I want to talk about something that’s plagued mankind for centuries, (well, decades at least). “Selling out”. One can “sell out” in many aspects but I’d like to focus mainly on music. To many music fans this is probably something you don’t think or even care much about. If most of the music you listen to is just whatever you happen to hear on the radio… one, I feel sorry for you, and two, you may not understand why this is such a big deal. What i will try to explain here is how heartbreaking and excruciating it can be when a band or artist “Sells out”.
The simplest way I can define selling-out is when a band makes a conscious effort to change their music, usually by making it more mainstream, in order to gain more fans and make more money. They change their look or sound based on whats popular at the moment, whatever current trend is likely to make them the most money.
Over the years many a musical group or artist have been accused of this hanus act. It occurs mostly with bands in the genres of heavy metal, punk, indie rock, and even hip-hop. These genres of music usually have the most rabid and dedicated fans due to the smaller scale of their respective scenes. It’s a subculture, not unlike snowboarding or clubbing (people that go to dance clubs, I don’t know, it’s not my thing). It’s outside of the mainstream, so naturally those involved have a closer, more passionate attachment to it. Think of something you really like that most others don’t. Aren’t you a little more passionate about that thing? When these smaller bands don’t have the support of radio or MTV, they have to build their fan base in two ways, with touring and word of mouth. When I hear a band that i really like, I try to pass it on to my friends. No one needs me to tell them that Kings of Leon is a good band. They’ve already heard of them. But maybe you really like Circa Survive, you just don’t know it yet because you’ve never heard them. It’s much more rewarding when you hear of a phenomenal band that not a lot of other people know about. A fan can build an actual relationship with a band. When you buy their t-shirt you’re directly supporting them. Your money is paying for their gas to get to the next gig, their dinner that night, and other supplies they need to stay on the road and continue to play shows. And since not everyone has heard of this band you love so much, there’s a special bond that is built. You feel like they are “your band”.
I love Metallica, but millions of people love Metallica. If I meet another Metallica fan at a bar it’s not that big a deal. If I go to a Metallica show, I’m going with 20,000 other people. Same goes for pop acts. 14 year old girls may think that Taylor Swift is “talking directly to me! She knows exactly how I feel!”, but really her songs were co-written by some guy who specializes in writing hit songs. Theres nothing special about being a Taylor Swift fan. I have nothing against her, but my mom is a Taylor Swift fan, my boss is a Taylor Swift fan, my goldfish is a Taylor Swift fan. She sells out stadiums, you hear her songs everywhere you go. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
On the other hand, if I’m at my local bar and I meet another Every Time I Die fan I’m stoked! Since their fan base is considerably smaller and more underground it’s a more unique bond. And if I go see them play, it’s with maybe 750 people, and there’s a good chance I may get to meet or even hang out with the band. You have a genuine connection with that band and their select group of fans. You’ve followed them from the beginning, and their music speaks to only you and those lucky others.
So what happens when that band’s next album all of the sudden sounds different? More mainstream. Then you hear that band on KROQ. They have a video on MTV. Your little sister is asking to borrow that band’s CD. Then your douchebag co-worker in the Nickelback t-shirt is telling you how cool this band is.
You see, over the course of a band’s career there are generally three things that can happen.
One, a band pretty much has a particular sound perfected that they are happy to not stray too far away from (Slayer, NOFX ). They are perfectly content to have a more abrasive sound and not worry about mainstream acceptance. They are going to play the music they want to play regardless of trends or changing times. These bands usually keep their initial fan base happy while hopefully picking up new fans along the way. Or they break up at their peak before anything bad can happen. (At the Drive In, Glassjaw)
Two, people grow up. This is very common, a band begins while members are in their teens or early twenties. They sound a certain way and write about what is important to them in that particular time period of their life. But as they grow older they grow as musicians and as people and as a result the music they create is different. Regardless of popularity, sometimes bands just tire of doing one thing and choose to go in another direction. While this can be frustrating and some will cry sell-out, most of the time it’s just natural progression. (Radiohead, Mastodon).
Three, sometimes a band gets lucky, maybe one of their songs hits a nerve with a big following of people. A hit single. (MGMT, Kings of Leon) After years of toiling away in obscurity they get a small taste of success. And once they have that success, they don’t want to go back. And that’s when the prospect of selling out rears it’s ugly head. Some of these bands become so big it guarantees a lifetime of popularity no matter how terrible their music later becomes (Kiss, The Rolling Stones, Motley Crue)
Do you as a band then make that conscious effort to change your sound? Do you write your next album trying to write hit singles solely for the purposes of getting on the radio and making that money? Are your songs then selling credit cards and cars on TV? (Coldplay, Fall Out Boy, Avenged Sevenfold, Disturbed, Aerosmith, Kid Rock i’m looking in your direction…)
Now selling out is a double edged sword. As a band, isn’t it your goal to get your music out to as many sets of ears as possible? Sure, I think so. But if an artist compromises their integrity for the sake of more fans and more money it has to be considered selling out, right? This is a constant issue in my favorite type of music (Heavy Metal) since street cred and the sheer broo-tality of your music is so essential. So any new music by a band that maybe isn’t as heavy, more melodic, more straight forward song structures etc… is usually met with the cries of “Sell-Outs!!” from the hard-core fans. And many times, who can blame them?
As you can probably tell, this subject is near and dear to me, as many bands I have loved while in their humble beginnings have gone on to achieve great success. I remember specifically trying to get my non-metal loving friends to listen to “Toxicity” by System of a Down when it came out, needless to say they were not amused…. Months, a few videos on MTV, and 6 million albums sold later, I show up at their house and they’re playing pool listening to the same CD claiming they love SOAD, not even remembering me playing them the entire god damn album before.
I could go on and on, but I digress, i guess thats just the way it is. What bands have let you down? Who else has sold out? Please feel free to share below…