Santogold Shakes The “Rock Sellout” Hornet’s Nest

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]

  • loudersoft

    Think about what we’re hearing on commercials these days — aside from that Santogold track, we have to live with the strains of “Let’s go Outback tonight” thanks to Of Montreal. Stephen Merritt doing that Orbit/Eclipse ad. Spank Rock on a Wishbone salad dressing commercial. And, perhaps the greatest slap of all, Friendly Fire on the Wii Fit commercial.

    If this is how artists are having to eat and survive, what do we propose to do in order to make it so that isn’t a necessity? I know plenty of bands who can’t survive without their pittances of licensing money from commercials and television shows. She’s not wrong — she’s just been misunderstood.

  • rogerniner

    I think the reaction against an artist “selling out” is a spectacularly selfish act. By this artist achieving more of a fanbase, that exclusivity you mention, Maura, starts to slip away from you, and you are forced to share in the upswing of a popular band, and all the lack of intimacies that brings. It is no longer “you and the music”, but “us and the music”. Oh well. Be happy with something you like invading your public and private space rather than something you don’t. Jamie Lidell on a Target ad? Awesome. Way to go, Warp. Stereolab selling a Volkswagon (many years ago)? I love that song. Glad to hear it pop up in my regularly scheduled programming. LCD Soundsystem has a jogging program for Nike? Cool. Now I have something to talk about with that jogger who talks about nothing else but what an awesome athlete they are.

  • dreamsneverend

    Waaaah musicians can be suck pricks sometimes. I think it would be an honor for someone to take your material and use it to sell a product. Now, if the item being sold was COMPLETELY against what you are about (or at least your music) it might suck. These people complaining want nothing more than to be commercial matyrs who suffer for their art… zzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Anyway.. I like Santogold, great mix of stuff on that album, I hope to see more videos forthcoming.

  • How do I say this … THROWDINI!

    I don’t really believe in the concept of “selling out” anymore. I used to, and I probably would’ve freaked out if a Nirvana song was used to try and sell me a Toyota (Courtney, don’t even think about it). But these days, I just think its a good way for the band to make money, especially since most people are stealing (yes, kids its stealing) not buying music.

    These days I tend to think of selling out as a baby-boomer concept tied to hearing the music of their youth used in commercials decades later. There you might have an argument that an artist is selling out their old ideals for quick cash. But is a band really turning its back on its old ideals by selling a two-year old song? Doubtful, but maybe I’m just old and “sold out” myself, so I don’t judge anyone else for doing the same thing.

    All of that said, that “Let’s Go Outback Tonight” was total crap I think made Of Montreal look stupid. Not for selling out, but for contributing to a horrible jingle.

  • Lax Danja House

    I’ve been racking my brain for a while now and I honestly can’t think of a single song I associate with a brand or product. The only examples that come to mind are for TV shows, but how often do you hear established songs used there? Even though I’m sure there are plenty of people more sensitive to music in adverts than I am, I can only imagine it’s a fleeting thing. If the music doesn’t outlive the advert, it’s not the advert’s fault.

  • scott pgwp

    Maura, you really seem to be wrestling with something today! First a post examining the helpfulness of tipping $.25 to touring bands in a landscape of fans who don’t pay for records; now questioning whether licensing is or isn’t a shameful act… I hope your post on the irrelevance of radio is coming soon.

    Really, in all seriousness, you’re really painting the picture here. It is really apparent that the landscape is outrageously different from the 80s/90s indie scenes. I remember when it was a big deal that Sonic Youth signed to DGC… now it’s kinda funny, but not unthinkable, that they’re partnering with Starbucks.

    I had a little back-and-forth with Mike from Clap Clap a couple weeks ago and he said something to the effect that it’s unfortunate that most critics/bloggers come from a 90s hardcore background. That’s where this whole sellout conversation is coming from.

    Again, it’s all tied up in a really simple equation: artists need to find the people who will pay them. That’s why they’ve turned away from record labels and radio because labels and radio are proving ineffectual. Coffeeshops sell records so artists go to coffeeshops; ad companies pay so artists license their music. Fans pay for concert tickets, so artists tour. But most fans don’t pay for recorded music, so they lose their justification for whining about a band’s loyalty to its fanbase.

  • Anonymous

    Henry Rollins had a pretty fantastic rant on his show about this same topic.
    He was very much for artists GETTING PAID.

  • revmatty

    I’ve never understood the ‘selling out’ complaint. I mean, sure, if you’re a band that trades on being hardcore vegan and you sell a song to Oscar Meyer I could see that being possibly questionable. But then you could just take a Chumbawumba informed position (and how often do you get a chance to say that?) and say that the evil meat murdering industry is now funding people who are opposed to it. It’s post-ironic!

    I guess as a wannabe musician I’ve always seen any way an artist can get paid for being an artist is a good thing. People get up in arms particularly about the private concerts thing and I just think “Um, yea, because without private patronage none of the greats of Classical, Baroque, or Romance music would have been able to create the wonderous works they did.” I’d much rather see some rich kid pay MIA $100K to play their sweet sixteen party than have them hire Paris Hilton to show up and be ‘cool’.

    In a sense it’s selfish: if an artist can make a living by selling their songs for commercials or movies or playing private parties then they can continue to be a professional musician and keep cranking out music for me to enjoy. The licensing deals and ‘selling out’ subsidizes that because I sure as hell can’t afford to hire Tanya Donelly to play my anniversary.

  • revmatty

    @whoneedslight: Damn right he did, thanks for reminding me of that. And in fact he makes the same point I do when he talks about doing movies like Jackass allowing him the financial freedom to put out spoken word albums by his friends.

