Monday, October 11, 2010

Sellin' Out

There's a pretty insightful article today in the NY Times about Converse setting up a recording studio to give free recording time to up and coming artists.

This once again opens up a can or worms that's been perpetually been opened and closed since the start of recorded music -- selling out. Things have gotten more complicated in recent years; having your music in an advertisement is downright passe, especially since companies will use your music even if you don't want them to and then play it off later. There have been a number of ventures recently that go beyond just using a 30 second clip of a band's song. Converse has already sponsored a couple of collabo singles between hip artists, Nike has funded a few running albums/mix tapes and Mountain Dew have their own label.

So is all this selling out? Basically, yes. If you have the popularity or critical acclaim to be accused of selling out, and then you take money from a company then you are selling out. But it's not necessarily a bad thing. Bethany Cosentino aka Best Coast writes enjoyable indie rock songs. Here music and aesthetic are not based on authenticity, so the idea of her taking some money for Converse isn't some terrible art crime. She wears Converse anyway, and likes the company, so there's not much harm in writing on a new song when they come calling. There are still pockets of authenticity, i.e. punk and rap, but even within those genres the rules of the game keep changing.

Not all artists can be Steve Albini, and not all artists should be. But artists who make a genuine effort to record, release and perform their music without an corporate interference (be it from a soft drink maker or a large conglomerate that happens to run the record label you're on) should be rewarded by their audience. A number of bands have gone directly to their fans to fund their music at sites like and I'd like to see that system expand. If I'm still willing to pay $15 for an albums, I might also pay $25 for a signed copy if it helps that album get made. Plus even if a band doesn't have a single fan yet, there's always youtube, myspace and facebook.

Up until about 10 years ago there was a specific path for a band - play gigs until you sign to a label and then record albums and tour until you break up. The mistake people made when Napster emerged was thinking that a new magical system would emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of the major labels. But there isn't a system, just an ever increasing series of choices. In the end bands should make the decisions that let them sleep at night and put food on the table during the day. Even if that means washing down the food with a bottle of Mountain Dew.


David Pratt said...

I've always been pretty baffled by what exactly constitutes selling out. Most people who use the term seem to think it means anyone who becomes financially successful based on their art. If they don't compromise their art and still attain wealth, did they sell out? This seems to me to be an extension of the "I liked them until they got popular, then they sucked" mentality.

Max Nova said...

In this context it would be taking payements of some sort from a company that is not your record label (although as I mention, being on Sony, for example, is kind of a sellout since they may put a rootkit on your album or further restrict how your music is heard). I should have clarified that a bit. Example: I don't think that Arcade Fire "sold out" because their album went to number 1. I just think their music is mediocre.

One of the guys in Metallica has the best comeback to accusations of selling out: "Yeah we sell out - every seat of every arena we play."