When Selling Out Isn’t Selling Out

January 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

I was sitting on my couch watching football on Sunday and a Nike ad came on.  The music was familiar.  Then it hit me.  It was one of my favourite bands, the Montrealers Suuns.  It was their track “2020,” the second song on last year’s excellent album, Images du futur.  I was a little stunned.  Suuns are, for the most part, pretty obscure, even for a Montréal band, many of whom gained attention just due to the simple fact that they were from the same city as Arcade Fire.

I was a little stunned also because Suuns had sold their music to Nike, a multinational corporation, for advertising.  Then I realised the massive generational difference at work here.  When I was in my 20s, I would be sickened and appalled at any of my favourite alt.rock banks “selling out” to the adverstising industry.  Nirvana wouldn’t have done this.  Smashing Pumpkins wouldn’t have done this.  But the Dandy Warhols did.  In 2001, their track “Bohemian Like You” was used in a Vodafone ad.  But, that was easy to discount, the Dandys never attempted to claim any alt.rock or indie rock purity.  Life carried on.

But the Black Lips did the same thing with T-Mobile.  I wasn’t sure what to think about this one, either.

Earlier this weekend, I was having a conversation with a friend on Facebook about the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and she was commenting how she wished music could still be as honest as this band was.  We were also talking about the band makes us nostalgic for the 90s.

But still, it’s one thing for M.I.A. to sell her song to Nissan for a car ad, it’s another thing for Suuns to do it.  But, of course, the times they are a-changing.  For Suuns to sell their song to Nike only works to increase their exposure, to increase record sales.  In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman talks about this process.  She cut her teeth as an artist on the fringe in New York City in the 80s.  But today, she notes, artists are all tied into the matrix.  For them, it’s not selling out, it’s just the way it is.  Skrillex sells his music.  So if The Black Lips and Suuns do so, does it make a difference?

I’m sure if I asked my nieces and nephews what they’d think if one of their favourite bands had sold their music for an ad, they’d shrug their shoulders and think I was out of touch.  And so, I guess so.  Bully for Suuns for selling “2020.”


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§ 2 Responses to When Selling Out Isn’t Selling Out

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Being even older, I can remember rock groups in the 1960s dealing with this issue: some had no problems because they didn’t see it as a “sell out,” some resolutely refused to license their music, a few (such as the Who) satirized selling out.

    The problem, from my perspective, is that bands/singers ARE part of the economic system, but many either take stances emphasizing values in opposition to that system, or have fans that do so. It becomes a question of where you draw the line, rather than being pure.

    The problem isn’t limited to music. The writer John Barth was heavily pressured to “cheer up” the ending of his first novel to get it published. He did, it got published, the ending was panned, and he managed to get later editions published with the original ending . . . but only because he was successful with subsequent novels. Did he do right? Did he do wrong?

    • Remember Neil Young’s horrible song c. 1988 about not selling his music for advertising?

      I guess that’s it, it depends on the artist to a large degree. For a commercial entity such as, say, Kanye, it’s nothing surprising. I’m just surprised by an indie band like Suuns doing this, but the boys do need to earn a living, and the exposure gained through a Nike ad has the potential of sending them into the stratosphere. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually change much, at least for me, I’ll still listen to them, I’ll still go see them and buy their records.

      I remember the Barth story. There are many such stories out there. I also read an interesting article in the TLS recently about a German author who chose to stay when the Nazis came to power and the costs of censorship on him morally and personally. Or think of Bulgakov in the USSR. In the case of Barth, I’d tend to think he did the right thing, got the book published, became successful and then set the record straight.

      A long time ago, I realised Leonard Cohen was right, it’s much more effective to try to change the system from within than from without, evolution works better than revolution. So, to my mind, Barth did right.

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