Selling Out To the Major Labels

(Please note that this article is rather old (1995 or so) and harks back to a day when I actually cared about musicians selling out, or for that matter, music in general.)

Musician Magazine Interview with John Lyndon (Johnny Rotten); July 1994
Q: "A lot of people feel that if they reach a million people it must mean they have compromised or sold out..."
A: "And that is so unforgiveably stupid. These are not intelligent people and the audience should realize this."


Selling out. This is something I hear quite a bit about these days. People talk about various musicians and how they have Ďsold out.í "The Shrieking Lemons new album is a sell out, man!" It is an oft-spoke term in our culture and the more I hear it, the more I ask "What is selling out/" I then ask "How can I make linguini in clam sauce with garlic bread in under ten minutes?" But the answer to that question lies in another article.

It would seem the answer to the first question would be easy to ascertain. Someone who sells out would be someone gives up their primal moral beliefs for something base like money or fame. Or perhaps someone who does not express their true opinion in order to avoid some kind of negative publicity would also be a sell out. It seems simple enough, but when I look closely at some of the specific statements on the subject things become muddled and I, as I am prone to do, become confused. So here and now I will attempt to dissect at least one school of thought on the subject and see what I come up with.

There are some, particularly in the punk/alternative movement, who would say anyone who signs to a major label is a sell-out. This is because major labels, like Sony or Warner Brothers, are actually businesses and exist, shockingly enough, to make money. They are not there to further the artistic development of this country, major labels put out music for the sole purpose of greed. Apparently, this is very disarming fact, because it is constantly repeated to me by people at parties I attend or in various underground magazines I examine. However, I can see their point. If you are out there to express yourself musically and maybe try and get a few people to see you point of view, you are entering dangerous territory by handing your vision over to some large conglomerate dedicated to increasing its cashflow. I could see how one could pride themselveís in avoiding that situation and why many people have boastfully said to me "My band will never sign to a major label." Of course, Iím often tempted to say, "Look pal, your band will never be signed to a major label because you sound like a bunch of screeching baboons." Or, I mightíve said that a few years ago as these days bands that sound like screeching baboons are quite popular.

A good illustration of all this is a band that just signed to a major label (donít ask me which one) and are being derided for it. Green Day is the bandís name. Iíve heard one of their songs. It was a charming little ditty that grew tiresome after the 47th time it was played by the local alternative station. But thatís beside the point. The deal is that these guys are now being accused of selling out, primarily because they signed to a major.

In truth, I think there is some pretty fallacious logic going on in that accusation. For one thing, it opens up the question, "Was every band that ever signed to a major label a sell-out?" The Beatles? The Stones? Sabbath? Devo? Nirvana? I think the root allegation in the major label charge is that even though you may be getting your particular message or love and understanding out to millions of people, in the process, youíre getting one of the evil mega-corporations rich and that is wrong. At least itís wrong from the socialistic viewpoint that a lot of underground/punk people subscribe to (see any letter column in Maximum Rock and Roll.) But what if youíre a budding capitalist and have no ethical dilemma about making Sony a bundle? What if Rush Limbaugh started a boppiní fifties band called Rush Limbaugh and the Free Market Capitalists. You might accuse him of being a sick freak, but you couldnít accuse him of being a sell out since he is publicly all for giant corporations and their ilk. You could say the same about the aforementioned Beatles and Rolling Stones. They certainly made no claims about wanting to stay underground. Indeed, John Lennon stated the Beatles goals were becoming "bigger than Elvis" (and eventually, Jesus.) and that they geared their music and appearance towards that end. The Stones also clearly embraced a lifestyle of glamour and excess. (Hey, heroin ainít cheap, baby.) So, while their quest for riches may offend you, you must remember that the two bands were always upfront about their goals and not hypocritical, which is the essence of selling out. (And consider: several members of both bands were poor Brit lads looking at a lifetime of financial straits unless they locked on to something big. When youíre in those shoes you looked after number one!) Only if Green Day had stated they would never sign on to corporate America would their major label deal constitute selling out. Perhaps they did say that, I donít know, and donít find then interesting enough to bother finding out.

As I said before, there is some validity in avoiding a major label contract. Undoubtedly it does mean a certain compromise of a musicianís vision and artistry. Record companies are there to make money, not support tortured geniuses. The most financially sound way for them to do so is by gearing towards the lowest common denominator (which, I must say, they did brilliantly in the marketing of Pearl Jam.) However, it is in that process that the musicians aesthetic is violated. Kurt Cobain was heard to say that a large portion of his arena audiences were people that disgusted him (the timeless "Jocks vs. Freaks" debate.) To that, I really donít know what to say. From the minute you start to play, you a forced to make compromises. With other band members, with club owners, with your friends, with your life. Small compromises perhaps, but they gradually get bigger and soon itís difficult to know where to stop.

As the sign of any good article, Iím now more confused than ever on the subject of which I was writing. With any luck, so are you. The hoards of shrieking hipsters that run around accusing every band that breathes of selling out still leave a bad taste in my mouth, but I see some underlying logic to their ways. Unfortunately, I think the fear of being seen as a sell-out prevents many bands from taking any chances. It seems a lot of the bands I see locally think they can remain ethically pure by rewriting Ramones or SoundGarden songs. Every commercial pop melody has to be disguised under a grungy guitar to prove its street value. In the end, their still writing their music on the basis of what other people think. You can try and sell yourself to slick L.A. producers or the underground masses but Iím starting to wonder if thereís any difference.

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