We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Pokemon games we purchased for our kids even though they're entirely indistinguishable from the other Pokemon games we've purchased for our kids is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what it means (and whether it's even possible) to sell out as a musician.
Kendra Williams writes via Facebook: Are we as music listeners too harsh when we refer to bands/artists as "sellouts"? Should we be hesitant to keep our favorite unknown artists from reaching fame if we feel as if popular culture will ruin them?
Almost invariably, calling a band a "sellout" is a gesture of vanity on the part of the person launching the accusation; it's about positioning oneself as ideologically pure and incorruptible, with the added bonus of disparaging an artist perceived as uncool along the way. Consequently, it's rarely worth the trouble of arguing when the word pops up, not least because it's lost so much of its meaning.
My favorite story along these lines took place more than a decade ago, when some stranger ranted to my friend Nathan, describing the band The Promise Ring as a bunch of worthless sellouts. "Did you know," this guy asked Nathan, "that those guys made fifty thousand dollars last year?" Nathan replied, as any rational person would, by doing a little bit of math — $50,000 divided by four puts each member at or below the poverty line — but the other guy would hear none of it. The Promise Ring was getting written up in magazines and selling out midsize clubs, and had therefore become the machine against which we should rage.
A couple years later, I got a chance to tell this story to The Promise Ring's former singer, Davey von Bohlen, who cracked up extravagantly. "Really?" he asked. He could barely spit out the next words: "We never made $50,000 in a year!"
This was more than a decade ago — during the Napster boom, but before Spotify or YouTube — and conditions for bands have by no means improved in the years since. Now more than ever, in order for independent musicians to make a living, they have to pick several mostly low-paying items off a large menu: touring, songwriting royalties, soundtrack placements, TV commercials, online streaming, merchandise, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo campaigns, corporate gigs, advances from record labels, production work on the side and so on.
If that sounds like a lot of potential revenue streams, consider this: I once got to peek at the contract for a well-known independent musician's contract with the producers of a popular cable drama. The show wanted to use the musician's song in a prominent scene, and needed blanket rights to put it on the show — which could itself be sold on DVD and via any medium that will ever be invented in perpetuity throughout the universe. The fee to the musician, for a prominent placement on a hit show: $1,500, of which management and publishing would get a cut.
These stories are everywhere — these examples are the tip of a not-very-lucrative iceberg — and yet some fans still blanch when a song they love pops up in a Volkswagen commercial. I totally understand the queasiness when an artist seems to get subsumed by a brand — when an album is launched in a way that makes it seem like a product subsidiary, for example — but music remains one of the few professions in which practitioners are resented for making enough money to rent a modest one-bedroom apartment.
To answer your second question, about the perils of our favorite underground artists reaching fame and changing in ways that don't suit our tastes, I'm always — always — willing to take my chances. If an artist I love is able to put food on his or her table and perpetuate a career, I will never object to suffering the indignity of hearing amazing music in TV commercials.