The Illusion and Harsh Reality of “Selling Out”

In the world of music there isn't a much bigger insult than calling someone a “sell-out”. Of course any standard insult is liable to incite the appropriate amount of ire, depending on the outlook of the insulted, but I'm speaking strictly from a musician's standpoint since this is primarily a site about music. For quite some time now, people have argued about who did or did not sell out and what exactly constitutes selling out. For the longest, I thought that selling out was compromising your art for a chance at monetary gain. While that does remain to be a pretty despicable practice, it's not the entirety of selling out. In fact, one could make the argument that as soon as you've signed a recording contract, you have sold out. Before you start thinking that you can't win for losing, hear me out and don't get upset when you realize that you've already sold out in at least some aspect of your life. It happens to the best of us.

Think about your job for a moment. Chances are, you wouldn't be doing those tasks everyday unless someone was paying you. If you do happen to have a job that you truly enjoy, something that gives your life meaning, I applaud you and wish you continued success. However, most of us are stuck doing things that we really don't care about for wages that we don't think are very fair, you could say that we sold ourselves out and you wouldn't be wrong. Before you jump up and quit your job, I'm not bringing all this up to make you feel worse about life; I'm just putting things into perspective. If you didn't have that job, you wouldn't be able to pay your bills or indulge your vices and in turn, you would be viewed as “less than” by your peers; even the ones who really like you. So, you have to go out there and get money however you can, right? Even if it means sacrificing a bit of your dignity, free time or even your health. That's selling out and we're all pretty much required to do it, so why do we give our favorite bands so much grief for trying to make a buck?

My theory is that we like to live vicariously through our musical heroes, imagining ourselves on the same stage as them, experiencing the catharsis that is live performance in front of a gleefully captive audience. When those heroes fall short of the perfection we've projected onto them, we're disappointed, but this is an unrealistic way to view life, much less the music industry. Think about how some of the so-called “extreme” metal bands present themselves: leather, spikes, chains, face paint, etc. It presents an almost super-human image, not much different than professional wrestling except bands don't usually fight each other in public. You have to remember that for better or worse, music is primarily aimed at teenagers; even Heavy Metal and especially it's not-so-heavy counterpart, “Alt-Metal” or as I like to call it, “Radio Rock”. If you don't think a band like Butcher Babies is marketed toward 13 year old boys, I don't know what you're on, but you may want to cut back. An image is a selling point, whether it's a band selling their bodies or the idea that they're pure evil, they're trying to get you to buy something. That's selling out and if you sign a record contract, you're gonna be required to do it.

Now the question is whether you can make money as a musician without selling out, but if you've been paying attention you already know the answer. To pursue something, anything, professionally is to sell out to at least some degree. You don't necessarily have to compromise your values or your message, but if you want to make money, you're going to at least have to find a common ground with the people you're marketing toward. That's right, you're marketing towards people whether you realize it or not. Those show fliers you post in the guitar shop? You're marketing towards musicians in the hopes that they'll find personal appeal in the show you're presenting and come spend money to get in the door. At that show, you'll ask people to visit your merch table, not just to chat, but you want them to buy something. If someone cried “sell-out” at you for doing this, I'd be willing to bet you'd be ready to at least do some screaming, if not brawl with those people.

What we need to realize is that we can no longer fault a band just for trying to make money. Look at rappers, the vast majority come right out and tell you, “I'm trying to get paid” and when was the last time you heard someone call a rapper a “sell-out”? They sold out just like those bands at the energy drink fests and just like you when you punch the clock everyday. We are considered a product of our country and we're “sold” to our government on the day we're born; your social security number is basically your serial number. This is the world we live in and until a whole bunch of us get up and decide we want to change it, everything is going to revolve around money. Just about every decision made and idea birthed revolves around how much money it can make for the people involved. Selling out is purely subjective and no one has any right to chastise anyone for trying to make a living. This is especially true in a society that determines your value as a human almost solely by how much money you make. So, stop worrying about how much an artist has sold out and start worrying about how much you've sold out and what you want to do about that.


  1. I'm not selling out, I'm buying in. Good article mate. My definition has always been trading material gain for artistic comprimise, such as MEH going pop-punk for commercial success. I don't have any problems with people who become successful playing the music they love, even if I don't think it's any good.