Sell Out

Lisa Kwon

Sell out: it is one of the angriest terms in the music world. It drives fans to sneer and jeer and cultivates heated debates among music critics. We were quick to use the term so loosely when Green Day released American Idiot in 2004, or when Death Cab for Cutie lent a hand in the recent New Moon soundtrack. However, the word has undergone much reconstruction over the years. Many of us begin to wonder if selling out has been redefined for our generation. Is it even an offensive, if at all relevant, word to use in the music industry today?

An artist is considered a "sell out" when he or she gives in to corporate terms - sometimes despite prior convictions against it - usually for a generous exchange in money or maximum exposure. Take Fall Out Boy, a Pop-Rock band that has constantly taken headlines in music news by storm. The members experienced a sudden upstart in appearances on MTV in 2005 following their sophomore album From Under the Cork Tree. The album itself received rave reviews; critics deemed it a very marketable package of mainstream songs. Pretty soon, Fall Out Boy was the name on every teenager's lips, and in return, the band sold out arenas worldwide. However, with such a heightened sense of fame came the price of disgruntled fans.

A lot of critics began to harp on about Fall Out Boy's surrender to selling out; in fact, the band began to confront a lot of negative reactions when the music it preached differentiated itself from the market to which that music appealed. The band once committed itself to making songs for the pool of the unruly, wild teenagers that sought music that they could call their own. But its former image soon disintegrated once it began to sell its songs to a product of entertainment that served as an outlet for newer, broader fans. This was heavily criticized by Fall Out Boy fans, who never expected one of their most cherished, best-kept secrets to blow up into massive proportions after its decision to go mainstream.

Other musicians beyond the realm of rock have also been accused of selling out. Britney Spears is a universally-appreciated pop icon; she has become a common household name as she progressively weaved herself into the stereos and radios of young girls and teenagers everywhere. Back in 1999, she introduced herself to the world as the innocent good girl, fresh out of the Mickey Mouse Club. Five years later, Spears became the hot topic of controversy when she began to perform much more risque songs in scant clothing. Her image changed dramatically from one of prudence and purity to one of sex appeal and lust, but she had her reasons for succumbing to such a metamorphosis. By being in the business, Spears made the transformation in order to obtain more public exposure and thus more lucrative benefits. As a result her target audience changed, creating a gap in difference so wide that it promptly spurred many critics to accuse her of selling out. In other words, she changed whom she appealed to in order to earn more from her image.

Taking both Fall Out Boy and Britney Spears into account allows us to evaluate an interesting condition of what it means to sell out. What they both have in common is a shift away from a supposed authenticity. Both artists began their careers with an original sound that appealed to a group of people. Though it may not have been an optimal number of listeners that were listening to their music, they both attained some level of satisfaction from the success they had in the music business. According to these core fans, Fall Out Boy and Britney Spears had a sound that was genuine and original to them. As a result, many individuals harbored expectations that these artists would keep this authenticity throughout their careers. On the contrary, the two artists made a huge change in sound, whether it was for fiscal or popularity purposes. The response towards such a shift has been, for the most part, negative for the both. Thus "sell out" came to be the appropriate term to coin such artists who shifted away from their authentic sounds in order to gain something more from the music business.

Selling out has always been an unpopular thing to do throughout the history of mainstream music, but nowadays there seems to be more talk about its validity in the 21st century. Everyone has his or her own opinion on what it means to sell out, but the collective opinion seems to describe a musician or group of musicians that have compromised their work for levels of popularity and wealth that were previously unattained. Despite its negative connotation, however, there has become a gradual increase of support for underground bands who use the media as a mean of appealing to a wider audience; many people contend for these musicians and disagree that it is "sell out behavior" to try and boost their music career in this manner.

Music licensing brings the jingles to the commercials that we see and hear on various sources of media. An individual involved in this field is responsible for finding songs that capture a product or concept and then getting in touch with the musicians, notifying them of their potential for further exposure. Critics often debate whether or not music licensing is an underground artist's stepping stone to selling out. By now, many of us are familiar with the latest Palm Pixi commercial, which captures the cell phone's ability to be truly conversational with its sleek design. However, the song "Sleepyhead" by Passion Pit, grabs the attention of some people as vividly as the visual imagery itself. It is almost natural to associate the product with the song for many consumers now, but Passion Pit had been an indie favorite long before it manifested itself into a catchy jingle for a nationally-viewed television commercial. What many debate is whether this is a form of selling out or a mere means of communicating to a greater public what an artist has to offer.

NPR's Carrie Brownstein recently wrote an article about the state of music titled "Can An Artist Management Sell Out When There Are No Boundaries?" It brings up a valid point about the increasing forms of media in which music can be found; artists are no longer limited to a certain target audience when they present themselves to the music world. As a result, we have become more concerned with an artist's accessibility rather than his or her intentionality when we listen to music. We are left to debate whether "sell out" is even a relevant term in the 21st century. Brownstein writes that "we don't really care what an artist's intention is as long as his or her product is accessible to us. And corporations and their commercials are often the ones bringing the songs to us, [...] giving our favorite musicians the most money, so that they can continue making the music that we love." There is truth to the idea that our means of finding new music has expanded greatly, and the artists who sell their songs to commercial products and concepts are merely finding a way to be heard. After all, these individuals are making music for a living. Many argue that a musician no longer sells out but is rather involved with a fair exchange with the listener. We listen to and love the song, and the artist gets to keep his or her career running.

Nowadays, the debate does not seem to be whether or not an artist is selling out. Instead, we are more curious whether we can make such a judgment given our current forms of media exposure. To be an artist today is to have seemingly endless outlets to be heard and enjoyed. As a musician embarks on various efforts to make a living doing the thing he or she loves, it is up to him or her to decide whether selling out is even a concern in today's world. What we are certain of is that there has been a history of selling out, but that for the future its relevance is vague and debatable.