I think those balance things out a little. I can be, let’s say, a little hard on certain points of view or ways of doing business. This article could well be an example.
People get impatient. When that first thousand (or ms. million if you’re nasty) doesn’t fall into their hands after that first diss-article on Radiohead or Grizzly Bear gets the attention of the editors at Pitchfork, they can get lazy and “other options” fall into their laps. And it’s so hard to find the signal in all the ad-supported noise out there. It can be much easier for people to simply dismiss a blogger, magazine or site and lazily call them sell-outs. So, in a way, it can be difficult to feel sorry for these publishers, since they’ve taken the easy way out (or in).
A little patience and observation of sites and businesses that have been very careful how they proceed commercially could just lead to the building of trust. Take for instance TWIT, ex-Tech-TV host and radio host-programmer Leo Laporte’s home-built network. For decades, Leo has built trust with his audience. That’s right, DECADES. Of course, not all of us can do this, especially if what we cover is current pop or sub-culture. When you’re worried about breaking a hip, it’s hard to find time to stay hip. But he is still a great example of how to build trust. Don’t accept sponsorships from companies you would not do business with yourself. Be careful about advice, be protective of your audience(and they will, in turn, protect you). Never participate in duping them or ripping them off. Always remember your audience/readers and keep them in mind. If you do all of these things and someone still calls you a sell-out, chances are they’re not only wrong, but also in the minority.Even big names worry about this kind of thing. Filmmaker Kevin Smith recently worried publicly about being seen as a sell-out when a company offered to make him a Twitter Book, an actual bound book containing all of his Tweets. In exchange, they simply asked that he take a picture of himself with his free book and post it. Not exactly a sell-out move. He got a free book and they got a single instance of almost-free publicity. No big deal, right? Oh no. See, what Kevin didn’t realize was that people (or, rather, celebrities) are getting paid THOUSANDS for a single Tweet mention. His followers started accusing him, asking him how much he “got paid for that one”. But, see, the other thing he maybe doesn’t realize is that a certain portion of the public not only always assumes the worst, but actually hates the celebrities they follow more than they love them. And worrying about what they think is a bit like trying to convince a bully how cool you are. You will never change them. Whatever change they make happen within will most likely never involve you. They’ve already made up their minds about you. Some brains, also, will always remain tiny and walled-off. The best you can hope for is that they grow bored with you and move on to a Kardashian rather than sticking around and finding out you don’t live down to their expectations.
But, you may ask, what about now? How will I pay the bills now!? Well, ask yourself if you’re homeless. If not, why not? Whatever it is you do to make sure that doesn’t happen, extend it to what you love doing, whether it’s blogging, podcasting, writing,music, film, criticism, commentary, community-building. Whatever it is, treat it like you’d treat food and water, shelter and electricity. Because I guarantee you, the other people who succeeded doing the thing you do? They did this. And if that means you have to put it first, above something else you love or love doing, make the leap and put it first, no matter the cost. And if it isn’t worth it, if it’s not important enough to you to do that, do THE OTHER THING that comes first instead and quit wasting your time doing this other thing that doesn’t matter as much. Quite simple, really. And you don’t need me or some guru to charge you money to tell it to you either. (oops, bubble-burster.. sorry gurus!!) But don’t listen to me, I haven’t made my first million yet. Seriously, I have not “made it” on any level at anything much at all.
But always remember, if there’s a hole in your pocket and your keys, change, etc are falling out, does it matter if it’s the homeless guy that tells you about it 10 feet down the road.. or the “Marketing Professional” at the next block? The messenger is not always important. But the message almost always is, if it is.
In a world filled with blatant, audacious, garish, gaudy marketing and in-your-face, empty commercialism, whatever a real artist has to do to simply live a creatively prosperous life, reasonably staving off hardship and struggle, is fair game. If it means you might have to hear your favorite indie darlings in a Toyota ad (say, as an older example.. Queen’s “Don’t stop me now” or Soul 2 Soul’s “Keep on movin’..don’t stop“.. lol.. sorry.. could not resist that one) then try to remember there’s a good chance the money they received in exchange probably allowed them to come play in your town.. with equipment that actually sounds good.. and..
kinda get over yourself…
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/armoire/3219951226/