The Myth of “Selling Out”

“Selling out.” This is an idea I’ve been thinking a lot on since my discussion with Alex Coronfly last week. The term describes musicians who have supposedly compromised their artistic integrity by signing with a major label, gaining mainstream popularity, aggressively marketing their music, or generally participating in commercial activity. Its modern usage dates back to the 90s’ DIY scene, when mp3s promised to democratize the industry and the spirit of independent music was in the air.

Most artists are more comfortable with commercialism today than they were in the 90s—ad placements and brand deals aren’t uncommon even for independent musicians now. But the specter of “selling out” still lingers. It reveals itself when artists say something like, “I may not be popular, but at least I’m authentic,” or, “I perform for myself and no one else.” I’ll be the first person to say that music absolutely can and should be enjoyed alone—I love playing the piano when no one is home, just for my own enjoyment. However, I often find these phrases used to suggest that popularity and authenticity are mutually exclusive, the core idea of “selling out.” In this post, I want to suggest why this might not be the case, and offer musicians some ways to think about the relationship between their music and promotion.

First, a very generalized statement: virtually all recorded music is commercial. Electropop, indie rock, classical, hip-hop, folk—all of it exists within the marketplace. Artists who brand themselves as anti-establishment or noncommercial are still branding themselves (whether they know it or not). Take, for example, Noname, the rapper-revolutionary. Noname has expressed increasingly anti-capitalist views from her platform over the past three years. Yet she also sells her music on Bandcamp, and was recently profiled in an extensive Rolling Stone piece. Has Noname betrayed her values and sold out? I don’t think so. I think she is a perfect example of how authenticity and success can coexist. She understands that communicating with an audience requires at least some promotion.

rapper Noname

Isn’t that what, for many of us, music is about? Communicating and connecting with other people? At their best, this is what marketing and promotion help us artists do. Branding, marketing, and promotion aren’t about turning you into something you’re not. They’re meant to distill what’s most special, most unique, about you and your art and share it with others.

This is incredibly scary. Terrifying even! Being vulnerable with one person is tough, let alone with a packed venue. Because of this, I can’t help but wonder if resistance to “selling out” isn’t only about artistic integrity. The fear of failure, of vulnerability, and of success can often prevent us from achieving our goals. When something desirable is out of reach, sometimes it’s easier to pretend that we didn’t want it to begin with.

For any artists who think fear might be getting the best of them, here’s my suggestion: channel your fear into better art, not contempt. Be honest with your audience about your anxieties and hesitations and let them be vulnerable with you. Fear is a universal experience, so use it to relate to your audience, not distance yourself from them.

One final thought: suppressing your ambitions in the name of fear isn’t righteous. It’s unfair to you and your art. If you think you have something special to say with your music, say it! Say it again, and again, and again, to anyone and everyone who will listen. Use whatever channels you can to spread the Gospel of You. Who cares if it reads as “selling out”? The world needs more beautiful things in it—not less.

By Mike Powers

Mike is a composer, arranger, and artist manager who writes for Tonic Audio.