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It doesn’t even take a million streams on Spotify or three sold out nights at Madison Square Garden to be labeled a “sellout”. Virtually any commercial success in music will inevitably invite claims that an artist has “sold out” and ironically enough, this label is most likely not to come from longtime detractors but from their original fans, those who were supposed to have believed in them for the longest. Of course, few artists will openly acknowledge that they’ve sold out (it’s never a good look), only going possibly as far as to admit that they’ve consciously aimed for a wider audience (and then usually wondering aloud why anyone would fault them for trying to get their work heard by as many people as possible).
“Selling out” as a concept isn’t even clearly defined. The Goo Goo Dolls are a prime example of a band that’s been accused of selling out, having gone from being an edgy Replacements-inspired alternative band to one that got played on easy listening stations with songs like “Name” and “Iris.” Longtime frontman Johnny Rzeznik would suggest two things qualify as “selling out”: the first is making enormous amounts of money; and the second being doing something that one doesn’t want to do.
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As far as that second one goes, any artist who’s achieved any measurable success in music has, at one point or another, had to make compromises. The Beatles started out as a band of leather-jacketed greasers. Then, suddenly, they were wearing suits and all of their hair was washed and combed forward. Does anyone imagine that was their idea? No way. They fought it with everything they had before realizing that it was for the greater good (i.e. success). Many, or even most artists, we can imagine, would rather not do press or TV appearances if given a choice (at least not to the extent that they typically have to). So, unless we truly want to practice cynicism for its own sake, it’s unfair to suggest that any artist who has ever compromised has therefore sold out.
Different musical genres look at success – and therefore “selling out” – in very different ways. Punk is the obvious example, as many purist fans of that genre believe that a musician has sold out if they’ve simply reached the point where their work is earning them a living (of course, this debate ballooned many times over in the mid ‘90s after bands like Green Day, Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy all achieved mainstream success). Hip hop, by contrast, has for decades been about not only achieving as much commercial success as possible, but then flaunting that (primarily monetary) success in ways that are almost satirical and cartoonish.
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Then there’s also the specific matter of artists selling their songs for TV commercials, although that’s a whole debate in and of itself. Pete Townshend, who’s sold many songs by the Who for ads in the past few decades, has also vehemently insisted that these songs are his, and what he does with them is nobody else’s business. Plus, many artists recently have stated that since streaming has taken a large chunk out of their direct royalties, this practice becomes necessary both in terms of generating income for them, and getting the music as much exposure as possible.
Many musicians who became more popular as they went along would probably argue that they’ve evolved, and therefore would make better music, and this is the reason why more people liked it and wanted to buy it and hear it. Theoretically, we shouldn’t fault an artist for wanting to appeal to as many people as possible, unless being conscious of this factor overwhelms the creative process; or they try to achieve this by obsessing on sales trends, rather than by making the best music they’re capable of.
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There are, in fact, fairly clear-cut cases of artists selling out throughout music history, but in the end it’s all subjective. Most of the time, when an artist whose, say, third album becomes their first major success, very few people who bought that one and not the previous ones won’t claim the artist “sold out”: that, again, usually comes from disgruntled older fans. On one level, this is quite understandable: No fan who’d been enjoying an artist in a club where they can stand ten feet from the stage wants to end up paying top dollar for nosebleed seats in some arena to see them. And it’s understandable why someone who’s invested a great deal in the music emotionally would be annoyed when new, trend-obsessed “fans” jump on the bandwagon, when it’s obvious that they’ll jump right off the following week in favor of whatever becomes fashionable by that point.
Still, all fans should realize that unless they were sitting on a milk crate during the band’s first-ever garage rehearsal, or they bought the first copy ever pressed of their debut album, it means that someone else liked the artist before they did. Selling out does happen in music, but it’s a fairly strong accusation and should be applied sparingly, not every time an artist makes a move that doesn’t sit right with us.