  • spazandmojo

    i have never been against this as long as the artist is complicit in
    the choice of product. hell, i wouldn’t mind hearing diamanda’s cover
    of ‘i put a spell on you’ in conjunction with a perfume ad, as long as
    she is making some motherfuckin’ money. musicians need to make their
    money, and unless any of these motherfucking whining critics is ‘off
    the grid’, they can just shut their mouths and go back to their 9 to 5.

  • CortneyH

    One piece of information that tends to get lost in the debates about “selling out” is that artists aren’t actually getting paid all that much for these ads and placements. Many indie artists give their songs to ad firms for free in order to get the exposure, and TV placements generally only throw down a few grand — better than a kick in the face, but no way to make bank.

    Obviously, this varies by artist, depends on the brand and campaign, who owns the publishing, and a million other et ceteras.

  • Captain Wrong

    @rogerniner: Nailed it.

    And really selling out is giving me a major 90s flashback. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch TV, but I really don’t care anymore if all my favorite bands sell their song for commercials. It just doesn’t change a damn thing fr me these days. Perhaps because as I’ve gotten older and tried my hand in some bands, I know how tough it is to do anything other than lose money as a musician. Or maybe it’s that I’ve grown up and learned to appreciate the music for what it is and the enjoyment it gives me and not some set of ideals and rules I’ve grafted on to the artist.

  • Lucas Jensen

    I talked to a label owner recently who was signing an artist specifically because he felt they would bring in licensing money. He cared about sales a little, but ultimately he knew that only a big chunk of change from a commercial would bring in some revenue for the band and put in the black.

    And Cortney, I’ve had TV placements pay nearly 40k, which is no small change.

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    The only time this ever even remotely bothers me is when: 1) the song’s lyrics are modified to fit the promotional aspect of the commercial (i.e. Of Montreal’s Outback ad, or a car ad that chopped up the verses of “Bohemian Like You” by the Dandy Warhols to make it sound like the track was actually about complimenting someone on their taste in automobiles, or 2) when the track itself has anti-consumerism or anti-corporate lyrics and themes (i.e., Jewel’s “Intuition”).

  • Anonymous

    @Audif Jackson Winters III:

    Or when the company doesn’t bother to license the original and just hires a voice-alike (Tom Waits v. Doritos).

  • Maura Johnston

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: agreed. intuition razors, however, are the shizz.

  • KinetiQ

    Good article, Maura; very thought provoking, which is odd since this topic pops up on Idolator at least quarterly.

    I think music’s role in society has changed significantly in the last 15 years (just to put an arbitrary line in the sand). Music just isn’t serving as artistic expression or as a primary form of entertainment anymore; it’s been relegated to being a compliment to other forms of art or entertainment, albeit a vital compliment.

    And that’s not the case for everybody or for every musical artist, but as the idea of “listening to music” gets cheapened then the appropriate contexts for it expand immensely.

    I may be a “Lincoln/Douglas debates” sort of person in a blipvert world, but if I ever hear Laurie Anderson doing a commercial, then I think I’ll lose all hope.

  • Chris Molanphy

    the awful of-the-moment dreck that so many legacy artists put out in the ’80s

    I would just like to make the exceedingly marginal, link-related point(s) that:

    a) though it has not aged all that well, Aretha’s “Freeway of Love” is not in the same category of lameness as Stevie’s “Don’t Drive Drunk”; and that

    b) neither one of them is in the same universe of awfulness as “Kokomo.”

    That is all.

  • Anonymous

    Blast! I was going to post the video for Reel Big Fish’s “Sell-Out” but Sony BMG has disabled embedding! Anyways, hop over to the youtube, watch the video and everytime you hear “The record company’s gonna give me lots of money…”, substitue “The ad company..”.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @whoneedslight: Although, to be fair, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins could sue Tom Waits for his entire career, and I like Tom Waits.

  • rogerniner

    It’s interesting to hear that selling out is more now about product placement, than just gaining a larger audience, which I am grateful for. And the variety of appropriate product placement to song has balanced out well, due to ad compaines trying so so hard to nail that 18-34 demographic. I think it is fundamentally different for an company to use a song to sell a banking company (“Lust For Life”), or tampons (remember those idiotic “We Were There” ads, playing Hendrix “Star-Spangled Freakout” from Woodstock. ) to a band’s music featured on an add for a music player. Cars? They are now toting how awesome the sound system is, and I’m sure all of you, when car-bound, listen to music while driving, yes? So it’s “appropriate” in the peripheral. But Outback? Still trying to swallow that one. (place cymbal crash here)

  • PopIsNotDead

    I applaud anyone who can find a way, in this musical climate, to make a living writing music.

    I work for a music house, writing music that is intended to be used in advertisements, and every time I receive a royalty check in the mail, I feel as if I’m pulling something over on someone. It’s not that I don’t think my work is deserving of credit, but the little kid in me is saying “I can’t believe someone is paying me to do this!”

    What I do is a craft, not an art, and I make a distinction between the music I make and the music someone makes out of a necessity to create a personal piece of art. Someone who has chosen to write music for themselves and/or for their fans as a life’s calling, and does it well… you’re damn right they deserve to make some money from licensing. If you are lucky enough to have someone hear your work and find something they can connect to, whether it be to get through a nasty break-up, or make an Apple commercial memorable, you are doing something right.

    In this day and age, it seems, making music is a right, but getting paid for that music is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Congratulations to anyone who finds a way to make ends meet through their music.