The topic of being a "sell-out" came up the other day while I was talking with one of my kids. For context, he was shocked to learn that I loved the new Fallout Boy single. Mostly because he couldn't believe his mom knew who Fallout Boy was. But also because he and his friends considered the single a "sell-out."
When I asked him why that song qualified as a sell-out, he shrugged and said that all the fans were saying it. He didn't really know why, except that the song was different from earlier artistic offerings from the band.
That's a strange label in this situation. Usually, when a band gets labeled a "sell-out," fans mean that a band who produced alternative/niche music changed their style a bit and found commercial success. In Fallout Boy's case, they've already found commercial success. Their 2005 album went double platinum, and their 2007 album debuted at #1 on Billboard's Top 200. So, if the outcry isn't based on the band suddenly finding commercial success, then the problem must be the experimentation with a new sound. Fallout Boy earned their spot on the charts as a pop punk band, and their new single sounds more pop than punk.
Accusing musical artists of selling out isn't a new thing. Last year, the hip hop community was enraged when Nicki Minaj's album STARSHIPS hit the airwaves. She'd gone the pop/hip hop route and disappointed fans who felt that she had a chance to be a legit female hip hop star and instead had softened her approach in favor of radio play and a fat paycheck.
Green Day. Metallica. Liz Phair. Weezer. Taylor Swift. The list of those accused of selling out by changing their artistic approach and finding more commercial success is lengthy. The list of authors who've been accused of selling out is shorter, but it exists. Mostly the accusations raise their ugly heads when readers discover a little known author of some brilliance and feel a sense of ownership, only to then feel betrayed when the author writes books that hold more commercial appeal and thus find a larger audience.
In that sense, the criteria for selling out, both as an author and as a musician, seems to be this: you gained your place in your chosen field through the devotion of a niche group of fans who feel betrayed when you experiment with your artistic approach and then find commercial success with something other than the niche product that gained you those fans in the first place.
Even authors who've already achieved incredible commercial success can't escape the label. When J.K. Rowling published THE VACANCY, the outcry from many fans was intense. How dare she write a book aimed at adults? How could she write a little murder mystery instead of something that upheld the legacy of Harry Potter? The reviews left on THE VACANCY's Amazon page during its debut week bore testament to this. There were just as many 1 stars as 5, and most of those 1 stars centered around fans' disappointment that the book wasn't another Harry Potter.
On a deeper level, slapping the label of "sell-out" on an author or artist says "you've lost your integrity." I take exception to that for several reasons.
One, there's nothing inherently wrong with finding commercial success. We don't all have to be starving artists for our work to have merit. To equate lack of income with artistic brilliance is short-sighted and frankly stupid. I don't know many authors who go into their publishing career hoping to just be heard, no matter how little money they make. Yes, we love writing and we desperately want to keep writing books and putting them in the hands of readers. That won't ever change. But we also want to eat and pay our bills. Most of us approach our publishing career with a plan to find some level of commercial success so that we can eat and pay our bills and maybe, if we're really fortunate, send one of our kids to college. To accuse someone of "selling out" because a book hits the list is to assume that the author never intentionally sought to earn a paycheck.
Two, creativity isn't something that thrives well inside a box. It needs the freedom to stretch its boundaries and experiment. Sometimes those experiments flop. Sometimes they send your single straight up the Billboard charts or land your book on the NYT's list. Often, those experiments will stray from your original book/song/album/whatever. My writing voice has stretched and grown over the years. It grew leaps and bounds from Defiance to Deception, and I expect it to continue to grow because I plan to continue to experiment. Some of those experiments, some of the projects that are steadily gaining shape inside my head, bear no resemblance to Defiance. Readers who fall in love with this series might love my next books. They might not. I can't stop and look over my shoulder and second guess my creativity because someone might think I've left my roots. Why shouldn't all artists have that freedom?
Three, labeling someone as a sell out indicates that YOU understand their inner drive, their passion, and their vision for their life better than they do. Nicki Minaj wasn't supposed to step away from hip hop. Green Day wasn't supposed to stretch beyond punk. Metallica wasn't supposed to care about album sales. J.K. Rowling wasn't supposed to write anything but children's fantasy. Grisham wasn't supposed to write anything but legal thrillers.
But they did. And I don't think that makes them a sell-out. I think that makes them human. Artists. Creative. Passionate. I think it means they wanted to try new things. Or maybe they had a different career trajectory in mind than their fans thought they would. Or maybe they sat down one day and the voice of their next project was just different from the voice of their last.
We can't be afraid of that as artists. We can't stay shackled to our roots, huddled against the ground producing the same thing over and over again because if we stretch too far in any direction we might fail. We might turn our fans against us. We might sell too many copies or too few.
For me, it comes down to the same philosophy that keeps me happily ignoring my reviews and filtering out any voices but the few I've intentionally chosen to allow into my creative process: If I wouldn't cry for you at your funeral, I don't have to care what you think of me now.
I'd love to see the accusation of "selling out" dropped. I know that's a pipe dream because there will always be niche fans (I'm often one of them!) who feel a kinship with an author or artist and then feel slapped in the face when that author/artist moves in a different direction. But I'd like to offer the idea that healthy people grow emotionally. They don't stay in the same cycles. Who we are and what we have to say about life when we're twenty-three is different from what we have to say when we're thirty-five. Sometimes our voice doesn't change all that much, though our words do. But sometimes, the voice, the words, and the entire approach undergo a metamorphosis along with us. And sometimes, it has nothing to do with growth and everything to do with being business savvy along with being creative.
I don't consider either to be selling out. Selling out is when you KNOW your voice is gritty and dark, but you pull back from that ledge because you aren't sure you have what it takes to go there. Selling out is when truth is burning inside of you and you cover it up because you're afraid of what others will think when they see you without any walls to hide behind. Selling out is desperately wanting to experiment with a new style, a new genre, a new hook, and saying no to it because it might fail. You might fail.
If we sell out, we do it to ourselves by short-changing our creativity and chopping our vision off at the knees out of fear. I say write what you want to write. If it's commercial, fabulous. If it isn't, and you wish it was, then find a way to say what you need to say in a way that will still entice people to buy your book or your album. I say experiment and push your own creative boundaries and see where it takes you. If you land on the list and there are those who decry you for moving too far from your original works, then ask yourself what you're doing listening to them in the first place. Really. Who are you listening to and why?
I hope you're listening to your own creativity. To your own vision for what you want to say and how you want to say it. And I hope you're allowing other artists to step outside of the box you might have built around them. Even if it looks like the only reason they stepped out of it was to pay the bills.
Please share your thoughts about selling out in the comments below. I look forward to hearing your opinions!