I’m just selling albums, I’m not selling out

“I used to like that band, but then they totally sold out.”

Everybody has heard someone say this (less than) insightful statement, I’m sure I’ve said it at least 100 times myself.  When somebody says this the are usually attempt to make at least one of these points clear:

1) They are super rad and liked that band before you’d heard of them and
2) Now that the band is popular, they have no street cred and their music and message isn’t worth anything. The band just didn’t abide by the principles that the person speaking attests to.

Well, the truth is – people that say this are pretentious, yes, but they are also idiots (in my case, I’m just a more self-aware idiot).. AND they have mostly no understanding of the band or the type of music that they are speaking about. Mostly.

You find these snobby types of people referring to punk bands all the time as sell-outs. Well it’s time to debunk a music snob myth. BEING PUNK and BEING POPULAR are NOT ANTITHETICAL.

There, I said it. Now, to try and back it back up…As I’ve argued before – punk was all about having an attitude closely associated with the DIY ethic, not about sounding or dressing a certain way.  If you can retain that attitude when moving to a major label and reaching a wider audience – then aren’t you still punk? You’ve changed, but it was by not changing at all.

First, maybe we should look at some of the bands that are considered punk’s originators – hum, let’s see:

Sex Pistols = major label
the Clash =  major label
the Damned = major label
New York Dolls = major label
MC5 = major label
the Ramones = Sire Records (distributed by Warner Bros as of ’77, until the major bought them in ’78)

Ok let’s skip ahead a few years and look at Nirvana as an example. In 1992, in an interview with Michael Azerrad for Rolling Stone, Kurt Cobain said this as a sarcastic response to feeling guilty about mass distribution of Nirvana’s music:

“I should feel really guilty about it; I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial and sticking in my own little world and not really making an impact on anyone other than the people who are already aware of what I’m complaining about. It’s preaching to the converted.”

Nirvana was still able to make the music they wanted to while on Geffen, reach a wider audience, and retain their punk values. For instance, when Nirvana was on the cover of the Rolling Stone, Cobain wore a shirt saying “corporate magazines still suck.” He wore a ballroom dress onto MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, altering ideas of constructed glamour and masculinity in America.When MTV wanted Nirvana to play “Smells like Teen Spirit” at their 1992 music awards, and Nirvana wanted to play “Rape Me” instead, Nirvana backed out of the live performance. They ultimately agreed to perform at the show, apparently due to the fear of MTV blacklisting Nirvana’s label mates. BUT  in a compromise they would play “Lithium” instead of “Rape Me” or “Smells like Teen Spirit.” When they started their performance, Nirvana brazenly launched into the intro of “Rape Me” and that drove the suits at MTV bananas.  They then finished the song with Novoselic hitting himself in the head with his bass guitar, Cobain smashing his strat into their amps and then falling into the drum kit, while Grohl went on a rampage on stage and then called out Axl Rose over the microphone, who had gotten into an argument with Cobain and his wife backstage before the show.

Nirvana’s performance at the MTV 1992 Live Music Awards at the height of their fame= totally punk rock.

And then there is Pearl Jam. No band other than perhaps Green Day has gotten more flack for being sell-outs than Eddie Vedder and company. commercially successful, YES. But sell-outs, NO.  There’s a HUGE difference. Pearl Jam was formed out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone, whose singer Andrew Wood had died of a heroin overdose on the cusp of the release of their album Apple. Thanks to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Jack Irons, Punk veteran Jeff Ament and rocker Stone Gossard were put in touch with Vedder, who was then playing in a band down in San Diego and also doing roadie work for the likes of Joe Strummer. Add Mike McCready into the mix, find a drummer, record an album and BOOM Pearl Jam would make an album that would give them so much mainstream recognition they would spend the next decade and a half trying to undermine it. Aside from releasing less commercially friendly records, they would stop making music videos, take their fight against the unjust practices of the corporate behemoth ticketmaster all the way to Capitol Hill, and give much of their royalties away to charity. When the Vitology song “Spin the Black Circle” won a Grammy award, Vedder went on stage to accept it and explained that he was up there because his father would have liked it, but aside from that he didn’t “think it means anything.”

Pearl Jam winning a Grammy Award at the height of their mainstream success and saying it didn’t mean anything = totally punk rock.

Of course, no discussion on selling-out would be complete without mentioning Green Day. Rising to success on the independent label Lookout!, Green Day were an integral part of the richly DIY inclined environment of Easy Bay punk. Green Day was a big part of the Gilman scene – the Gilman was an all-ages and not for profit venue that strived to abide by the DIY punk attitude while showcasing grassroots talent. From the beginning of his involvement with Gilman, Billie Joe Armstrong sang mostly about girls. Armstrong “wanted to sing about truth and where [he was] at, [his] relationships with people.” Although singing melodic pop songs about girls, Green Day exemplified the DIY punk attitude that the Gilman community believed in. When Green Day headed to a major label, Armstrong argues that he “carried the ethics of Gilman” with him. Before they were “sell-outs”, they played melodic songs about girls. When they hit the big time, they still played melodic songs about girls, just to a bigger audience. Only difference really. Armstrong argues that after leaving Lookout! for the majors, “the codes of [Gilman] were sort of intact,” and he still tried to remain part of the Gilman community (Gimmie, 377). They may have had commercial success, but their attitude towards music hadn’t changed – and while many in the Gilman scene ostracized them, they tried to use their success to help other bands gain attention.

