What "Sellouts" Were

Once upon a time not so long ago, there was an idea: that some things in this world should be able to exist free from the influence of money—that these things should be done because of their own intrinsic value. You would be forgiven for scoffing at the notion that this idea was ever taken seriously at all.

These things that people believed were intrinsically valuable were called, broadly, "art." Art could be music, or dance, or graffiti, or whatever the hell else people did to express themselves. Little subcultures developed around each of these art forms. These subcultures were often fiercely protective of the perceived purity of the art. That is, they didn't just believe that the art should be free of the influence of money and corporate sponsorship; they believed that it had to be free of those things, or else it was corrupted. They believed that art was expression, that came from your soul, and that was it. You could no more sell product placements in your song lyrics or make music at the behest of corporate brands and still remain respectable than you could inject poison into your blood and still remain healthy.

Some people, of course, did not care about this standard. Some people wanted to maximize their earnings. They didn't want to just make money from selling their art, or performing. They wanted to make money any way they could. So they did shout outs to paying brands, and made product endorsements, and allowed their songs to be sold to companies for use in television commercials for cars, or liquor, or fashion. This was perfectly legal. No one could stop them. But by doing this, these artists traded something for that money: the respect of their peers and their most devoted fans. Because they had, very consciously, chosen to sell off to the highest bidder the good will and credibility that they had earned through their art. It was understood by all parties involved that this decision would change things for the artist in two major ways. He would be much wealthier than other artists who had not made the same decision. And he would, at the same time, lose a good deal of respect from the people who cared about the art for its own sake. There was a name for this choice: selling out. It had advantages, and it had disadvantages. All of which were more or less accepted by the sellouts, the artists, the companies, and the fans alike.

Today, things are different. There are still artists, and there is still art, and there are still fans. And there are still corporate interests seeking to buy and use that art to attract customers. And there are still artists who make the choice to sell out, and cash in. The only thing that's changed, really, is that the concept of "selling out" no longer exists.

There is no longer a penalty for selling out. There is no longer a public censure that accompanies it. There is no longer an outcry within an artistic subculture when one of its members is fully subsumed by corporate America. The idea that an artist should preserve the sanctity of their work—that they should not allow it to be manipulated by commerce—is no longer considered a mainstream opinion. It is regarded as utopian, dreamy, unserious. The sellouts have lost their critics.

Consequently, the current young generation is being sold wholesale the idea that music and advertising go hand in hand. Why, there's an entire special section in Ad Age about it. It's not that using music in commercials is new; it's that advertisers have succeeded in buying the good will of musicians while those musicians stay cool. The world's biggest brands, with the help of their savvy friends in the advertising world, have won the battle to convince young people—who possess the inherent cool aura that corporations so crave to adopt for themselves—that it is absolutely normal and natural for artists to work on behalf of companies, selling things. That this is the proper state of affairs. That, if anything, the target of ridicule should be the person pointing out the fact that someone has sold out, rather than the sellout himself. The sellout, after all, is just living in the real world.

Selling out is now keeping it real.

I have no illusions of smashing capitalism or dissuading the advertising industry from its business. Nor of returning to a past which is long gone, for both economic and cultural reasons. I have a much more modest goal: of keeping the idea of selling out alive. Of pointing to a line in the sand that has been casually erased and saying, "This still exists." The broke young people who are the most passionate music fans in this world may not have the money or connections to be heard in the boardrooms of the world's biggest companies. But collectively, they have something even more powerful: the ability to call bullshit. The ability to deny their approval, which is what all those billions of dollars of advertising spending are really seeking. No matter how much companies talk about it, there really is no "authentic" "DNA" that resides inside a brand. There is only a shiny outward surface, composed of fictions, designed to get you to buy things. There is no soul inside.

There are people out there—powerful people, who work for powerful companies, with a lot of resources at their disposal, and the ability to bombard you everywhere you turn with the same message—who will tell you that brands are the future of the human experience. They will tell you that allowing your identity, and your art, and your thought to be defined by corporate logos is progress. It is not so. Art is free to make. And your approval is free to give. And you do not need to be crazy, or unrealistic, or a ridiculous utopian to raise your hand and register, for the record, that selling your classic song that enraptures the souls of your fans to a car company is fucking selling out, and that a loss of respect is going to ensue. That's it! You do not need to blow up the system. You just need to redraw that line in the sand. Over time, the world tends to stay within the lines. So someone needs to make sure that the lines don't disappear.

Weep not for the sellouts. Weep for the ones who didn't sell out, and nobody cared.

[Image by Jim Cooke]