Music Advocacy Journal Issue #1: What’s a sell-out and who’s doing it?


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Welcome to the Music Advocacy Journal, and thank you for your participation!

Here at MYnstrel we debated and deliberated for a long time about what the first Music Advocacy Journal article should be. You see, there are so many problems in the music and entertainment industry right now, we have seemingly endless work to do on behalf of music lovers – and on behalf of our culture. No worries, MYnstrel is on top of the job!

We chose to address the infamous “sell-outs” of the music industry first because the issue impacts so many aspects of the music we choose (and the music that we would like to choose if we even knew it existed).

We’re all about the music, Artists, and Fans; therefore, spreading the ability to correctly identify “sell-outs” will definitely help the music community. It may also give you a refreshing perspective on certain artists and businesses!

Definitions & frame of reference

First of all, what is a “sell-out”? It’s important to define up front, because if we aren’t all operating within the same frame of reference, we’ll get lost in semantics. I will define a sell-out as a person, artist, band, or business who turns their back on their pre-existing mission with a primary motivation to make more money or to gain popularity.

The term, “pre-existing mission”, is critical. Incorrectly identifying that will lead us away from the real problems, and probably create fuzzy definitions of a sell-out. I’ve come across a few cases of this mistake:

  • People call a business a “sell-out” if they turn their back on previous “customer expectations” – First of all, customer expectations can vary from person to person, just like the things that fans think are important about a band. Sometimes a business needs to change what they promise to customers based on changing market forces, in order to continue to serve their greater mission to the maximum potential. If a band changes their music against previously built fan expectations, it may not necessarily be all about money or popularity.
  • People call a band a “sell-out” if they turn their back on their artistic integrity – This one is tough. Can you define artistic integrity? If an artist has music that’s coming from their heart and serves their mission, are you confident enough in your judgment to tell them it’s not genuine?

Let’s now get deeper into music-exclusive anti-definitions. A sell-out is not necessarily:

  • An Artist that got popular – The fact that an Artist’s work was so well-liked that it made them famous is not a black-and-white indicator of artistic integrity.
  • An Artist that changed their sound – Music evolves over time and artists change their interests.
  • An Artist that sounds like another popular Artist – Imitation is the highest form of flattery. As you get more into the technical aspects of music, you realize that the vast majority of a composition is an amalgam of pre-existing sounds that inspire and influence the Artist. In addition, how many times have you had an original idea, only to find out that someone thought of it first? There are artists out there who have been doing original things for years only to see someone else beat them to the public.

So if we can see into the hearts of artists and understand what their motivations are, and what their mission is with their music, maybe we can figure out who is selling out. This leads to another interesting question: why do we care who is selling out? If we enjoy the music, are we all that concerned about what the motivations behind it are?

Many people are concerned because they hope that the inspiration for their favorite music is truly genuine and coming straight from the heart and soul of the people who are performing it. Moreover, it is a logical conclusion that when popularity and money become the primary driver of artistic creation, the overall effect on the greater market is that the music products lose their genuine passion and originality that makes them timeless.

On behalf of the MYnstrel community, I say, we are concerned with the potentially negative impact of sell-outs on the quality and integrity of the greater music industry. The bigger question for MYnstrel is: what can we do to address the root causes of selling out?

It starts with this journal article, MYnstrel technologies, and with your participation, so read on!

Is earning a living a double standard for Artists?

Since we’re on the same page with the definition of a sell-out, we can talk about the apparent double standard that artists are held to in regards to earning a living with their products, services, and talent.

Now, for many professions society doesn’t seem to have a problem with workers who are primarily motivated by financial compensation. Does anyone believe that a hard-working patent attorney enjoys every aspect of their meticulous job? I’ve got to tell you, I’ve loved the challenge of high-technology for many years, but there were a few nights in my engineering program when I sat hovered over that green grid-lined paper, just wishing that I could pick up my guitar and escape some frustrating error which would have sent my satellite burning up in the atmosphere instead of into the intended orbit.

For many different jobs, we’ve heard apologies in the spirit of “they’re just trying to make a dollar to help themselves, to support their families, or to pay for college.”

Do we hear this apologetic rationale for hard-working musicians who perfect their craft over many years?

I remember seeing a satire related to this topic on a popular comedy show, in which a fictitious band called “Moop” was used to put forth two erroneous points of view:

  1. If you play music and make any money at all, then you’re a sell-out
  2. That it’s morally acceptable for consumers to steal digital music online because they’ll still pay to see a band play live ‘if the band is good’

As for the bad definition of a sell-out, we’ve already addressed it somewhat with our accurate definition. Ideally, we’d like to see truth, fairness, and virtue prevail by retiring the double standard for artists. Why shouldn’t an artist be able to make a fair living for their work? How is what they do any less important or worthy than any other entertainment worker, whether they are in sports, video games, motion pictures, or literature? Are musicians superhuman creatures who don’t need a shelter over their heads, or food on their tables? Do people really believe that the vast majority of music-related workers are living the uncommon lives of luxury that are portrayed in music videos?

