What does ‘selling out’ mean, anyway?

November 17, 2009

Three recent perspectives on artists licensing their songs to big companies.

The end of selling out. A predictably trite blog post in Newsweek about the ‘sudden shift’ to fans not really caring if songs get used in commercials.

What does it say about our culture? Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney, wrote a post for NPR which offers an considerably more nuanced route to the same question that Newsweek asks: what does it say about us that we are no longer bothered about music being used in commercial contexts? Brownstein argues that our infinite access to music has led to a well-developed ability to divorce music from its commercial content. But she (rightly, I think) questions this tendency to decontextualize music.

What does it mean to sell out? Amanda Palmer, as usual, got to the crucial point, even though she wasn’t specifically discussing ads:

selling out is when you go against your own heart, ideals and authenticity to make money.

selling out is an action, a 180 from a stated position.

…but if neil young were to suddenly hire the matrix to write him a thumpin’ dance album and then appear on saturday night live snogging bob dylan, i’d have reservations about his integrity.

Like everything else, there’s no single right answer. When I hear “Lust for Life” soundtracking a cruise line commercial or “Heroes” behind a Microsoft Windows ad, it doesn’t diminish my respect for Iggy Pop or David Bowie, but it sure as hell diminishes my respect for those companies, or at least their ad agencies (and I’m not alone). Boston favourites The Motion Sick getting their videogame-themed love song “30 Lives” in Dance Dance Revolution is a win all around. And I must admit to more than a tinge of sadness when I listened to Modest Mouse‘s The Moon and Antarctica for the first time in ages and found my mind wandering to minivans.

EDIT: Make sure you check out the comments for Michael and meredith’s great remarks from the musicians’ perspective.


  1. Thanks for pointing out these stories. I was reading through all of it and enjoying even before I got to the extra compelling final paragraph!

  2. I think Kevin Barnes et al. are starting to live down the Outback fiasco, but it sure sparked a storm then. Heuristic: changing your lyrics is a no-no? A lot of reviewers seemed to spend more time talking about bloomin’ onions than the music when they wrote about “Hissing Fauna,” which seemed priggish and beside the point, if maybe only because so much of the album was self-consciously radio-hostile anyway.

  3. As someone who is actively involved in attempting to get licensing for indie artists on a daily basis, this is a very fundamental question. Probably not surprisingly, AFP’s position is the closest to mine.

    The sad reality is that for indie musicians, licensing is the best way to get their music heard by a wide audience in one fell swoop. Radio has long ceased to be an option for this. Ad agencies have become the A&R gurus, for better or for worse. And mostly, these days anyway, it seems to be a good thing for the indies.

    Two years ago, The Weepies got the biggest boost of their career by becoming the soundtrack to Target’s Xmas campaign — and suddenly, they didn’t have to worry about where their pending baby’s college fund was coming from. Is that really a bad thing? They didn’t compromise any of their principles to do it, and their existing fanbase pretty universally thought it was a really, really cool thing and was happy for them. (I must admit I was enjoying being able to smugly point to the TV and say “hear that? Those folks played a house concert at my place once.” People were genuinely impressed.)

    Also, “licensing” covers a lot more than ad agencies putting a song in a commercial. Do people ever say a band has “sold out” when they hear a song on “Grey’s Anatomy” or in the soundtrack to a movie or video game?

  4. Thanks for the great comments, tim and meredith.

    One thing I see as a common thread is AFP’s idea of violating expectations. Of Montreal changing their lyrics might fit in that category, but licensing your music to a commercial or a TV show isn’t necessarily seen in that light (unless you’ve positioned yourself and your music as anti-corporate crusaders). Rebellion is no longer the default state of rock’n’roll.

  5. Apologies for my long and somewhat disjointed comment here…

    I also really see it as a question of a band being able to continue operating. I can tell you for sure that even when we cut down to bare minimum recording and operating costs, it’s hard to avoid losing money on every recording we make. Very few people make money selling CDs/MP3s. In my world, bands that break even are either really successful or essentially not really taking operating as a band seriously.

    My band is at a critical decision stage right now. We have no way to pay for our next recording and we’ve been unable to agree on any unconventional method for raising money to make the record. In some sense, for us, it’s a survival situation. I may ideally really not want a song I am involved with to be in a fast food commercial (or any commercial at all perhaps), but I also want to be able to have this band continue. Any such opportunity that offers the possibility of making another record is one that would be hard to pass up. I will admit that my “morality” line is ever shifting in the direction of taking the money.

    I would never set foot in McDonald’s or Burger King, but I would probably let them use a song I wrote provided the money was enough to make a difference. Maybe my justification is that, if I say no, someone else will just say yes and the commercial will be equally effective. Is my song really going to change things for some giant corporation? I doubt it. Would there be significant societal impact? I doubt it.

    For a relatively small amount of money, we licensed a song to a women’s joint vitamin commercial with a large corporate drug store branding. Would I ever recommend a product like this to anyone? Absolutely not! I suppose I don’t have any strong negative feeling about this large corporate drug store, apart from the same negative feeling I have about all large, corporate drug stores. I am fairly sure, however, that the use of these “vitamins” has not been supported by efficacy testing. Have they been safety tested? Probably not really sufficiently, but I have no way of knowing. So, I am effectively encouraging people (with my music) to buy a product that I would actively advise against in a real-life scenario. I haven’t lost any sleep over it.

    Would I allow my song to be used in a KKK recruiting video? I have to hope that the answer would be no, but if they offered me $1,000,000, would I be able to say no? If I say yes, it gets harder to justify. Now, I wonder if my song will convince even one extra person to join the KKK. What is the potential societal impact of even one more person?

    Sometime in the not-too-distant future, this kind of decision may mean the difference between having a band and not having a band for a lot of people (including me).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: