Definition of a sell out

I’m restricting this to musical artists.
I just want to know if I have a correct understanding of this:
A “Sell out” is somebody who makes, or tries to make, music that lots of people will like.
Someone who isn’t a “Sell out” just makes whatever the hell kind of music they want, and don’t care how big their audiance is.
Is that how it is?

I think it’s more when the artist’s main focus is making money rather than making music.

The difference between making lots of money and making music lots of people will like is that for the latter, there’s perhaps still some feeling of connection with one’s fans, or a desire for fan respect. With the former, it’s strictly the bottom line, whether it comes directly from a fan’s pockets or from product tie-ins and commercial jingles. In any case, if you find yourself consulting marketing demographic surveys when choosing the right word for your song, you’ve sold out.

Selling out also could be when a singer known for strong opinions on certain subjects writes music (or signs away the rights to older music) that trades their earlier positions for financial gain. Had John Fogerty been the one responsible for “Fortunate Son” being sold to Levis (he wasn’t), that would probably count as selling out.

Yeah, sometimes I can tell the difference, but sometimes, people seem to consider a person or band a sell out simply because he/she/they become commercially sucessfull after not being for a while… like, oh, I can’t think of one off the top of my head…Oh, I’ll go with Metalica, getting their songs on the radio in the late 80’s or early 90’s, some concidered them sell outs, just because they started having top 10 hits.

Two words: Shania Twain

Even worse… it was Wrangler.

I’m not even sure if it’s possible to sell out anymore, really. Does the Underground where your secret favorite band hides even exist anymore? Hell, White Stripes played on an MTV awards show. They Might Be Giants does the music for “Malcom in the Middle” AND “The Daily Show” AND at least one Chrysler commercial. I don’t think that they sold out.

But, I do think that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s family sold out.

I don’t think that TMBG sold out by doing the music for Malcolm or The Daily Show (I haven’t seen the Chrysler commercial) because I think their music fits with those shows without anything needing to be sacrificed. The ‘Fortunate Son’ example would count as selling out since it runs completely opposite to what the song originally meant.

Selling out is a concept possible because music is percieved as an artform. Some musicians see themselves, or are percieved by many people as artists, and this places different expectatations on them by their fans. A performer who sees themself as an artist, or is percieved by many to be an artist sells out when they take action that is inconsistent with the actions and considerations of an artist.

For instance, if Leonardo Da Vinci was still alive today, and he took the Mona Lisa back from the Louvre to add the golden arches to his painting, then he would rightfully be called a sell-out.

So too (again, if he was still alive) would Salvador Dali if he decided to abandon the surrealist style for which he was so well known and took up producing bland landscapes that appeal to a larger audience, sell in amazing quantaties but were about as artistically challenging as your average episode of Friends.

Let us look at this in the context of music.

An artist who is often accused of selling out is Moby. He is accused of this because he was seen by his fans as an artist, and perhaps he saw himself as an artist. People considered that what he produced was above entertainment and had artistic qualities. Moby was accused of selling out because he took action that was seen as being inconsistent with that of an artist. Did he? It matters not; perception is the only issue here, because selling-out is objective.

This is why performers such as Britney Spears can not sell out. She is not widely seen as artist, but as a performer, an entertainer or satan (depending on your point of view). This is not a judgement on her - these are roles that are valid. When Britney takes actions that are inconsistent with those of an artists, such as sponsorship from Pepsi, no-one cares, because she is not expected to have the standards of an artist.

However, what is selling-out in the case of one act does not automatically become selling out in the case of another. For many fans, their favourite indie band “jumped the shark” when they moved to a major label and there are many cases of an artist’s artistic goals being compromised by commercial ones after such a move. But, both Sonic Youth and The White Stripes successfully navigated the hazardous major label waters without being seen to sell out.

The Offspring were not so successful. Their major label transition was accompanied by (in their fans’ eyes) an increase in novelty throwaway songs and music with a wider appeal and lesser artistic value.

Playing MTV, by itself, does not constitute selling out. I think White Stripes fans have stuck with them because they showed relative constraint in their media-whoring and their discomfort at the attention was obvious. Besides, their live show rocks. I can’t comment on TMBG, having not seen the ad, but I agree with what Sublight said above re Malcolm.

As to the underground, of course it still exists. The White Stripes and TMBG are hardly accurate representations of it anymore though.

Prominent ‘underground’ bands of late include The Microphones, The Dismemberment Plan, Cursive, The Notwist and And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.

Very good points. I would include Madonna, Shania Twain, and a great many 80s bands in this category. To me, the distinction you mention is the great difference in music made before companies of various stripes began exploiting pop music in the early 80s. Before then, musicans and singers, all of them, were artists. The grunge revolution that Nirvana spearheaded was the first step back towards this esthetic, at least in spirit.

So goes a little song by Reel Big Fish. I take selling out to mean doing just what they state: bowing down to the record producers’ demands, making music based on what the public wants, not necessarily what the musicians want to do.

But I’m not sure that it’s always a bad thing. As long as they still remain true to their fans (while abiding by contractual guidelines), and their fans to them.

Taking RBF as an example though, are they sellouts? Maybe. The song quoted above was their from their third album, but was their first music video. They still don’t get much radio play around here however. When I saw them this past summer, they made some remark after singing “Sell Out” which implied that they felt they had sold out and were not pleased with themselves about it. And now, they’ve got a cover of a great old school ska tune “Monkey Man” on the Wild Thornberrry’s movie soundtrack. Are they sellouts in their own definition? Hard to say.
Regardless, they still totally rock!

I agree with you for the most part, and definitely on the examples you list. However, I’d say there were a few pre 1980 bands that were not considered to be artists, The Monkees being the most prominent.

And to my understanding, most pre-rock n roll performers were only outlets for the songwriter’s creativity (would anyone have ever accused Frank Sinatra of selling out?)

However, for the most part, I would say that you’re right; the eighties marks the point when music as art and music as entertainment diverged into two seperate categories and the disdain for artists that made the transition from the former to the latter markedly more prominent.