Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sell Out With Me, Oh Yeah

When Miller Park announced their 32nd sellout of the season on Sunday during the Brewers' game against the Philadelphia Phillies, they played a snippet of "Sell Out," a cutesy take on the 80s/90s debate on the pros and cons of whoring oneself for money by novelty ska jokesters Reel Big Fish (otherwise known as the band responsible for about 80% of the cutesy "ska versions of popular 80s songs" craze of twenty years ago that most people my age would rather powerblast from our memories (or at least should rather). I couldn't help but smirk at the irony of an anti-corporate statement being repurposed to celebrate a Major League Baseball franchise selling over 40,000 tickets for a game in a ballpark named after a multinational beer-producing corporation, but hey--the Great Sellout Debate is long over, and the sellouts won. What's my evidence? Well, you never hear about having that debate anymore, do you? These days, getting a song placed in a commercial, video game, tv show, or movie is the new radio play.

That sentiment is shared in this excellent piece by Bill See, the former member of a band called Divine Weeks that i had never heard of until now. See takes a very even-handed look at where the debate has gone over the years, coupled with some insightful observations about how FCC deregulation in the 1990s and filesharing have altered the debate:

There was a reason we invested heavily in music and in bands back in the day. It felt like our music because we were buying it. A decade plus of illegal downloading has created an environment where no one feels like it’s their music because it’s been pilfered. People can say they don’t feel guilty about stealing music, and I’m not going there, but my guess is people are less inclined to condemn a band for selling its songs because they’ve been stealing it their whole lives.

At this point, who can begrudge indie bands for taking advantage of every opportunity they can get? Bands have been screwed out of royalties and publishing payments for eons. The chance of getting played on commercial radio now is a pipedream at best. An argument can be made that placement in a commercial or TV show is the new radio.

See seems to land somewhere around where i do on the issue--it's a different world from where we came from. As we discussed last week, people don't value music in the same way they once did, so if a band is looking to get compensated for their work (i'll pause for a brief parenthetical right now and point out that whether or not a band should expect financial compensation is a larger and more philosophical discussion that i may want to have on this blog soon, but for now let's stick with the premise that bands wanting to get paid for their work isn't a bad thing), finding a paycheck through partnering with media isn't unacceptable on its own merits.

However, like See, i like to look at these situations on a case-by-case basis. As he points out, The Thermals turning down $50,000 for a Hummer ad because they ethically are squicked out by Hummer's product is something to be lauded, even if that money probably just ended up in the pockets of Godsmack or Smash Mouth or someone equally bankrupt artistically. On the flip side (and to bring a little Milwaukee into the mix), now-defunct local band Temper Temper had a song used on an episode of The OC, and no one in the city necessarily considered that a sellout move. Sure, if you want to really gray the issue, we could discuss what corporations were sponsoring the show while it was broadcast on FOX, the network behind the nation's Most-Trusted "News" Channel, but no band is an island, and unless we're going to discuss the ethics of letting Rupert Murdoch spend $12 on your album when you disagree with his politics, maybe we should avoid that slippery slope discussion. (Besides--and no offense meant to Temper Temper, because no one gives a rat's ass about my band either--in the long run, it's not like they were a band large enough in the American consciousness for their product alignments to matter to anyone.)

One other point that See briefly touches on that deserves some thought is the idea of supporting a band vs. supporting a song. See writes:

Digitizing music and file sharing was the response of people fed up with paying $20 that record companies were trying to get people to pay for a CD with only one decent song. Now we’re at a point where the art of the album and artist development has been rendered moot.

I asked my 16-year-old daughter if she cares more about bands or songs. Duh, songs, of course.

It's an attitude that is completely alien to me, but in a world where American Idol has exposed the cold, corporate separation of songwriter and "artist" to the outrage of positively no one, it makes sense. Thanks, Simons Fuller and Cowell!

In 2011, the sellout debate is assuredly not the same conversation it was twenty or thirty years ago, but i do know this--i still want to throttle Jason Newstead for that quote in the Metallica Behind the Music where he says, "yeah, we sell out--every seat in the house, every time we play." Nice Miller Park wordplay, jackass.

What do you think? I'd love your comments.


  1. The only problem with Fugazi's business model is that you have to be as popular as Fugazi to live off that business model.

    After that, it's a matter of deciding on how comfortable you are with being a corporate cog, whether that means a part-time job with benefits at Starbucks so that you can still play in a band, or licensing your catchiest song for a Starbucks commercial so that you can still play in band.

    As a fan, I don't mind hearing a Buzzcocks song in a Kia commercial because I already had the TV on and I'd rather hear a snippet of the Buzzcocks than a snippet of Smash Mouth.

  2. because i too am of a time where we care more about bands than songs, it is a bit jarring or irksome to hear a favorite band's song in a commercial. but one relieving aspect is that the song used is typically a popular, mainstream-accesible one, and isn't likely to be the song that made you fall in love with said band to begin with.
    but times have indeed changed, so extremely and so quickly, in the world of music business. i think it's become very easy to understand why a band, especially an indie, would sell their song to mass media like television, film, or otherwise. when the main outlet for making money from your art has disappeared (thanks to the mp3), you look for a new one. it's art, and the artist deserves to be paid. even if it is with dirty money.

  3. I'm not sure about the songs vs. bands things. My kids like songs on the radio and ones their friends like and they often ask to buy single songs on iTunes. But they also get hooked on artists and listen to complete records and seek out videos. Granted we're talking Taylor Swift and Pink here, but still...

    Wotown, excellent point about Starbucks. Well put. But I do think that licensing your music should involve some level of ethics and social responsibility and Hummer is clearly bullshit... I must admit that it does irk me when avowed communists Gang of 4 are in an Xbox commercial and Iggy Pops ode to drug addiction is used for a cruise line. It's all about your "brand" (as offensive as that term can be). Choose wisely because it may fuck you (just like signing with a major fucked many punk bands in the past).