How to Build a Music Career When You’re Afraid of Selling Out

I was at a show a few weeks ago and was in awe of one of the musicians. Her lyrics were thought provoking, her guitar playing impeccable, and her stage presence forced you to pay attention to what she had to say.

Naturally, after the show I went up to her and explained how much I loved her set. Bashful when not behind a guitar, she thanked me. Then the moment happened: I asked her for a CD to take home with me.

“Oh, I don’t have any merch,” she explained. “And my songs aren’t really on streaming things. I don’t want to be a sellout.”

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. But this conversation has been rolling around inside my head for weeks. I want to talk about it today.

Urban Dictionary describes a sellout as a person who compromises their artistic integrity in an effort to become more successful or popular. What is interesting, is that here we can see how this is applied directly to music “(generally in music)”. Why is it that musicians are under such target for selling out?

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Music is a strange world. When other people are successful people are excited for them. But music seems to have this notion that in order to remain a true musician, you can’t make money.

So how is a musician allowed to be successful under these terms?

And why do musicians have such a fear of selling out, anyway?

History of Music and Sellouts

Time for a little dive into history. The use of the word in application of artistic vision vs money can be traced back to good ole Shakespeare in his Sonnet 110, “Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view/ Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear”. Throughout the years, it was used intermittently to describe politics, businesses and corporations, but never truly focused on musicians.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of the word sellout began to be applied to musicians during an interception of politics and music. Some suggest that it was first used by black audiences claiming that musicians were making gospel and jazz more appealing to white audiences. Jazz critic Doug Ramsey wrote, “Cannonball [Adderley, jazz saxophonist] was subjected to the standard abuse of jazz artists who win public acceptance; he was called a sellout. Show me a solvent jazz band and I’ll show you a band accused of selling out.”

Another sellout moment of musical history happened with Bob Dylan as he moved from acoustic to electric. When asked about it in 1965, Dylan said he had been called everything from a “sellout, fink, fascist, and Red”.

 By the 1980s, the word had become so used in pop culture that it was described not just in casual conversation, but even in print to not only living musicians of various genres and styles, but even applied retroactively to musicians like Tchaikovsky.

The peak of the word happened in the 1990s. The underground music scenes of rock and hip hop being subjected to the word most often. Kurt Cobain described how he could understand a 17-year old’s perception of his “selling out” but also commented that perhaps when those same kids grew up, they could understand that there is more to life than living the rock and roll righteously.

For several decades, musicians had to balance their monetary success with the perception of their authenticity.

Nowadays, it is hard to be a full-time musician. Streaming has decreased sales. Record labels want to pick up artists who are already fully established, thus negating their effectiveness of raising musicians. The music world is also very (very) competitive, where others get promoted and picked up not for musical talents but for personal relationships.

So how is a musician to navigate this changing world of music, keeping their vision, not selling out, and yet making a paycheck to be able to live and work on music full time?

The answer lies in research and knowledge.

How Not to Be a Sellout

As musicians, we have power in who we choose to work with and why we work with them. Research companies and businesses. If you are receiving grants, working with a printing company, or online music distributor, research the company! Find out where they stand on issues. If they don’t have that readily available online, send them an email! Find out where they stand on topics that matter most to you as an artist.

When you do find out and their ideals match up with your own, congratulations! You are now incapable of being a sellout! You are working with companies that have the same moral compass as you and in working together, you are serving your artistic vision and AT THE SAME TIME you are able to put food on the table and pay rent.

If you discover that the company has ideals that don’t match up, then you walk away. The wonderful thing about the internet is that the ability to discover new companies to do similar jobs is easier than ever. And congratulations, you are now able to say that you are NOT a sell out because you put your artistic morals above making money.

Finally, to answer this question, I say this.

Having a person call you a sellout is oftentimes not a reflection of you or your music at all. Rather, it is a gesture of vanity of the one doing the accusing, seemingly coming from a place of higher moral ground, being ideologically pure with undertones of being deemed more “cool” than you.

If anyone calls you a sellout, ask them if they refused their paycheck last week. Have they ever stormed back into HR and demanded that they take this money back because you are working a job for the love and passion you have? And ask if that bonus they received last year went directly to a charity and they didn’t take one cent because they were doing something purely for the artistic vision.

That is crazy.

We don’t punish others for doing their jobs and then saying that because they love teaching so much, they shouldn’t accept a paycheck.

There is nothing wrong with making money from your music if you provide great value and work with companies that you agree with. We all need to make money to live and pay the bills. So why not make that money doing something you love?

This week, I want to leave you with this: A selling artist is not a sell out musician.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you agree or disagree that musicians who make money are sell outs? And does the term still matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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