Santogold Shakes The “Rock Sellout” Hornet’s Nest

By: Maura / June 3, 2008

Santogold has ruffled some feathers with her thoughts on the idea of a musician “selling out,” which she expressed to New York in an interview that ran this week. “Everybody wants you to sell a lot of records,” the former Epic A & R exec told NY‘s Sara Cardace, “but it’s not considered a failure if you don’t. The record labels know that most of the money nowadays is made in licensing…. So where before it might have been, ‘Oh, you’re gonna sell out?,’ now it’s how we make our money.” This quote inspired outrage from some of the more purist quarters out there, but does Santi have a point?

Bill Wyman seems to think that she doesn’t, and that selling music can only lead to an artist being degraded in the eyes of his or her audience. And he gets listicle-ish about it:

1) While art can be created out of commercial or propagandistic purposes, from Michaelangelo to Irving Penn, let’s face it, most isn’t.

I would argue here that the “commercial purpose” becomes implicit when a price tag is slapped on an album, but that might be stretching.

2) In any case, the dynamic is different. Someone like Penn, for example, created art out of his profession. A rock artist is trafficking in the implicit independence of the form; the companies buying an artist’s songs are really buying a little bit of that perceived coolness.

But are rock artists who have entered a contract to create music–and I’m talking about artists signed to labels, here–solely trafficking in “implicit independence,” given their work is often subject to release delays and edits that are directed by the people in charge of disseminating it? (Which makes it sound sort of like writing for money, cough cough.)

3) In most cases, that perception will correspondingly decline. The artists aren’t selling their songs; they are essentially selling off their coolness.

4) Soon they aren’t artists any more–they are just songwriters who write little attitudinal pieces of lifestyle soundtrack to help sell overpriced crap.

5) Their fans can no longer trust them. It’s fashionable to say selling out in this fashion doesn’t matter, and that no one cares anyway. But I don’t think its coincidence that greedy folks like Moby, an innovator in this area, have wholly marginalized themselves.

I like Tom Frank too, but I have to wonder if, in 2008, “rock” really has the same quotient of “perceived coolness” that it did at its genesis, or even on Sept. 24, 1991. If anything, I’d say that the form’s darker days–which, yes, include some “selling out” on the part of its biggest names, from the awful of-the-moment dreck that so many legacy artists put out in the ’80s to the “suggestions” that certain bands work with proven songwriters (Diane Warren, anyone?) to the selling off of certain once-iconic songs to any brand that’ll have them, as well as the recent fragmentation of music, where artists like Santogold create music for and disseminate to, well, an audience that would argue about these sorts of points–has resulted in its coolness quotient going down some. If there is “coolness” (itself a loaded word), it’s not necessarily because of the music; it’s often tied up in ideas of exclusivity or “trading up” to fame in other arenas, whether they’re related to pure celebrity or acting or what-have-you. Pop music has become such a dominant idiom that people almost take it for granted.

Perhaps the idea of “selling out” rankles with some music fans because licensing is actually cheap for advertising companies and brands, even if it creates a windfall for artists thanks to a landscape that’s been ravaged by oversupply and people abandoning the idea of paying for musical product. And to be fair, there are certain musicians who have overexposed themselves thanks to their willingness to say “yes” to any brand that comes a-calling (i.e. the Black Eyed Peas and Moby); Santi’s reeling off of a ton of brand names in the New York piece probably raised a Fergie-emblazoned red flag to some, and, hey, I’d be scared by one of those things too.

It’s a knotty issue, one that I don’t think is going to be untied anytime soon; after all, flail against the selling of “cool” all you want, but would anyone begrudge Chris Knox getting some extra scratch by “selling out” a song a few years after the fact? Maybe it’s the idea of “greed” that gets to people, the idea that an artist can just shop their wares around to anything and thus deplete the work of any personal meaning divested in it. While thinking about this post, I kept going back to one comment by one of The Daily Swarm’s commenters:

Ultimately I think artists need to make a decision about the long term association of their songs, as coupling them with images can create a more lasting impression.

THE WHO licensed their track, “We won’t get fooled again” for a car commercial in the middle of a war for oil, when the original intent was a response to the Vietnam War and anti-corporate wars, so either it was grand ironic humor, or just a really bad decision.

And Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” may now be forever associated with Ketchup, rather than her original lover’s vibe of waiting to go on a date with Cat Stevens.

Maybe like so many things, the key to licensing lies in being selective, both in subject matter and in promiscuity. I know that moderation is a foreign concept in 2008, but what the hell, there’s no time like, uh, the almost-midpoint of a year to engage in some behavior modification.

Santogold Standard [NYM]
Sellout Watch – Santogold [Hitsville]
Santogold on selling out: “Now it’s how we make our money” [The Daily Swarm]