Don’t confuse success with selling out

By Ethan Stanislawski

Thirty years after the birth of punk, it’s about time we admit that the concept of selling out is as dead as the Eight Track.

Punk, especially its offshoot indie rock, has had strong anti-establishment ties ever since Joey Ramone first said “I don’t wanna.” Indie rock in particular took that sentiment to extremes. It started with hardcore punk in the tail end of the ’70s, and really took off after Black Flag added Henry Rollins to their lineup in 1981. At the time, members of the hardcore community, which formed the basis of what would become indie rock by the second half of the ’80s, would rather be caught dead than caught selling their songs for commercial gain, and corporations weren’t interested anyway, considering how angst-ridden the music was. Do you think Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum” would make people run out to Target to buy it?

That ethic of staying true to your indie roots, never selling out, and keeping music as the focus has, more or less, remained the same for the past three decades. The indie music community hasn’t. It’s time we stop holding bands to a standard that they never really had a chance to weigh in on in the first place.

In the fall of 1991, Nirvana broke down the doors for what was until then a largely underground music scene. While alternative rock is no longer as dominant on the charts, it’s still incredibly popular, as evidenced by the fact that alternative/indie acts such as The Shins, The Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, and The White Stripes have all had albums in the top five on Billboard this year. Indie rock has changed from angry, aggressive rock to bands primarily sounding like B-sides of Pet Sounds. That will get the attention of corporate sponsors looking for licensing rights. Yet, if they were to sell their songs, like every other top-five act does all the time, they would be considered sellouts. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this picture?

There are a lot of double standards in the indie rock world right now—double standards that people are aware of but never really address. One is Pitchfork Media, probably the standard-bearer and biggest trendsetter of the indie press. They are accused of being self-indulgent, snarky elitists, yet everyone bases their taste on them anyway. Additionally, many foreign indie bands take government money to tour in the U.S., even though, by DIY standards, that would be considered selling out. That doesn’t stop Hives, Delgados, and Wolfmother fans from loving them. How is taking money from the government more acceptable than selling a song to a Nissan ad (as Modest Mouse did)?

Now we’re beginning to see backlash against the sellout label from the bands themselves. Most recently, Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, a group helped out in no small part by a positive Pitchfork review, responded to a question from Pitchfork about licensing their songs to Wal-Mart and Ford by arguing that “once that music is recorded and released to the world, then I don’t really care where it goes.” He rightly noted, “It…beats the hell out of stealing batteries from Wal-Mart to sell them back for eight bucks.”

With the line between popular and obscure so blurred, it has becoming increasingly difficult and inappropriate to pigeonhole every band from a certain scene into a standard that’s 30 years out of date. Most musicians today weren’t even born or were infants when those standards were developed, and unless a band has stated that it’s against selling out, why should we hold them to a standard from the ’70s? It’s not as if we expect these bands to have strong feelings about Watergate or Vietnam.

The irony of the debate is that the evil corporate music conglomerate of public imagination is actually weaker than ever, and business for smaller bands and labels has never been stronger. Say what you will about the Internet’s tendencies toward illegal file-sharing, but the main victors have been smaller bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys, while the losers have been the Britney Spearses and 50 Cents of the world. The wealth is spread in a way that was the stuff of dreams when Black Flag and The Misfits ruled the day, and you could reasonably argue that the DIY aesthetic has ultimately won out.

If this is the ironic generation, it’s sad to see where we’re spending our few remaining outlets for sincerity.