Selling Out (Faster Louder – 2012)
Comedian Bill Hicks once said any artist who participates in a commercial was “off the artistic roll call, forever.” Bill was the original Gen-X soldier, declaring a war on advertising when anti-corporate sentiment was at its peak. I wonder what he’d make of today’s climate, where ‘selling out’ is something bands strive for rather than avoid. The Internet has reinvented the game, the music industry has tumbled and we’re empathetic towards artists needing ad-sync revenue. I can see the punk-philosopher’s eyes narrow, his puckered lips dragging on a cigarette.
“Oh Bill” he retorts in a winy voice, mocking me. “No-one’s buying records anymore, it’s so hard to make money at our concerts. We have to pay venue hire.” He throws a hand up, “Okay squirt! Well here’s a thought. Maybe, and hey, I’m no expert, but maybe, the problem is the fact say, oh I don’t know – (pause) you’re not very fucking good!” He holds his glare for a moment before exploding into a chesty cackle. “Hey buckaroo – if you think the music industry is hard, maybe you should try working in a fucking SWEAT SHOP where nine year old girls make the shoes you’re endorsing with your “fashion rock” and you’ll see that compared to making two dollars a day! I repeat TWO DOLLARS A FUCKING DAY – you kids ain’t getting such a bad deal – you sexless, godless, computer-generated wind-up clapping-monkey sell-outs!”
This catchcry continues to haunt musicians from the deep – bellowed from the ghettoes of the Internet. The 90’s hangover stands at the back of the gig with its arms crossed, threatening to bankrupt bands of their hard earned Indie-cred. Generational battle lines have been drawn as i-groovy Gen-Y tells dino-cynic Gen-X to get with the program. Did you not hear the news? Marketing won. They bought the Internet, an interactive station that we live inside 24-7. We review ads like short films and romanticise about 50’s ad-men. While bands have never sounded slicker, ads have never looked artier. With the world in recession and the user no longer paying, advertising in art has advanced from awkward compromise to base necessity. Hey, maybe it’s not all bad?
The notion that music should be commercially independent is relatively new. During the 1800’s artists, writers and composers relied on sponsorship from patrons and philanthropists. In the 1960’s musicians were on a short leashes, micro-managed by big labels and sent on packaged tours. The revolt came in the late 70’s with the punk underground and a notion that grass-roots equalled purity, mainstream meant compromise and labels were corrupt. The 90’s exploded the code, as Alternative bands managed to be underground and mainstream at the same time. It was an irony so severe it eventually proved fatal (I am of course talking about Ratcat), triggering another backlash against the corporate world, this time aimed at advertising.
During the 2000’s the Internet not only meant a closer connection between fan and artist, but a shrinking of the borders between the corporate and creative sectors. The News Corp. owned Myspace harked a new era of ‘independence’ with a grass-roots platform threatening to cut out the middle man/woman. Artists were given a record company kit and encouraged to pitch their lot in the marketing stream. It was the poster, the newspaper article and the radio rolled into one. This ‘band in a box’ mentality altered the way we consumed music. Carrie Brownstein, writing for NPR says “as exciting, democratizing and demystifying as a more global and decentralized music industry is, this bottomless sonic stew also means that we’ve largely divorced artists from place, history and physicality.”
In the old days, you would hold a CD in your hand, lie on your bed and pour over the details. It was a physical connection that carried with it a certain emotional and financial investment. By comparison, albums are now downloaded in bulk, fed into a normaliser and lost in the shuffle. Carrie argues that when music is stripped of context, it’s also stripped of artist intention. “We don’t care about album sequence (which is all about intention) or look at the band’s artwork or the label they’re on (again, all intentional decisions)…because as music fans — as consumers — there is nothing more appealing than something that is boundless. Therefore, we don’t really care what an artist’s intention is as long as his or her product is accessible to us.”
And so we relax our ideas of ‘artistic purity’ as we relax our belts from the glut of free music and movies we’ll never have time to digest. It’s little wonder we’re unfazed to hear Broken Social Scene in a Cadbury Commercial. Ads are just another form of airplay, and we’re happy to engage with them – the effort of searching the lyrics is investment enough. In 2007 Feist leant her song to a campaign for ipod Nano. The ad featured the official music video playing on an ipod. For the first time the artist and product were promoted side by side. (Co-promotion is common in films.) Purists got that syncing feeling while screenagers had an Apple bobbing party. Sales of ‘1234’ went from 2000 to 73, 000 in a week. In the media there was little protest, just praise for Australia’s Sally Seltmann who penned the track.
Rather than selling out, the new marketing model is “Buying In,” as explained in the book by Rob Walker: “Instead of being manipulated by marketing, consumers are using it to their advantage; and instead of being shaped by products, consumers are using them to express individual identity and social outlook.” In this design obsessed decade, brands like Apple and American Apparel model their products as ‘artworks.’ Purchases become ‘lifestyle choices’ that we can then promote on Facebook. On a network where friendships are commodified, songs are just another accessory to decorate our profiles and bolster our status.
Inspired by Morgan Spurlocks ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’, Melbourne anti-folk artist Giles Field recently attempted to find product placement for his new album. He contacted local beer companies, pitching ad-space in exchange for funding.
“The idea was to place a radio style ad in the middle of the album and also sell the rights to the band name. So it would be Giles Field and the Mountain Goat Beers.” Despite his best efforts, Giles found his lack of profile made it hard to attract backers. “I got to the point where I figured I didn’t need to sell out for a high figure. I emailed Mountain Goat and said ‘I’m willing to be called Giles Field and Mountain Goat Beers for four beers,’ but they didn’t write back.”
While Giles’ case is exaggerated, it is indicative of today’s climate. Lead singer of one band I spoke to said, “We wish we could sell out.” Music publishing has become a lucrative and practical form of income, especially in a country where small population makes it near impossible to sustain a career on sales alone. Says Giles: “I would sell out in a heartbeat. I don’t see a problem with it. The only way music can really be art is if you write a song in your bedroom and show it to no-one. As soon as you’re asking people to pay money to come and watch you, as soon as any money is exchanging hands, that’s selling out for me. I don’t have a problem with that. The thing that people spend time on in their lives, you should get money for it. You don’t expect a teacher to teach for no money. I’m a musician, I expect to be paid for it.”
What would Bill Hicks make of all this? Would he get behind Converse’s Three Artists: One Song campaign? Would he mind The Clash leasing London Calling to British Airways? His message hasn’t mellowed with age: “You’re another corporate fucking shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang bang and if you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.”