Green Day did not change, only people’s perceptions of them did.  Just as when Nirvana played shows they would support the wider community by getting lesser known punk rock and Riot Grrrl bands to open for them – Green Day did the same. When Green Day were set to play a show at Madison Square Garden and found out they were on the bill with Bon Jovi, they refused to play, only agreeing to do the show if queercore act Pansy Division was added to the show (Gimmie, 416).

Green Day refusing to play a show unless 15,000 Bon Jovi fans were surprisingly introduced to a band performing songs like “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” and “Cocksucker Club” = totally punk rock.

It isn’t joining the mainstream that makes a sell-out, it’s what you do with the success. I’ve seen people in dive bars on Sunday nights at open jams that already have a sold-out attitude, imitating the style and aesthetic of artists they think will bring them money and fame. And I’ve seen acts playing for tens of thousands of people, still doing things the exact way they always have, without compromising their punk attitude.

And what about those idiots that label people sell-outs anyways? Do they stay true to their puritan punk principles?

I doubt it, most of them are probably on Wall Street.

“When I was a kid, we all called X sellouts! That’s just what kids say. They don’t even know what they are talking about. Taking some company’s money, I don’t see anything wrong with it.” –Fat Mike, NOFX

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6 Comments on “I’m just selling albums, I’m not selling out”

  1. Does the idea of “selling out” have less to do with the actions of a band and more to do with the fans’ loosing their own indi/punk/anti-mainstream sense of superiority in knowing about bands no many others do? This fits with the punk rock mentality you talk about in relation to the actions of bands and it might be worth expanding that try and better understand why their fans bother throwing the “sell out” label on them in the first place.
    Music, like all arts, is not a one way street. It is part of a discourse between the creators and the consumers. To not engage both sides does a disservice to that dialogue. So, since you’ve read so many fan-zines what are the fans saying in response to the artists? Are they all reacting negatively when their punk rock heros sign to major labels? Or do some see the value in reaching a wider audience?

  2. The primary objective I had with the post was simply to show that signing to a major label did not necessarily mean that a band instantly lost the values and principles that they had followed before. That is why I mainly excluded the people that were not in the bands in question, and of course also because I thought the post was long enough and the reader would probably rather watch Glenn Beck than keep reading. I guess I’ll try now to further explain the tension that went on in the punk scene between those that tried to expand things and others that would rather keep things insular.

    The main threshold, I think at least, when it came to being perceived as a sell out was signing to a major label. Many perceived this act as joining up with the corporate big-wigs. Kamala Parks felt this way about signing to a major:

    “[it is] the antithesis of punk. It was supposed to be DIY. You’re not supposed to take your popularity and benefit some high-ranking mucky-muck. You’re supposed to keep things local and in your scene. And not buy into this fame bullshit that they were feeding bands.”

    Now, Parks may have felt this way, but DIY doesn’t mean Do-it-the-way-Kamala-Parks-says-to-do-it, it’s more of an individual responsibility to stay true to your own values, and do things the way you want to do them. So for somebody like Cobain, he was more interested in getting his music heard than keeping things limited to a relatively small audience. What wasn’t acceptable for Parks was not a problem for Cobain. Not that Cobain wasn’t aware of the how some might judge him for allowing his albums to be sold at Wal-Mart, but to him it was worth it. He had discovered bands while shopping at Wal-Mart as a kid, and he didn’t want to deny somebody else the opportunity just because Wal-Mart was a big corporation. To some he might be a sell out, but not to others than understood what he was trying to do.

    Parks goes on to say that with regards to local scenes, if “you have the talent here, you should use that locally, rather than selling yourself across America. To become someone who encourages other bands to do the same things, and represent your values if they want to. To not make yourself a generic punk rocker.”

    Bands like Nirvana and Green Day, for example, seemed to be trying to act both locally and globally. They were able to reach a larger audience, and they still supported the local scene, but getting unheard of performers to play their shows, etc. One should not exclude the other from being able to happen.

    To put this major label issue in the bigger picture, some people like Jesse Luscious felt that by signing up with a major, you are becoming part of a bigger machine that has negative implications for society in general:

    “Major labels may be the nicest people. They might love kittens and bunny rabbits, but at the end of the day their corporate owners make guns, missiles, they pay lobbyists to destroy the environment. And by choosing to put your art into the maw of that planetary machine, I think that’s ethically suspect.”

