work the mic

There's Nothing Wrong with Selling Out

October 31st, 2014

There are few things in this world that make less sense to me than when people use the phrase "selling out" as if it's a bad thing. In case you aren't familiar, this is an insult thrown at an artist or musician who "betrays" their fanbase, their style, integrity, beliefs, etc. in order to get money or a wider audience.

This mentality is everywhere in the musician community, and has shown up multiple times in comments relating to my own posts.

But, you know what? Maybe these commenters are right. I'm going to come clean: I'm guilty of wanting to be heard. I can't speak for anyone else, but I would love to write for Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, or _______ if it meant my work was being appreciated by an audience, no matter how small or large. I would even write for bands or artists I didn't like if it meant I got paid to write. I see no shame in that. I'd still be making music, which is what I want to do.

I guess that makes me a slut and a sellout, and I'm genuinely fine with that. This isn't sarcasm. I've worked hard to develop my craft. I've missed important family events because I was at practice. I've dropped thousands of dollars on gear, recording, gas, tolls, and hotels. I would be happy to sell some of my work for compensation, small or large.


As far as I'm aware, I have only ever heard young adults or kids talk about "selling out" in a negative way (though you never know who's on the other side of forum usernames), and I think that's telling.

Anyone who thinks there is something wrong with getting compensated for your work, or improving/changing your work to be appreciated by a wider audience has never had a mortgage, property taxes, medical bills, student loans, kids in college, and/or a septic tank that stopped working, requiring $30,000.00 in repairs.

I'll grant you, I used to believe that you are only an "artist" if you are unappreciated, and die penniless. However, I also used to think that all my parents had to do to get money was to pull cash from a magic ATM. It never occurred to me as a kid in elementary school that they had to work to put money into the machine. I had definitely shed both mentalities when I became an adult and had to go to work at a job that I did not enjoy.

The negative view of making money with your music belies the fact that you have never experienced the fear of not being able to pay your bills. That you have never lost sleep or had a mental breakdown because you were terrified that you might lose your home. That those who depend on you might not eat if you don't do something, anything, and do it quick.


Austin Kleon (author of "Steal Like an Artist") made some great arguments about this in his book, "Show Your Work." If a guy who runs a brick-and-mortar store sells out of a product, the only reason he's upset is because he wants more of the product so he can... sell more.

If a theater or business sells out, they're THRILLED.

If a theater sells out all the seats for play, they're not upset, they're thrilled. They might add more shows to the play's run in order to... sell more. It not only pays their bills, but it means they can keep practicing their art.

It's become the big dream of the 2010's to start an app for a small investment, then sell it to Google, Apple, Facebook or whomever for a bajillion dollars. These entrepreneurs want to work hard for a brief period, in the hopes that they can then cash out, and either retire, or move on to the next project.

As Kleon points out, even Michaelangelo, the patron saint of artists, worked on commission.

But if a musician writes a song, plays it in public (whether in a performance or on a recording), and gets paid for it, he's a "poser," (or poseur), or a sellout, or not really an artist? If he realizes that not many people want to listen to his mopey, self-indulgent, masturbatory music, and decides to write a style of music that people respond to, he's no longer creative?


It seems that audiences craft perceptions, images, and personalities of their favorite artists, and then lock those perceptions in place, even if the artist changes or grows out of the mold that the audience has invented. In most, if not all cases, these perceptions are illusions.

You don't know the artist. You don't know their circumstances, their thought processes, or experiences. You have no idea why they made a given creative or business choice.

You may have read an article about the artist's actions, and built an image based on what you read. But, the author may have been biased, misunderstood the situation, or left out important context.

You may have heard an interview with the artist herself where she explains or rationalizes a choice she made. But that still doesn't mean you know what's really going on. Artists (and their staff, if applicable) shape their own stories through the media and their art. Don't make the mistake of taking everything at face value.

That Country musician who sends a shout out to the troops in virtually every song he writes may actually have a true passion about supporting the military. He has a public forum and decides to use it to benefit a cause he believes in. That Rock legend who claims to be heartbroken over the lack of drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa may be just using charity as a PR stunt.

You and I simply can't know what's going on in those artists' lives and minds.


You may think you're the one true artist who would never sell your soul for money. People thought the same thing about Green Day, the Sex Pistols, and a hundred other artists, right up until they signed to a major label.

It's a lot easier to sell out when massive exposure is knocking at your door

It's easy to rag on "pandering" to a larger audience when you're playing to empty bars, but far easier to rationalize "selling out" when a major deal with the potential for broad exposure is standing at your door and knocking.

Don't take my word for it. Google "famous artists who sold out." Here's some highlights from a quick search:

The Beatles played the same Hamburg dive bars over and over until being discovered by manager Brian Epstein. Epstein changed almost every aspect of their image and live performance (to John Lennon's chagrin), but Lennon answered "sellout" criticism by saying, "It was a choice of making it or still eating chicken on stage."

Rage Against the Machine - the poster boys of anti-establishment - said they accepted a deal with a major label because they wanted their message to be heard by as large an audience as possible, and didn't want to preach to the choir. The band's response to criticism: "It's great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it's also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message..."

Mike Dirnt of Green Day said, "If there's a formula to selling out, I think every band in the world would be doing it..."

At a certain point in their life, these artists may have genuinely believed they would never "sell out." But, as time went by, and they saw their circumstances change, and they gained life experience, they became different people, different artists, and therefore took different actions.


Going to school to learn music, or taking lessons, costs money. Buying instruments, especially good ones, costs lots of money. Buying recording gear, or time at a studio, is astronomically expensive. (I should know, I just got back from recording a new album.) I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars on all these things, and will continue to do so.

So, I invest all that money that could be going toward a retirement account, or my savings, or my loans, and then a fan hands me ten bucks for an album download... how is that a violation of artistic integrity and not compensation for a service that I provided?

If I went to a technical school to learn how to be a carpenter, spent years improving my craft, invested in thousands of dollars in lathes, routers, and drills, then built a fancy cabinet for someone, should I tell them I don't want any compensation because it would betray my art?

Carpenters make and sell cabinets, I make and sell music

Continuing with this metaphor, if I notice that a cabinet with 2 drawers sells better than a cabinet with 3 drawers, and decide to make nothing but 2-drawer cabinets, have I "sold out?" I'm still making cabinets. I'm still practicing my craft. My heart may be set on 3 drawers, but if people want 2 drawers, I may very well change my thinking and my practices.

To get very broad with this, consider that almost all of human society is built on trade. You provide someone a good a service, they provide you compensation, which could take any number of forms... money, an item for trade, service, gratitude, a favor...

Music is no different from any other industry, in that you as a musician provide the service/product of a song, and receive compensation in the form of a facebook like, a download, a few bucks for your album, a ticket sale, etc.

Why should musicians be different? What's wrong with getting paid? What's wrong with feeding your family? With getting paid so much that your lifestyle becomes lavish and excessive because millions of people like your music? That you make so much you give a large portion of money to charity?


If you want to play your music to empty venues, and print CDs that no one buys, go ahead. That's your prerogative. But don't insult or look down on someone else because they want an audience to hear, appreciate, and pay for the work they put into their art. It's time to grow up and realize that adults need money to survive, and if they happen to make something that a lot of people like, they're entitled to be compensated for it.