Selling Out Sans Guilt

In the ever-changing music landscape, indie rockers find profits and viability in the arms of corporate marketers

| July 5, 2007

When Thurston Moore of the legendary 1980s underground rock band Sonic Youth told the online music magazine Pitchfork that the group was teaming up with Starbucks on an album release, fans sounded off on Some were baffled ('Wowsa'), some were angry ('sellouts!!!! i hate them!!!!'), and some were downright blase ('who cares...').

The partnership between the corporate coffee giant and iconic counterculture band has reignited a discussion about what exactly qualifies as 'selling out' these days, given the struggles that the music industry has had marketing artists during the decline of commercial radio and the rise of all things mp3. In the past, artists were branded as 'sell outs' for exchanging artistic integrity for financial gain. But in a recent column for the ChicagoReader, 'In Praise of Selling Out,' Miles Raymer challenges that notion as outdated and backwards. 'Selling out' is preferable, he argues, to artists changing their music to make it more palatable to general tastes. 'Corporations want the credibility that comes with the music they're co-opting,' he writes, 'so an artist doesn't have to tidy up to win their patronage.'

As talent attracts corporate marketers' attention, a new system of 21st century patronage opens the market to bands that would otherwise go unheard, Raymer writes. Take, for example, the Shins, who have reaped critical acclaim and success in spite of licensing songs to McDonald's. Their third album, Wincing the Night Away, debuted this past January at #2 on the Billboard charts -- a major feat considering that the indie rock band has no major-label promotion team. Instead, the Shins relied on their own artistic merit and saying 'yes' when multinationals came knocking at the door.

While bands stand to profit from advertising's exposure in the short term, will their openness to corporate patronage eventually leave them an unwanted legacy of being 'the band that made that song from that car ad'? John Densmore, the former drummer of the Doors, thinks so and he's been waging a licensing-rights battle against the group's other surviving members.

Approached once by Cadillac with an offer of $15 million, Densmore defied his former band mates and vetoed the deal. In a 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times (excerpt available online), Densmore explained: 'I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music.' And that kept him from taking the cash.

Densmore's is an admirable position, one more ideological than pragmatic. But according to Raymer's analysis, 'selling out' will soon no longer be a choice between the old dichotomy of ideology versus pragmatism. Rather, for the younger generations, corporate involvement on the fringes of music will be a place so natural that the distinctions between 'selling out' and 'staying true' will become obsolete.

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