On selling out and privilege in music

Nearly 8 years ago I wrote a column for Stylus about the concept of selling out and how it was, by and large, a dangerous, damaging idea in the weird little milieu we call indie or indierock or alternative rock or alternative music or whatever. For the most part, I still stand by what I wrote back then – that the idea of ‘selling out’ as a pejorative concept seems to me like yet another ideological state apparatus designed to keep the people in their place and maintain the status quo. That module of Marxist cultural theory in my first term at university still rings in my ears.

Two brothers, by the name of Abner and Harper Willis, who are a band and go by the name of Two Lights, have written an article themselves about how much money they (or their parents, more accurately) have spent in order to try and become successful musicians. Their outgoings include $25,000 on gear, $18,000 on “living in New York City” (because they couldn’t possibly live in their hometown in Maine and be rock stars there), $1,000 on “a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs”, and $25,000 on “lost earnings” (Harper turns down writing assignments worth $400 per week because he spends 20 hours a week on ‘band-related work’; I’ve thought about this, and I can only assume he’s writing rich college kids’ essays for them at a rate of about $400 per 2,000 words, rather than pitching features, reviews, or stories at actual newspapers or magazines).

Oh, and there was $30,000 on piano, guitar, and voice lessons, too. Their estimated grand total is $109,000 dollars, and they’re still not famous despite all this hardship.

On one hand, you could see their “treat it all as a business” ethos as not a million miles away from Black Flag or Fugazi’s DIY approach to their careers. In fact, let me just remind you of something Steve Albini wrote ages ago about the evils of major record labels and the deals they offer new bands.

On the other hand, you could be wishing these whinging, privileged, burdened-by-entitlement arseholes would DIE IN A FIRE and take their shitty music with them, because it’s disgusting to moan at how much money you’ve had to spend trying to be famous in the middle of an interminable economic downturn that is losing hundreds of thousands of people their jobs and obliterating the economies of countries all around the world. Not getting to hang out with models as often as you’d imagined, or being given riders as flash as the ones in your dreams, is not a complaint that should be tolerated in any civilized society.

I don’t recall Ian Brown moaning about how he had to apply for a loan (to buy a cooker for his flat) so he could spend the money travelling around Europe on tour, or Orbital whining about how they had to record Chime into their dad’s tape recorder rather than get Pater to pay for it to be done properly at Abbey Road.

As a friend of mine said, “these people have always existed, especially in NYC. I used to make good $$$ playing session bass in their shitty bands.” Occasionally one of them lucks out, and we end up with Beastie Boys or The Strokes or Vampire Weekend, and they squeeze a great album or two or five out. Some kids, whether they’re rich or not, will always see minor hindrances in a relativist way and assume them to be enormous, insurmountable and unfair obstacles placed directly and deliberately in front of their dreams, whether it’s not being as famous as Maroon 5 yet or a lift not working properly so you have to take the library stairs with an armful of books.

If I’ve got no objection to people “selling out” (musicians have to pay mortgages just as much as marketing people or stock brokers or nurses or civil servants, and everyone deserves fair pay for making art for the rest of us), why do I object so viscerally to Two Lights and their ilk’s expenditure? Is it the crassness of their sense of entitlement? The fact that their music is such generic, mediocre piffle? Perhaps if you don’t have everything paid for already you have to work that much harder in order to pay your rent and make a success of it, and as a result of working harder you simply become better at your art.

If there’s anything good about Abner and Harper’s navel-gazing about their own pseudo-plight, it’s that it goes a little way towards explaining to people how musicians like The Beta Band can get into so much debt that they see no alternative but to split up. I know of bands who’ve had strings of hit singles and albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and still the backstage areas of the venues they play are hollow, exhaustion-filled wastelands after gigs; still after each album they need to make another as soon as possible because they couldn’t afford not to. I know of yet more musicians who work dayjobs alongside making music all the time, even many records down the line; if they’re lucky it’s music related work, and they can produce other peoples’ records, or arrange music for films or TV. If they’re not, it’s carpet-laying or telesales or teaching or any other job that normal human beings do.

Because musicians aren’t Extraordinary Golden Gods. They’re just human beings who make music.


4 responses to “On selling out and privilege in music

  1. I think that the criticism of “selling out” doesn’t mean opposition to making money so much as disgust with the kind of professionalization of music-making that you yourself describe, oriented around the celebrity industry. Two Lights are sell-outs who happen to be in debt. Ordinary human beings who make music aren’t sell-outs — they probably have day jobs.


  3. “Do you wanna be a big loser, or do you wanna be rich and awesome like that guy from Maroon 5?”

  4. I think everybody should treat their music like a business. But that means not putting much money in until you start to see some return. I think more bands should be taking notes from electronic musicians or rappers who record and mix the music themselves and can rock a stage with a laptop/microphone. There are probably very effective ways to spend 100,000 grand on promotion but if you’ve got 7,000 youtube views on your debut single (after being featuring in Time magazine) something is drastically wrong.

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