    Others, like Winston Smith, call such a view “black and white way of looking at things.” Smith “could never understand that kind of logic.” He points out that:

    “General Electric, they make all kinds of guided missiles and other bad juju. But I can look up and count five little incandescent bulbs with ‘GE’ on it. So I’ve given GE money, which means I’ve contributed to the death machine. I’m helping their CEO keep his golden parachute. If you’re playing a record, with the electricity from a little string that goes into a wall, that’s created by a giant powerplant, PG&E, which is Profit, Greed, and Exploitation. Every time you pay your electric bill, you’re giving them money to pour into Diablo Canyon, building a nuclear power plant on the San Andreas Fault, which is insane. For thousands and thousands of years it will be radioactive and carcinogenic, and so every time you play a record, or pay your bill, or anything, you’re contributing to this machine. You can take that, and reduce it down to any argument, and everyone is guilty, all the time, everywhere, all at once.”

    So, as I see it, there were people within the punk scene that agreed with a band trying to reach a wider audience (positive), and those that did not (destructive). But to try and keep a band inside an insulated sphere of influence is a rather flawed idea – if the Ramones had never come to the East Bay, if people in L.A. didn’t see pictures of Patti Smith in magazines, if Sonic Youth didn’t tour in the Pacific Northwest, how would these artists have influenced each other? While isolation allows germination, in order to fully flourish things needs to be allowed to eventually expand. But if those involved can maintain the original attitude that brought them into the punk scene in the first place, how did they sell out? Otherwise, the only way to not be a sell out is to not leave your basement and not let anybody hear your music.

    I would argue that some saw their “heroes” or in most cases, their friends, as sellouts if the band’s success no longer lined up with their idea of what a punk band should be – staying local and out of the corporate machine. This was the only way to retain your identity. Others, however, did not see this as a conflict of interest with the DIY ethic– it was simply a way of getting the message and the music to a larger audience. You could have success and still keep meaning behind what you did.

    In retrospect, Ben Sizemore reflects that “the most self-righteous people are only into it for a couple years, so those of us who have been into it since, like 13, we see those people come and go. A lot of people who were calling Green Day sellouts in 1994 are probably like stockbrokers now, sellouts themselves. Looking back, it seems silly to hold such animosity.”

  3. Trex McGee Says:

    Hidden Pearl Jam references = Totally Punk Rock.

    Great article mate. Well done.

    It seems to me there are two types of nobhead who throw around this sell out sneer. Your article dealt mostly with the first type I think – jaded, cynics who’d be moaning about band members haircuts if they couldn’t think of anything else to bitch about. The second type as I see it are the real music snobs (make no mistake-you sir are a legend in the field even though you’re not guilty of this rubbish). These dudes were genuine fans of the band but these guys are greedy & don’t like to share. They love these bands but dont actually wanna see these guys, they adore do well. They’d rather the lead singer starve to death & remain top secret than see some rewards for genuine talent. They feel like their privy to a secret when these bands aren’t known & when they see emo kids get into it, they feel “their ” band has been cheapened & made less special, ergo, those fuckers sold out.

    Green Day are tacky & I hate them.

  4. xolager Says:

    Hidden Pearl Jam references today = Hidden Linkin Park references ten years from now. Get it?

    To each their own. I wonder why a musician thinks they have the moral authority to preach to me about anything – let alone the concept of selling out. Have microphone will preach, I guess.

  5. Well, if there are hidden Linkin Park references ten years from now Kevvy, I can only think of two things that could mean for 2020:

    1) The world is coming to an end.

    2) Linkin Park somehow escaped from their cave of superficial, easily marketable, and make believe angsnt imagery to write music with actual substance. I know the whole thing is debatable but at the end of the day, Pearl Jam songs like “Alive” and “Black” are timeless, while nobody will remember Linkin Park songs like “One Step Closer” and “By Myself” in another decade, if they even do now – I had to look those songs up because I forgot what they were called. Linkin Park wrote angst filled music because they thought that was how you sold albums; Pearl Jam sold albums because their angst filled music connected with a lot of people.

    “To each their own” is the right way to look at things I think. I used to have a big problem with musicians using their microphones to preach – Kevvy you may remember when I wrote an article for your loveiswonderful online magazine called “why think for myself when my favourite band can do it for me” – I had a big problem with punk bands uniting under the punkvoter.com banner to tell people how to vote and that George Bush Jr was bad – I felt that people should be able to figure that out for themselves.

    Lately though, I’ve been thinking that musicians should be able to preach as much as they want. If they want to say how they feel, they should be able to go nuts. My disdain for punkvoter.com came out of my feelings that bands shouldn’t dictate other people’s views. BUT then I reflected on how their preaching impacted me, and all it did was get me engaged on those political issues to a greater degree. It made me come to a more nuanced understanding of what I believed.

    Musicians can preach, sure, and people can listen, but it’s their personal responsibility to evaluate how what the musician is saying lines up with their own beliefs. It should inspire them to start thinking for themselves more, but it shouldn’t turn them into a blind worshipper in the church of Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Baha Men, or whomever.

    Then again, if musicians didn’t preach as much, they could probably fit in at least another song or two into their setlist. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

  6. Public service announcement (with guitar):

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