The concept of artists selling out has long been a contested debate within the music world, and has been an especially touchy subject among independent artists particularly within the underground sector. In this month’s SoundSight blog post we consider what exactly constitutes ‘selling out’, and question whether this debate is even still necessary within the rapidly changing industry as it stands today.

What exactly is selling out?

There’s no simple answer to this question, as the concept of ‘selling out’ could be prescribed to any number of possible income earning strategies adopted by artists and their managers.

  • Is ‘selling out’ simply making money from music?
  • Is it an artist using their status to earn money beyond just the sale of their music itself?
  • Or is it an artist trading off some (or most) of their creative control in order to please a larger audience and thus generate more money?

Depending on your own values and beliefs you could prescribe selling out to any one of those three definitions. Personally I think selling out in a negative sense, is defined by the third and final definition above, but many people may perceive an artist to be selling out if they’re somewhere between the second and third of those definitions. If less commercial endeavours than those are considered selling out, then I don’t believe selling out is even a negative thing unless it’s affecting the creativity and authenticity of the artist’s music.

You have to be the most extreme kind of crust-punk, or hip underground music enthusiast to believe that an artist is selling out simply for just making some money with the music they have spent a lot of time and effort writing, recording and possibly producing. This makes no sense if we want artists to put the maximum amount of time and effort into their craft. Most people would think that’s fine and would not assign any negative connotation to an artist using their artistry in that way, but what about if they then sell their music to a production company to use in a TV series? Or worse yet a corporation to use in an advert? This is when the debate gets trickier. If an artist has made a song, and a brand likes that song and wants to use it within their marketing & advertising, as long as the song’s original concept and creativity hasn’t been compromised, isn’t that completely fair game to make some extra (and often a lot more) money from that piece of art? Some people may argue that as soon as a piece of music is in an advert, that changes its original purpose and possibly even the creativity surrounding it. But does it? If you enjoy a piece of music on a TV show compared with walking to work or at a party, what’s the difference? Isn’t it still conveying the same message and feeling? Think how many different kinds of visual artists (graphic designers, painters, illustrators) use commercial channels as their main creative outlets. Besides, if you were passionate about your job, and your boss wanted to give you a bonus for completing an extra special project that year, would you not be happy to take it? An artist selling the license of their music to a brand or entertainment company is no different.

As I’ve said already, I only believe selling out to be a bad thing when it negatively affects the artist’s creative freedom, or the intended messages in their music. This kind of selling out is something of a rarity among the independent sector, as the biggest motivator for an artist to trade off their creative control to chase larger audiences and more money, is a major label record deal above all else.

Why do artists do it? And what are the stigmas surrounding it?

In reality there’s many people that only work for the money, regarding their jobs with no other value besides a monetary one, and why would the music industry be any different? What I mean by this is that there’s always going to be artists that are just in it for the money, and want nothing more than to maximise their profits and stardom – usually these are major label pop stars with huge teams of producers, instrumentalists and songwriters behind them. And you know what, if the songwriters and producers still get paid and prefer to be unknown, with the pop star wanting to be at the forefront to represent music that’s specifically written to appeal to a huge audience and hence make much more money in the process, then that’s up to them.

What I’m completely not supportive of is people labelling independent artists as sellouts simply because they’ve got their business hats on and may be doing some of the things mentioned in the previous section. Once an artist has written and recorded a piece of music that they own all the rights to, it’s completely up to them what they do with it, and how they may monetise it to get some kind of compensation for all the blood sweat and tears they spent creating it. Besides, many grassroots artists will be working full-time or at least part-time day jobs at the very least alongside whatever creative projects they’re involved in, they’re not rich corporate fat cats with more greed than creativity or money than sense – there’s a good chance most independent artists today could really do with the extra money, so should not be subject to any kind of financial judgement.

To be honest I think many people who are hell bent on shaming artists for broadening the sales reach of their music are either bitter underground artists that are actually just jealous of the success of others, or are innocent bystanders that simply have no understanding of the music industry and how it exists, especially today. If you’re an independent artist, by definition you haven’t ‘sold out’, so never feel ashamed of trying to get the most reimbursement for the investment you’ve put into your music – and every song is an investment be it with time, money or emotion!

Considering the state of the industry today, should this even be talked about anymore?

In short, NO. Artists that are serious about their craft will need to put in hours of work to make and share their music, especially independent artists as they won’t have PR teams and marketing departments doing much of the extra work for them. So shouldn’t someone who works full time at something at least get a comfortable income to live on? They can sell their music you might say, so they shouldn’t need to use all the other means of making an income that we’ve talked about. Well, there’s one very simple counter to that argument, have you seen the industry today, and have you not been aware of people’s changing music consumption habits from the year 2000 onwards??

Unless you’re a hugely popular artist, it is almost impossible to earn even a decent part-time income purely ‘selling’ your music, which forces many artists that are putting more than a couple of hours a week into their music careers to find other ways to increase their incomes, and that should not be criticised. If you still criticise that, then you are essentially saying that out of all artists working full time at their career, only major label pop stars are worthy of earning a proper income, and that is just wrong. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, ever since people could access music easily for free from the millennium onwards, streaming then took over as the dominant form of music consumption, and although that does provide some cash cushion better than everyone just illegally downloading, it still provides such little monetary reward for the VAST majority of artists that have music on those platforms.

So this leaves artists no other choice but to utilise their artistry to expand the revenue streams available to them – this could be through selling merch, licensing deals or maybe sponsorships (check out our membership pages to see if you could be eligible for a sponsorship deal). Luckily with the industry increasingly providing independent services for artists, meaning they don’t have to rely on the traditional record label set up being the only way to success, there are now more opportunities than ever to find alternative methods of monetisation.

I’d like to leave you with the biggest reason why artists shouldn’t care too much about the sellout opinions of audiences: if you’re not prepared to buy an artist’s music directly (that doesn’t mean streaming, so I’m referring to most music listeners out there today), then you can’t make any judgement about that artist’s ‘sales strategies’. Maybe if more people bought music directly from artists, they wouldn’t have to find alternative ways, less related to their music, to survive.

Stay tuned for my next post which will be featured in the Discworld zine, and will pose the question, is the vinyl resurgence a much needed alternative to the Spotify streaming model?

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