Thursday, April 4, 2013

Selling Out?

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!


  1. Superb post. The whole selling out concept of appealing to the masses I think it's also somewhat rooted in the "exclusive" and "for the masses" concepts. Seems if that something has a more reduced appeal to some, it is better, and if it appear to the masses, it'll be cheap, not good enough. My approach to all these? If I like it, I like it, and if I don't, I don't, but the whole talk of selling out simply seems like an elitist approach to pointing fingers, and saying what's good for everyone else can no longer be truly good.

    Selling out your creativity and your integrity is probably writing the book or the music that you don't feel just because someone else is telling you to cause it is what will sell books/records, and not because that's what you want to write. And even then, it's not something that's gonna sit well with a creative person.

  2. To me, "selling out" means not only retreating from one's own creativity because of fear of failure, but stifling one's creativity in the pure interest of commercial success. While it's true that artists can be both creative and commercially successful, it's also true that artists sometimes choose the safe, tame, conventional, but lucrative road rather than taking creative risks. I loved it when Rowling stretched herself and published a book for adults. I wasn't so crazy about her publishing the tales of Beadle the Bard, which seemed driven by purely commercial motives.

  3. I don't think I've ever really thought of someone selling out. I always considered it growing and maturing and being flexible enough to move outside the box. I like that in people, musicians, and authors. Is it nice to have that level of predictability with someone? Sure. But I'd much rather be surprised that they were able to find a way to grow up and out. Now, someone who stands strongly for one thing and then bows down just because their opinion or belief isn't popular anymore...that seems more like a sell out to me.

  4. To me, selling out means producing something just to produce it. It means giving up on creativity; the rote churning out of a product you don't really believe in. It has nothing to do with your audience's perception of your product, whether it be art, music, writing, or whatever. If your heart and soul just weren't in it, that would be selling out.

    Evolving as an artist, growing and exploring different styles and genres, is never selling out in and of itself. If you truly believe in your work, then cries of SELL OUT from previous fans is just their whining because they don't like change. That's too darn bad. Change happens. Deal.

    If Metallica had continued to churn out the same album over and over again, would anyone consider them relevant? Would they still be making music at all? I saw an interview with their drummer Lars Ulrich once, where he answered questions about whether or not he felt they sold out, and he replied, "Of course we sell out, every seat in the house, every time we play." And if you've ever seen them in concert, you know they believe in their music. There's no way they could put on a show with that much energy and passion if they didn't. As a fan, that's all that matters in the end.

  5. There are definitely times when a music artist sells out. They give up their own sound and written songs to spew the songs their label has on hold. They become a vehicle to sell songs that the label already knows will be a hit. There are mathematical equations behind the marketing, and they know that marketing will make everyone a bunch of money. I think this is why a lot of people go the hipster route -- the "I don't like that song if everyone else likes it" approach. Because we don't like that our tastes are reduced to mathematical equations. We want to spit in the face of that concept. In that scenario, when an artist gives up the art in exchange for celebrity, that is selling out.

    If an artist is simply experimenting with their voice and talent, that isn't the same thing, although you're right, the term is being mislabeled nowadays. It's sad, and I loved this post. I'm signing your petition. :)

  6. You have no idea how many times I've had this argument. Did people really think Smashing Pumpkins wanted to remain a college-surfing garage band forever? The whole notion never made any sense to me. So, y'know, thanks for the validation. :)

  7. Awesome post, CJ! My enjoyment is beyond words. I raise my glass to you!

  8. The authors I consider sellouts are the ones who continue to write the series they contracted for but their heart just isn't in the story anymore. Their writing shows they don't care about their characters anymore, and if they don't frankly, why should the reader. I've abandoned a couple of beloved series not because the writer experimented with the characters but because they didn't. They filled with pages with the sort of mindless drible you find yourself doing when trapped by the bore at a party who not only won't let you go but doesn't have much to say. They didn't have the courage to stop and write what they really wanted to write. They wrote what they were contracted to and boy did it show!

  9. I loved this posts because it not only applies to artists but everyone. Everyone fears being different and as a result they may repress their thoughts, ideas, and individuality. I think this is a lesson that everyone needs to learn. Your words were just so beneficial and applicable to my life.

  10. To me, being a sell out is making something just for the money. Making it because you half to. I happen to very much enjoy Fall Out Boy's new album and don't think they sold out in the least. They're proud of their album and quite happy with it. Isn't that what truly matters? Even with authors, they're aloud to move on from stories that have ended. They can create something new, something they can be equally proud of.If they sold out then they continued a story after it could've ended just because someone told them to, or they try to milk out as much money as they can from their story. I'm sick of people who use to word sell out just because a band they like made music they didn't enjoy, or an author made a story that didn't fit their criteria. If the author or a band has made something they're proud of, and our proud to show their fans, then they are no where near sell outs. It's ridiculous and I don't stand for it when people say that. Thank you so much for making this post, I share your opinion on this. Makes me love you even more! Thank you! You're such an inspiration <3


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