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Vice/Versus: Bands For Sale?

Remember when Fall Out Boy "sold out" by making music that people enjoyed?
Remember when Fall Out Boy found mainstream success, then got relentlessly blasted as sellouts?

“Sellout” has always been the dirty word of the music world–far worse than anythings with four letters–but does it still hold the same weight it used to? In an increasingly commercialized age, some argue the notion of selling out is becoming less and less meaningful. Others think its negative connotations still hold strong. To get to the bottom of this, idobi Howl music director Brad Lopez and guest writer Devon Sanders are here to present each side of the argument. Let them know what  you think.

The Age of the Sellout…Still Reigns
by Brad Lopez

Marketers would love music fans to believe “selling out” no longer exists as it was declared by Columbia Journalism Review Editor Alissa Quart in PBS Frontline’s Generation Like, an expose about the phenomenon of social media popularity among teenagers. While that may be the case for fans of an otherwise anonymous YouTube star, dedicated music fans are still as defensive about the influence of money today as they were before the explosion of social media and the decline of the record industry.

In a short segment of the Frontline special, several teenagers are asked what it means to sell out. The answers are predictably teenagerish:

“BOY: Well, selling out means, like– it could mean different things.
GIRL: I guess, I don’t know, I think first about a concert that’s, like, totally sold out, like, no tickets left. That’s probably not what you meant, though.
GIRL: I don’t know what that means.
BOY: You can sell out, like, an album or you could, like, sell out, like– like you’re a sellout, like you’re nowhere in life. You’re never going to get back on top.”

“I’m not sure they even know what it means,” said Quart. She is correct on that point, but the fact a handful of teens cannot define something as complicated as selling out should not support the conclusion that people don’t care about it anymore.

Take the recent success of deathcore act Whitechapel, whose new album Our Endless War debuted at 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 this week, selling 16,000 units in the US alone. Those unfamiliar with Whitechapel only need to hear the first minute of a song to know the Tennessee sextet is anything but radio friendly. Vocalist Phil Bozeman’s growls are unlikely to land him as a judge on any primetime network TV talent shows, and yet even Whitechapel are not immune to the accusation that the band sold out. “I have respect for all the guys in Whitechapel but they have SOLD OUT WITH THIS ALBUM!” said one critic in a Facebook post.

Artists who achieve any amount of success will always find resistance from fans because music is very personal to certain people. Fans want something they can call their own; artists want to make a living. Neither party will ever be satisfied without alienating the other. It doesn’t help that the public debate about selling out is dominated by people for whom “coolness” is a major life priority; people who have little sympathy for the struggling artist.

There are legitimate points about selling out made by fans who have greater life perspective than the kids cited by Frontline. idobi Howl’s Metalix asked fans what it means to sell out. “Selling out happens when a band tailors their sound specifically to make money,” said one commenter. I think the majority of ‘sell outs’ though are just maturing as artists.” Another fan called out metalcore band All That Remains for “sacrificing musicality” with more radio friendly clean vocals in The Fall Of Ideals.

While the discussion about selling out may be mired in immaturity, there are rational points to be made about artists who use the hip appeal of underground music as a way to chase money and fame in the mainstream music world. The debate is not over simply because Quart and Frontline declare it so. They are drawing conclusions about a kid who is sponsored by Taco Bell just because he has an incredible social media following. If fans are sensitive enough to say a band like Whitechapel sold out, then they would riot if Bozeman started tagging sponsors on stage in between songs. (Brad Lopez)

The Age of the Sellout…Is Over
by Devon Sanders

The age of the sellout is over. It’s done. Finished.

It’s riding a dinosaur, drinking Crystal Pepsi to take a final meeting with a dodo.

It just doesn’t exist anymore.

Nowadays, many teens and adults view music like they view air. It’s free, it’s there, it’s mine! We live in an age where digital has, oddly, turned music from a commodity into an open source product ripe for commercial exploitation. The new consumer is fed a steady diet of guest appearances on free via mix tapes and guest appearances on other artists’ albums–all in the name of brand building.

You really can’t sell out anymore. Gone are the days of lavish record company-sponsored music videos. If you can get one, you have to buy in on it yourself. You have to be your own best advocate in an age where going platinum is the new gold standard. You have to hustle. You have to go hand-to-hand like pre-36 Chambers Wu-Tang. You have to get yourself out there. You have to be seen with the right people. Tour, perform; perfect your show game. Work social media. Connect. In short, if you want to be noticed, you practically have to give yourself away.

If you can get to a place where a record company wants to give you a record contract, if you can get to that rare place where someone hears what you’ve done and thinks it can help them sell their brand, let them help you.

You put in the work.

Why continue to starve yourself financially and creatively because someone who found you, one way, on one day, doesn’t believe you have a right to earn and evolve? I was one of those few who found The Black Eyed Peas in their backpack days. I enjoyed their first album. I did. I bought it. In buying that first album of pseudo-conscious beats and rhymes, I knew my purchase wasn’t going to help them eat well. I knew it would just help them eat. I wasn’t mad when then switched the formula to pop because, hey, I knew I never owned them. I owned a CD.

Nowadays, “selling out” may be the only way–after you’ve done all the work to get to a place where the record company can take a cut, and after someone online takes your song for free–to keep your name in the rapidly changing and expanding conversation that is today’s music business. (Devon Sanders)

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