Treble Treble #3: Selling Out (Mess+Noise 2011)
In 2002 I wrote a song called ‘Mcrock’ about the commercialisation of music. It included the lines:
Band names are brand names
Hit singles are radio jingles
Listen to my pitch
To scratch the advertising itch.
The rest is a list of sponsorship wordplays suggesting a reality where bands could be branded like sporting teams.
Limp Biscuit think Arnotts
Weezer Quit Australia
Lucksmiths think The Dicksmiths
Pink think Crayola
And so on. I’d just read The Sell In by Craig Matheson, a book about the commercial success of Australia’s alternate bands in the 90’s. It introduced me to the business side of music, and took some gloss off my idolised image of rock gods, painting them as real people, battling within an industry, existing long after the gig had finished.
I wrote ‘McRock’ to satisfy my clinical addiction to puns and as a response to the catchcry of bands Selling Out. It was a term born in the 90’s, with Gen-Xers revolting against the corporate glam of the 80’s. It most fittingly sums up the rags to riches story of Grunge, with Nirvana becoming so popular that designer boutiques were selling $300 flannel shirts. An irony so awkward it eventually proved fatal.
Since the 2000’s the term has become more ambiguous – disempowered through the parody of those who over-wielded it. This is coupled with a newfound empathy towards the hardships faced by the post-Napster musician. The criteria for selling out is an interesting sliding scale. While it’s most easily triggered when a band lease their music to a commercial or film, it can also mean accepting corporate gigs, signing to a major label or just playing any venue bigger than The Tote.
I remember an anecdote from the early 2000’s where David Bridie fans were outraged to hear one of his songs on an Australian TV commercial. In his defence he stated that the money he was paid allowed him to record an entire album. To his fans it was like letting the national flag touch the ground – he had sullied the sacredness and purity of his music, letting it be molested by the filthy paws of corporate enterprise.
There is always an assertion that music groups and companies are at opposite spectrums of the commercial world. Bands are denimed Gods while businesses are chinoed leeches. With ‘Mcrock’, I was suggesting that the line separating the two could be as thin as the money its printed on. In some ways, aren’t bands just small businesses with a trusted name and product to sell? I’m always bemused that the ABC aren’t allowed to promote corporate brands (or feature films), yet they can plug bands all they want.
At Uni my best mate Adam was a muso who despised the idea of ‘the business side of things.’ Just the idea of charging money for a gig gave him a headache. Most musicians start off writing songs in their bedrooms for spiritually organic reasons, but by the time you’re reading about them in the papers, they have usually crawled into bed with a subsidiary of the corporate world – the media machine. Everyone uses publicists, from Big Tobacco to Little Red.
In the mid 2000’s, Starbucks started Hear Music. It behaved like any other record label, but one with its own chain of coffeehouses to spin and stock their artists. This year Starbucks will release a Sonic Youth compilation, with tracks selected by celebrities such as Portia DeRossi and Michelle Williams. As Thurston Moore said in a Pitchfork interview “Starbucks is the new record store, right?” In 2008 Hear Music released Sia’s Some People Have Real Problems. Was this selling out or selling in? Perhaps Craig Mathieson should write a follow up about the rise of Indie, or should that be Die (Dependent music.)
It seems to me that Gen-Y are more comfortable with entrepreneurial musicians fraternising with the business world. A combination of social networking and reality TV has pulled back the curtains of the industry and made consumers less wary of the mechanisations. When Feist’s ‘1-2-3-4’ was featured in an Apple ad, the media seemed mostly excited for the positive flow-on for songwriter Sally Seltmann. Savvy advertisers have made the pill easier to swallow, enlisting designers to on-sell the Indie aesthetic so that the ads end up looking more like film-clips.
Compare Cabury’s original Favourites Ad from 1998 to the recent one featuring a soundtrack by Broken Social Scene.
There seems to be more acknowledgement of musicians running a business and not necessarily sucking capitalist cock. This is coupled with a (worrying) acceptance of advertising culture, as if we’ve been bombarded for so long our brains have evolved (or devolved) to stop fighting it. Our current obsession is with ad craft, from Madmen to The Gruen Transfer. We’re not as cynical about being advertised to, but it had better be cool or funny.
As record labels tumble and bands learn to support themselves, income generated by commercials is not only a vital source of revenue but a valid form of airplay. We all know Jose Gonzales’ cover of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeat’ from the Bravia Bouncy Ball ad, but in Australia few have connected Melbourne band The Triangles’ ‘Applejack’ to The Jetstar Song. ‘Applejack’ has also been featured in a Spanish beer commercial, where it spent 14 weeks in the Spanish charts. Indie has been devoured by the corporate sector, with a vast array of ad soundtracks consisting of ukuleles, handclaps and Torrini-esque voices.
