What Does It Mean to “Sell Out”?

“Sell out!” Is there any worse insult to hurl at a creative person?

After all, writing or making music or whatever is supposed to come from the soul, right, and nothing good can come of creating art just to profit off of it. But what does it really mean to sell out and are most examples of “selling out” just really people getting lucky while doing something different?

I started thinking about this a while back when I stumbled across a list of “7 rock bands that were open about being sellouts.” The article doesn’t fulfill its promise – none of the artists listed are shown to have been “open” about selling out and, in at least one example with which I’m very familiar, there was no selling out, unless “selling out” is defined as only becoming hugely successful after years of not being so.

That example is Genesis.

Formed in the late 1960s at the English “public” school Charterhouse, Genesis was one of the leading lights of the progressive rock scene in the 1970s. Even after vocalist Peter Gabriel departed, they made two great prog albums. After guitarist Steve Hackett left in 1977, the band soldiered on as a trio and their sound started to change to something more streamlined and modern. It was that lineup that became absolutely huge in the 1980s, to the point where they were damned near everywhere.

This, naturally, led to some fans of the band’s 70s style walking away huffing about selling out. As the original article put it, after Gabriel left:

Phil Collins took over the vocal duties and over the course of a couple of subsequent Genesis albums changed the style of the band to a much more commercially viable one. He didn’t hide the fact that monetary gains influenced the decision to stray away from long progressive compositions and into simpler pop-rock arrangements.

There’s no link or reference for the “monetary gains influenced to decision to stray away from long progressive compositions” and most interviews I’ve seen suggest otherwise. For one thing, this narrative that Collins drove the stylistic change overlooks the contributions of keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford. Most of the band’s big 80s hits were co-written by all three of them and there’s no evidence to suggest Banks and Rutherford were pulled in that direction by Collins against their will. Their solo projects show serious pop leanings and, arguably, the band’s first attempts at something more mainstream were written by Rutherford (“Your Own Special Way” from Wind and Wuthering) or all three of them (“Follow You, Follow Me”). Point is – the entire band was in on it.

And was this really selling out? “Selling out” implies some calculation on the part of the artist, of doing something for commercial gain that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Is that what happened with Genesis? It doesn’t look that way. By all indications, the band’s direction shifted because they wanted to do something different. They’d done all they wanted in the prog world, so why not explore some different areas? Banks in one interview explained that they’d “always did long and short songs, we just got better at the short ones” (he also denies that Collins’ solo success had an impact on the band’s music direction). At any rate, there doesn’t appear to be good evidence that the band stuck their collective fingers in the wind and said, “right, let’s go make some cash.” They did what they wanted to and it worked.

Yes is also on the list of “sellouts,” which makes even less sense, in context. Indeed, 90125 and the big single off of it, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” sound radically different than Yes during its prog heyday, but there’s no indication that was done for coldly calculated economic reasons. The song wasn’t even a Yes song to start, as it was written by Trevor Rabin on his own, then brought into a band that wasn’t intended to be Yes. Hell, according this write up, Rabin was told it was “too weird to be a hit in America” – a hell of a way to sell out!

It appears to me that “sell out” is more an insult than an accurate description. It’s the kind of thing “real” fans scream when their favorite band changes course in a way they don’t like, a means of coping, I guess.

Which, you know, is okay. I can find great stuff throughout the Genesis catalog, but if you made me pick three of their albums to listen to for the rest of my life none of the trio stuff would make the cut. Others would choose differently, including my former boss (and Patrick Bateman), which is why music and art is so much fun. But there’s a difference between changing directions and making art that turns out to be popular and selling “to those who want buy.”

I’m not saying people don’t sell out, but I suspect it happens mostly in a losing effort. Big Generator looks much more like an attempt to cash in on the success of 90125 and “Owner,” but it wasn’t as huge so it kind of gets overlooked. Or it happens because of label pressures more than an artist’s desires (see Marillion’s Holidays In Eden). Mostly I think it’s a lazy epithet. The writer of that piece on “Owner,” even recognizing it was “too weird” to be a hit, still labels it selling out (even though he praises the song itself).

Besides, what’s wrong with shipping some units? Pop stars have kids (and ex wives) that need fed, too.

One thought on “What Does It Mean to “Sell Out”?

  1. Pingback: What Do Artists Owe to Their Fans? | JD Byrne

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