I might be being simple here but the term ‘selling out’ in relation to music has struck me as being an absolutely ludicrous term, especially by the people that say it about others. In its literal sense, selling out is a good thing, right? When we play a sold-out show, you know the venue is going to be rammed, its going to be a great atmosphere, everybody is going to have a great time, there can’t be anything bad with that can there. In its artistic meaning selling out is one of the worst crimes you can commit as an artist, but what on earth does it actually mean?
When I first started playing drums and taking notice of the world of music a little I was 14, I came across the band Nirvana. Wow, Nevermind did it for me then and it still does it for me now. Such is the timing of my life that this was around the middle of 1994 (definitely after April) and Kurt Cobain had already departed from this world so I essentially missed it, this isn’t the last time this has happened either, by the time I’d raided my dads record collection and spun Led Zeppelin II, John Bonham had been dead for going on 15 years, coincidentally died the year I was born, as did John Lennon, Bon Scott and Ian Curtis to name but a few. But at least you got me so swings and roundabouts I guess. Anyway, morbid tangents aside, lets get back to the point. Nirvana, to me, are great. Punk Rock attitude, heavy guitars but great pop melodies and don’t get me started on Dave Grohl’s drumming. However, Kurt Cobain seemed to have a disdain for people ‘Selling Out’. I’ve heard other outspoken musicians mention it too, Noel Gallagher springs to mind. The more I think about it, the more I wonder what the hell are they on about.
My first thought is, its pretty subjective on what is selling out. Is it not down to your own moral standards to decide whether you have or have not? Who made Noel flaming Gallagher the arbitrator of what is or isn’t artistically worthy. My second thought is, these guys have sold out too. They signed recording contracts which gave them an amount of money for their art. Is this not selling out in action? They signed over the rights to their music for money, yes, they still (or in Kurt’s case, his estate) get paid some money from sales once they ‘recoup’ the initially loan from the record label but they only get paid on about 20% of the gross income and they get told what they are under the control to varying extents of men in suits – or The Man – that they are supposed to be sticking it to as Rock n Roll was meant to do. By this statement I am saying that pretty much every band/musician that has ‘made it big’ that you’ve heard on the radio, seen filling arenas and stadiums and headlining major festivals have sold out.
As Independent musicians, we can sometimes feel we’re being overlooked by potential fans. It’s hard to get people to open their ears to something that isn’t being pumped out multiple times a day on radio stations or streaming services playlists. Only once you have a certain level of interest do you start being noticed and it’s at this point that The Man swoops in, knocks you off your feet with his well-oiled patter and before you know it you’ve sold out, but the key to making yourself look like you haven’t is to shout as loud as you can that everyone else has. I don’t think its wrong to sign for a record label, it might be the right decision for you. Its just I can’t stand people chastising others for something that they have seemingly done themselves.