Selling Out Sans Guilt

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
SonicYouth.com. 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of Selling Out,’ Miles Raymer challenges that notion as outdated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.

Go there >>
In Praise of Selling Out

Go there, too >>
Ex-Door Lighting Their Ire (excerpt
only)

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