Sold Out for Nothing
I always love talking to other music heads about the issue of "selling out." Aerosmith totally sold out, probably more times than we know, and this year they really out did themselves. They recorded a "Patriot's Pepsi anthem."
That one is a pretty obvious sell-out, but I get it. Those dudes are getting old, and they have big Ferrari bills to pay. Too bad the Pats didn't make the Super Bowl, so they could milk a few more dollars out of that song. I wonder how many week's supply of hookers and blow that earned for ole' Stephen Tyler?
Selling out is so relative. Some guys are getting fat checks to write jingles for bubbly sugar water and sports teams, while others are getting tiny checks to sit in the corner of a fish house and pretend to be Jimmy Buffet.
So, that's my question: is it still selling out if it's barely any money at all? Is there an amount of money that constitutes selling out? Does the money even matter? Or is it more about what you do, and what is still respectable? How do you get your music money, and can fans still accept you in the morning after?
Would people still think NIN was cool if they found out that Trent Reznor's first gigs were Boy George tributes at a Holiday Inn?
I'm talking about the little guys. The upstarts. The musicians down here on the street, just trying to get by. Keep on keeping on. Music is an expensive habit to support, and we all got bills to pay. As long as I can keep going, just keep doing my thing playing and writing songs. Plugging away in smoky dives, it's just another day in the office babysitting a bunch of old drunks. It beats a real job. Or does it?
Is it more of a sell out to get a real 9-5 pushing paper than it is to put on a Hawaiian shirt and play ukelele on Saturday nights? Maybe do some "Brown Eyed Girl" at the beach bar for a couple hundred bucks?
The whole point for the musical artist is being able to write and record and create new music and new art, and there's a moment of validation when you finally get your bills paid as a professional musician. At the end of the week I think to myself, all I had to do is play guitar, and the rent is paid. That is freakin' badass. Is it even possible to sell out when you finally just crossed that threshold into being a full-time professional? What point do you cross the line even as a little guy?
I've done local TV commercials for fish houses and news spots at beach bars. It wasn't how I would prefer to present myself as an artist. But you get what comes to you. If I had my way, I would play on the Daily Show, but Jon Stewart hasn't called me yet... For the most part, so much of it is beyond our control. You can only play the gigs that are offered, and people hire you for specific purposes. It is very rare to find a venue that will guarantee you a fair amount of money, while at the same time allowing you complete creative freedom.
It's always strange thinking about music in that business sense. It's an emotional art form for me and very personal. The sounds just burst out in creative fits, but most patrons or benefactors, promoters and venue owners don't see it that way. They just see "products" that are purchased in markets or corporate themes and aesthetics. How I look is just an image or brand that people either identify with, or they don't. In the latter, they'll say it's weird or cheesy or a style for old people or hippies.
"We've decided to go in a different direction" or "I don't think you would be the right fit for our crowd" or "The indie psych-folk is really catching ground in the South East regional markets" or "We're looking for something more along the lines of Adult Contemporary Pop." It dwindles the whole art form and expression into the most superficial relationship of consumers and products. Don't people care about unique ideas? Innovation? Emotion?
The truth is, I don't really want to ask people for money, so that they can hear me play music. I want to enjoy life and express myself and my unique perspective of the human experience. I would share my music with anyone freely. But a man's got to pay his bills, and put a roof overhead, so there's a dilemma.
So, how do you make the transition into full-time artist while maintaining your integrity? If you want to dedicate your life to your art, at some point you have to get paid for it. Or else you'll just be a bum, and you won't be able to afford the tools of the trade. Can't afford that studio time, that new guitar... Even in the new reality of prolific recording technology and digital media, microphones cost money, domain names, server space, cameras, graphic designs, computers and programs, applications, gas and transportation, rent...
I don't really have an answer for what constitutes selling out. Maybe there isn't one. It's usually just a gut feeling response to the question of "am I ok with that?"
It's like anything that people do for money: what is your definition of integrity, and how much is it worth to you?