As for justifying the theft of digital music, by supplanting a purchase of digital music with a promise of attending live shows – an examination of the facts proves this mantra to be misguided as well. Without delving into the realities of compensation for live music performance and recorded music, for now, let’s just say that this isn’t a fair trade, and that no other business would apologize for analogous expectation of ‘free goods’ (we’ll talk about this in greater depth in a future Music Advocacy Journal edition).

To be certain, we do sympathize with the level of confusion in the marketplace concerning music products. Part of the reason that there are so many pervasive myths about compensation in the music industry is because within the last century, there have been many shady dealings – some of which persist today.

MYnstrel technologies, business innovations, and community organization will increasingly help to rectify those iniquities. When our dream is fully realized, sell-outs will have a harder time competing with true artists, and the double standard for artist compensation will be just a blip on the radar of music history.

How can we spot sell-outs?

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I remember a certain song by the band Tool off of their album Aenima in which they satirize a fan who accused them of selling out, to make the point that the eternal value of the music experience is all about the synergy between fans, the art, and the artist. Of course Tool is one of my favorite bands, and in their prescient words: “All ya know about me’s what I sold ya…I sold out long before you ever even knew my name.”

Of course the grand irony of anyone accusing Tool of selling out is that they are the band that was going against the popular fad of grunge rock with their progressive rock styles, and they are the band that has continually pushed the boundaries of rock music with virtually no homage to popular music trends. Here, we see another example of bad sell-out definitions – in Tool’s case, they were slandered by the notion that if a band gets popular and succeeds, they must be a sell-out.

Notice that Tool is still selling out arenas decades later, while the vast majority of fad-grunge rockers from the early 90s are doing what? Right, I don’t know either. There must be something very special about Tool, something genuine and intrinsically good. And these are the artists who could never be fairly labeled as sell-outs. You know the real deal when you hear it, because no one else can do what they do, even if there are droves of passionate imitators. Can money create that originality, inspiration, passion, and born-talent that people can just feel? I don’t think so.

Chances are, if you’ve got the music flowing through you with an open heart and mind, you can tell who is selling out when you fire up your stereo, and crank up the volume, only to get that disappointing feeling of stale inspiration, generic blandness, and fleeting catchiness that’s here-today-gone-in-two-weeks.

I’ve found that some of my most treasured, long-lasting, and enduring songs are the ones that took me a few listens to really appreciate; music that is much like a fine wine, or a young adult slowly gaining appreciation for coffee or beer.

Who’s selling out?

By now you might expect – I’m personally not ready to accuse artists of selling out. It’s not that I don’t believe there are many sell-out music workers hanging around, waiting for the next trend to latch onto, and then streamline it into a cookie-cutter press for a quick buck. It’s not that I couldn’t name a few scandalous songs of 2008 which were blatantly uncreative mockeries of the art of music – using a prospect of gross controversy in lieu of exceptional musical development, just to get attention and sell more albums. Why would I call out these travesties and give them more press?

Really, it’s just not worth our time to even spend negative energy on things that deserve absolute zero attention, when there are so many incredibly talented and well-meaning artists out there who deserve our energy. MYnstrel has built the Artist Spotlight in order to feature an ever-increasing number of the truest and best artists of past and present. We promise that you will never find a sell-out artist on our prestigious Artist Spotlight.

And finally there’s that perplexing question bouncing around in the back of our heads – do we really care about who is selling out? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. Those droves of grunge bands that just disappeared along with the fad may or may not have really been sell-outs. Many of them may just have been passionate and enthused imitators; it is true that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Can we know for sure what their motivations were? Are we confident enough in our own judgment to be so bold? Is it critical to know what our ears can’t discern from the audible product?

For my part, I would gladly welcome a dozen more bands that sound like Faith No More, Lo Pro, Led Zeppelin, Element Eighty, Vivaldi, Pavarotti, Lee Ritenour, and so many more of my favorites. The question in my mind is – will they be genuine enough to not sound generic, stale, or fleetingly catchy? I suspect that if they’re not selling out, they might just have a shot.

I remember being one of the first fans of Incubus before anyone knew who they were. I also remember identifying immediately how they were overtly inspired by many aspects of my favorite band, Faith No More. Yet Incubus never disappointed me, having delivered dozens of fantastic songs over the years that became some of my all-time favorites.

As music lovers, we hope that artists continue to discover the genuine inspiration that elevates our art and the business. At MYnstrel, we will continue to build technologies, invent products, and business processes that will make the music landscape more difficult for sell-outs to traverse, and more negotiable for the incredible artists who deserve our attention.

I am Tommy Kurek, on behalf of the MYnstrel community, thank you for your participation in the Music Advocacy Journal! We hope you’ll tune in next time as together, we continue to elevate the art, business, and technology of music.

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