What Happened to Selling Out?

Scott Limbrick reflects on the myth of creative purity in the age of cash for content.

Illustration of a cash register, printing musical notation on its docket

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

It’s been a long road for ‘sellout’, at least in the sense of the word as a slight against artists trading their skill for corporate payouts. From The Who’s satirical concept album The Who Sell Out in the sixties to renewed stigma in the nineties to hyper-commercialisation in the early 2000s and beyond, the power of the accusation has varied over time. While the term once implied an unforgivable betrayal of fans, it’s now almost an anachronism, because selling out is the only option left.

The big names of yesteryear have led the way. If you feel inclined, you can buy a Sex Pistols Virgin credit card with ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ sprawled across it. According to Virgin Money, ‘It’s time for consumers to put a little bit of rebellion in their pocket’. The members of Linkin Park worked with Harvard Business School to launch a venture capital firm – a statement that almost demands a second reading to absorb.

We’ve moved far past the point of mere commercialisation: this is the stuff of nineties indie nightmares. Global oil giant Shell advertises renewable energy with the help of Jennifer Hudson, Pixie Lott and Steve Aoki and, through a combination of exhaustion and indifference, it goes almost unremarked upon.

Everybody’s doing it, which means there’s no shame in it: ‘selling out’ has flipped from insult to instinct.


Twenty years after Naomi Klein painstakingly documented the anti-globalisation movement in No Logo, anti-commercial principles have been sidelined by old stars working hand-in-hand with capital and a debt-laden younger generation facing a bleak financial future. Overthrowing the system retains its romance – see the enthusiasm of many millennials for socialism – but the slow disappearance of selling out as a pejorative reveals a shift in mindset. No one expects their heroes to opt out of capitalism anymore; they just expect them to survive.

A riff on grunge band Nirvana's logo; the band's name is replaced by the words 'Be Realistic'

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

This is partly driven by a recognition that artists shouldn’t have to sacrifice their wellbeing for their work. Audiences increasingly understand that creative people make next to nothing for art itself, and instead must seek to repackage it or use it to develop a brand. As comedian David Cross has asserted: ‘If you're going to work hard and put an album out and you're going to record music and then it's taken and put on Spotify and it's played a million times and you get a check for $17.42, then fuck it. Sell it to Ford. Sell it to Vans sneakers. Sell it to fucking VICETV.com. Whatever, get your money.’

No one expects their heroes to opt out of capitalism anymore; they expect them to survive.’

The need to hustle is so ingrained that we no longer impose false limits: absolutely take whatever you can get, preferably as much as possible. For some, getting a quick ad-hoc cash injection from a multinational corporation sure beats working for them full-time. We’re conditioned to package ourselves as products, so extending this to making money from our art – or even our passing thoughts – has become almost natural.

Why wouldn’t it be? We live in a time of sponsored content, where the lines between advertising and journalism are deliberately blurred. It only makes sense that the same should happen to everything else. Scroll down from any viral tweet and you’re almost guaranteed to see one of two replies: ‘While you’re here, check out my Soundcloud’; or a tired parody of just that sentiment.


Along with SoundCloud and YouTube, platforms like Patreon have allowed artists and creators to make money directly from their fans. But in the process, they’ve turned almost anything an artist might produce into a commercial opportunity – podcasts, Twitter threads, even throwaway opinions. And when these fragments of output might make you some money – in a world where traditional jobs are disappearing and the gig economy is absorbing what’s left – why wouldn’t you give it a shot?

A riff on the Beatles logo – spelling out 'They Beat Us'

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

In one sense, courting money directly from a fan-base aligns with more romantic notions of purity and creativity. It certainly seems more desirable for artists to engage directly with their audiences than to bend to the whims of corporate entities. But angling creative output towards wider requests for financial support has its own distorting effect. Artists’ creative energies – in an online context – can become geared towards chasing ever-elusive ‘virality’. Making your work shareable means aligning and designing it with topical conversations in mind, or fitting it within the framework of an attention-grabbing pitch for black bars on Facebook.

It’s much harder to criticise people for seeking to make money from their art in non-traditional ways – whether through a request to the public or a corporate payout – when the traditional means of making money are crumbling. Labelling someone a ‘sellout’ implies some kind of betrayal, but no one feels betrayed when artists operate inside capitalism anymore.

Selling out hasn’t really gone away, because we’re all sellouts now. We have to be.

Discussion

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