n+1 has a new piece on the changing landscape of the “sellout,” and the assertions of authenticity that have been re-shaped in the relationship between art and commerce. Evan Kindley is writing a review on a few books in the topic, one of which is spotlighted, by Timothy Taylor, The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. Going back to the origin of music being used for advertising ends, the book archives the radio-days of musicians crafting Lucky Strike jingles, all the way to the visual age of musicians having their own songs (and personas) implanted into the product’s identity. This began the age of 70s and 80s “punk nihilist” and 90s grunge sellout talk, where advertising execs–just look at Wayne’s World–got the reputation of being soulless soul-suckers, and success–financial or otherwise–was antithetical to the band or artist you knew you loved.
Kindley, with help from Taylor and the other authors in question, seem to make the point that things are changing in light of the MP3 era of music-exchange and commercial enterprise. It seems that what had always been the age of exchange (money for records), where the listeners had loaded guns of expectation for quality and originality, has been turned upon itself. The costless music we’ve come to expect have become the means by which artists have turned the gun on the audience–blaming their Outback Steakhouse re-rendition on the fact that no one cares enough to buy. So goes the cycle of accusation, I suppose.
But what I found most interesting is the old notion that authenticity is often wrongly expressed away from consumerism, in an inverse relationship with consumerism. Taylor and Kindley point this out as a false authenticity we seem to be growing out of in the age of “free music,” that somehow, with Taylor Swift’s “22” on Diet Coke commercials, and country music making explicit references to the Coors Light “mountains turning blue,” that we’re coming to the recognition that we are consumers, that we consume, that the “storm” of the Internet has made artist and audience complicit consumers all alike.
In February 2007, attendees of an of Montreal show at Emo’s in Austin, Texas held up a homemade Outback banner and chanted “SELL OUT” at the band. (According to one online report, Barnes had security throw the troublemakers out of the club; others claim he merely lectured them from the stage.) In November of the same year, of Montreal participated in another commercial, this time for T-Mobile, providing the occasion for a manifesto written by Barnes for the website Stereogum, with the Baudrillardian title “Selling Out Isn’t Possible.” “The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s created an impossible code . . . which no one can actually live by,” Barnes wrote. “The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality. . . . I think it is important to face reality.” Facing reality, for Barnes, meant accepting that, “[a]s sad as it may seem, one of the few ways most indie bands can make any money whatsoever is by selling a song to a commercial. Very very few bands make enough money from album sales or tour revenue to enable themselves to quit their day job.”
Next time you see a commercial with one of your favorite bands’ songs in it, just tell yourself, “cool, a band I really like made some money and now I can probably look forward to a few more records from them.” It’s as simple as that.
In 2007, this line of reasoning still came off as slightly cagey and defensive, but it has rapidly become the party line for musicians, fans, and advertising executives alike, all of them looking for somewhere to stand in the rapidly shifting post-Internet economic landscape of the 21st-century music industry. Barnes’s screed can be read as a founding document of a new pop era, in which it’s the musicians who get righteously angry at the fans on the subject of commercialism. The old complaint, in which artists are scorned for abandoning the communities that nurtured them and ascending into the corporate empyrean, has been replaced by a new one, in which artists rage at those same communities for not lifting them up high enough to keep body and soul together.
It’s in this confused, poisonous atmosphere that the stigma against the advertising industry has begun to break down. The taboo itself isn’t ancient (though it’s certainly older than “the pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s” that Barnes scapegoats); as the musicologist Timothy D. Taylor shows in The Sounds of Capitalism, the links between American popular music and advertising are longstanding.
Still, the concept of “selling out” had plenty of cultural currency well into the early 2000s, and not only in the nascent “indie” world. (As Taylor reports, high-profile licensing deals like Nike’s infamous use of the Beatles’ “Revolution” in 1987 stirred up plenty of righteous anger among baby boomers.) If anything, this critical discourse was overdeveloped in the post-Sixties counterculture, whose members had a tendency to act as if the real problem with capitalism was that it worked too well (insidiously controlling hapless consumers, and corrupting the purity of producers) rather than not working well enough (failing to provide an equal distribution of wealth and other goods). The preoccupation with “selling out,” in other words, played into the larger dynamic of what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have described as the “artistic critique” of capitalism, which focuses on the evils of commodification and inauthenticity at the expense of those of inequality and atomization.
…Taylor is certainly right to observe that the relationship between the advertising and music industries matters today in a new way. Let’s leave aside the actual influence corporate advertising has on today’s musicians or music culture; its status in the arguments we have about music has certainly changed. In recent years the pendulum of shame has begun to swing back the other way: where once fans routinely accused greedy musicians of selling out (or each other of enjoying “sell-out” music), now musicians counter-accuse consumers of abandoning the market economy, forcing them into the arms of corporate benefactors. In such a scenario, Taylor points out, cultural intermediaries like “advertising agency creative workers appear to be heroes of a sort.” They have the melancholy Protestant commitment to “creativity” that Max Weber thought 19th-century Americans had toward production per se: “Theirs is a way of attempting to survive the unprecedented voracity of capitalism and the iron cage of rationalization that accompanies it, even as they serve capitalism.” The hip young sophisticates who work at advertising today have not given up the basic countercultural faith that commerce and art are incompatible, but they have tempered it with the realist proviso that artists, like everybody else, need to get paid somehow. In Taylor’s words, they “still have no tolerance for what they view as commercial music . . . . At the same time, however, they have no compunction about using this music for commercial purposes.” Advertising, then, is not an illicit way for musicians to enrich themselves but one of the few viable ways for them to secure support: not a ladder on the rung to transcendence but the only port in a storm.
…The music industry as we knew it, with its shaky ad hoc compromises between art and commerce, is never coming back, but that’s no reason to resign ourselves to resentment or bad faith: we may yet look back on this time as the era of the emergence of a new politics of music. “The story of MPEG,” Sterne writes, “poses standards as an as-yet-unresolved issue of political representation in the development of new communications technologies.” The standards for the technologies that will shape music listening for the next fifty years are being set today; if we want them to represent us, we will have to find ways to make our presence and interests known to the people who write code and broker distribution deals as well as those who produce and consume music. (Who knows what form this might take? Occupy Spotify has a ring to it.) Lowery is certainly right to point out that Emily White’s generation—and not hers alone—has “value[d] the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself.” But perhaps the two are no longer extricable, if they ever were. And we have no reason not to hear ourselves in all of them.