How To Sell Out

17 June 2013

First things first: there is nothing wrong with making money from art.

I thought we should establish some ground rules before getting into it properly. To make sure we’re all on the same page. So, making money is cool, right? Without money, a significant amount of art would be impossible, with only rich trustafarians left to squeeze out deep and meaningful expressions of whatever their pricey education and expensive drugs have lead them to believe in.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. You just wouldn’t want only that, would you?

Money from art is ok, then, and I’d even be happy to extend that to making ‘lots’ of money being ok as well. Success is alright in my book, reaping the rewards of doing what you believe in doubly so and if you’d rather your favourite artist was a bit worse off so they were more ‘authentic’ then, well, fuck you quite frankly. I think it’s a fundamental misconception that wanting to be successful, being business minded and – for want of a better word – lusting after wealth is in somehow disingenuous with being an artist. The two things aren’t coupled together.

Or, at least, they don’t need to be.

There is a line – there is always a line – where capitalism takes precedence. The “sell out line”, if you will. In days gone by (at this point I’d like to go off on a lengthy tangent on how ‘in days gone by” actually never happened, and everyone remembers it wrong and it was just as complicated and messed up as yesterday, today and tomorrow will be but I’m not going to) this line was potentially clearer for the most part: doing something overtly commercial meant you’d sold out. And the actual scope of that sort of thing was relatively small, confined to appearing in adverts and endorsing products and really not a great deal more.

Now, though – what’s commercial and what’s not? And also, what’s an endorsement and what’s not?

Commerciality runs throughout the modern art and music; it is intertwined in a way that is completely inseparable. If a band puts a video on YouTube, there is almost certainly adverts next to it and they (in a potentially roundabout way) will be getting paid for it. Is that commercial? Yes. Is that selling out? No. Has your favourite band ever played at a festival? Yeah? Well guess what: they probably played next to a massive advert for some form of tastes-a-bit-like-piss beer. Is that selling out? Again, no.

What about the mainstay of ‘selling out’; the murky world of syncs, also known as ‘having your music on a TV ad and making a fuckload of money out of it’. Is it commercial? Well, duh. Is that selling out? No. No it is not. Here’s where we define the line, and I think it’s a pretty reasonable distinction:

If the commerciality affects the art, or how people can consume it, then you’re selling out.

Simple. Makes sense, though, doesn’t it?

To put the rule into practice on the TV ad example, if you have a track licensed on a TV ad, no – that is not selling out. It’s not affected the creation of the track or its existence, or how people can consume it – all it’s done is brought it to a wider audience (which is great!) and resulted in a pay day for you (which is great!).

Let’s think of another example, then. Say you were going to release your album for free through Samsung phones a few days before it was in stores? Now, as far as we can tell the commerciality hasn’t impinged on the art itself, but it sure as dammit has affected how people can consume and listen to it. This isn’t to do with the money, this isn’t to do with brand partnerships – as Jay-Z certainly has done that plenty of times before – but it’s to do with cash getting in between an artist and their audience.

You could almost boil the rule above down to a simple “is this good for the fans?” question. Now, I guess if you’re one of the million people that downloads the album through an app on your Samsung phone then I guess the answer is ‘yes’ (although dear god is that really going to be a nice way to experience the album?), but that still leaves a huge amount of people that can’t do that without spending at least £100 on a new phone. To be a Jay-Z fan should I have had some sort of psychic foresight when I got my current non-Samsung phone in a 2 year contract 8 months ago? I guess so.

How to sell out in 2013: it’s actually pretty difficult, but don’t worry – if you innovate enough you can surely find a way (especially if you’re Jay-Z).

Further reading:

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