In the early zeroes, there was naivety about how much money musicians made. I remember being shocked to hear that while Sunset Studies had sold around 20, 000 units, most of the members of Augie March still had day jobs. I also heard that JJJ favourites Superheist were ridiculously in debt and Ammonia had quit the music business out of disgust for how poorly Eleventh Avenue had sold. As a sheltered suburban boy I couldn’t fathom it – didn’t being played on JJJ mean you were rolling in it?
I can safely say that this isn’t the case. After ten years of trying to live off what I do, I never fail to be amazed at how little money there is to be made in music. Last year I embarked on a 21-date national tour with a song on high rotation, national profile and highly regarded supports The Boat People. I sold out Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart, had 200 payers in Sydney and Perth and still managed to lose several thousand dollars. Publicist, airfares, accommodation, van hire, petrol, posters, advertising, booking agents and Pad Thai’s added up like Greece’s economy. (And that’s not to mention Shock going bankrupt last year, erasing the royalties of 3000 single sales.) I should have stuck with social work.
Last year I was offered a suitcase full of Cash (rare Johnny Cash 7-inches) by Metlink to write and perform in an ad promoting their ‘online tools.’ My initial reaction was trepidation. My indie-cred was everything to me, and I’d made a career painting myself as an independent misfit with grandparents for a record company. I went ahead, largely due to my ethical approval of the company and the poetic symmetry of promoting a public transport based album. Playing irony as a get out of jail free card I wrote a parody of my own song, Northcote (So Hungover). It might have been more effective if the video hadn’t come out before the original. To quote Humphrey B Flaubert I was paid “fairly close to the amount that Radiohead spends on buying friends” and used it to fund the real Northcote video. Of the 41 YouTube comments for Metlink only two mention selling out. “Man, he sucks now, his old stuff was awesome. Sellout corporate whore” is countered with “starving for your art is so 1800s. Cut a hipster some slack. Fat doesn’t give away skinny jeans for free.”
As an independent (or signed artist) to be given a large sum of money that you don’t have to pay back is a gold chariot on struggle street. Mike Edwards, front man of 90’s band Jesus Jones, wrote an article on selling out for the Guardian. He says: “like other teens, when I was younger I formed a notion about the purity of art versus payment for art (this correlates inversely with the number of 15-year-olds paying mortgages) that made it an Offence In Rock to accept an honest month’s pay for an honest three minutes’ work. Even then there seemed to be some contradiction between punk ideology and the Great Rock’n’ Roll Swindle.”
Sometimes the problem is the fans themselves. In our secular society music is religion and musicians its deities. Bands are placed on sky-high pedestals and then cursed with an almost sexual fervour when they fall. The fan / musician bond can be as unhealthy as any one-sided relationship. The band is compacted into a status symbol and worn as a personality patch. Songs become hymns, holding a lifetime’s joy and pain in their peaks and valleys. When a band starts out the dynamic is like the movie Misery. The fan wants to keep one of their legs broken so they can have them all to themselves. When the band have the audacity to become successful and escape the fan becomes a cranky martyr, moping around like a cockney mother who’s children have abandoned her.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the security fence. Musicians must be living the dream, making lots of money, sleeping with groupies, running around fields in music videos that they don’t have to pay for, right? Under this idealised payload the band are entitled to zero exemptions. No crying poor. No gigoloing their songs out to commercials – punishable by street-cred death. While the mechanical ownership lies with the songwriter, the spiritual ownership is split between thousands of consumers, judgemental as anything and representing themselves in the court of hard knocks.
The offending band’s spiritual assets will be frozen, their airbrushed image forced to sit in a court of emotional law, copping a self-righteous spray from the prosecuting fan, a furious torrent of ash, beer, snacks and tears gushing like stormwater – years of daily frustrations projectile vomiting on the offending set of All-stars. A jumbled alphabet soup of pop culture fridge magnets expressing a shakespearean cocktail of lust, jealousy, class-hatred and self-loathing. Like a child yelling at a cheating Dad. I BELIEVED in you! I NEEDED this!
They are some of the most brutal lessons in life:
People are not gods.
Everything comes back to money.
As one frontman I spoke to said “Sell out? We wish.” If any publicity is good publicity then perhaps any airplay is good airplay. As we plug ourselves further into the sold-out Internet, the line between single and jingle, band and brand continues to blur. I foresee a future where bands list themselves on the stock market. Finally, fans can go full circle and stake financial shares in their acts. Gigs become general meetings where they can yell their criticisms directly to the tight-pants CEO.
To quote the closing lines of ‘McRock’:
PJ Harvey World Travel.
Taco Belle & Sebastion
Midnight Oil of Olay
And I couldn’t think of one for Eminem.