For indie bands, ‘selling out’ is buying in

For indie bands, ‘selling out’ is buying in

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The Coathangers. (Scott Montaya/Courtesy of The Coathangers)

In an October interview with Spin Magazine, the indie pop duo Cults expressed gratitude for their cushy deal at Columbia Records, and guitarist Brian Oblivion said that indie labels were bad for bands.

According to Oblivian, his premier label is full of “smart people…really cool and professional, not druggy party people like so many people in the industry.” 

“A lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them,” he said, but either considerately or elusively, he does not name names. 

Oblivion also criticizes today’s pop radio as a “crazy pipe dream” and a “seedy business,” longing for the pre-Internet days of payola, the now illegal practice of record companies paying radio stations and DJs to play their bands’ songs on constant rotation.

“The radio was way better when people where paying to get stuff on there,” Oblivion said.

Tensions in the music industry spiked again a couple of weeks ago when GoldieBlox, a San Francisco-area startup that makes toys and games designed to encourage girls to learn about science and technology, preemptively sued the famed alternative hip-hop group Beastie Boys for the right to use a parody version of the 1986 song “Girls” in a commercial. 

GoldieBlox had released a video advertisement that went viral, based both on the creativity of its Rube Goldberg-style concept and its clever twist on the song’s originally misogynistic lyrics (for which the Beastie Boys would eventually atone through their shift to feminism in the mid-90s) to comment on gender stereotypes.

When the members of Beastie Boys found out about the video, they released a firmly-worded open letter to the company. Goldieblox agreed to drop the lawsuit shortly thereafter. 

A portion of that letter, which also congratulates GoldieBlox on the video’s innovation and empowering message to young girls, reads:

“As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.”

All of this bruhaha got me thinking about the suspect morality (or perhaps, pretension) surrounding the refusal to “sell out” in the music industry, and whether that code is now of a bygone era—outdated, at times regressive, and very rarely upheld today. 

Do other millennial indie bands agree with Oblivion’s sentiments, that payola is good and indie labels are damaging? I can no longer erase the memory of Bob Dylan in a Victoria Secret commercial from my brain (in 1965, Dylan told a reporter that if he ever sold out to commercial interest, it would be for “ladies garments”—ugh) and so I wonder further still: is money always the bottom line?

Do some bands still fight for artistic integrity over commercialism, or have more of them simply come to understand that realism (hey, a band’s gotta eat) can also be a more clearly-paved pathway to their own kind of success? 

I asked a few rising artists from Chicago and beyond to weigh in and to share what “success” in the music business means to them. Here’s what they had to say.

The Coathangers (Atlanta)

On goals and success:

“The ultimate goal for our band and our music is to simply create original and meaningful art, to create a sound that is our own that will stand the test of time. We would love to be the band that in 20 years someone at a party or wherever picks up our album and freaks out, to create music that people can connect with and relate to and go crazy to, etc. 

“Success to us is, again, creating a form of music that means something. We feel we have already been successful, simply because we have been able to share our music all over the world and have experienced so many amazing people, places, and things. Our fans really appreciate what we do and support us in boundless ways. If we make a little moolah or get on Conan; that’s just an added bonus, really. There is no grand finish line to us when it comes to being ‘successful.‘”

On indie labels:

“As far as indie labels are concerned, we love ours! Suicide Squeeze Records has taken us to the next plateau, pushing our band to its fullest. As far as other indie labels, we think they can be similar in aiding bands to take it to the next level, like helping with scoring a great booking agency, publicity, etc. Labels like Burger Records, Goner, Sub Pop, etc. seem to be helpful to the indie scene to us… but hey, what do we know? Ha.”

On selling out:

“Selling out? More like buying in! We think if our music was used in a certain commercial, it would be fine. I mean, why the hell not? We don’t make music to whore it out to corporate America or anything, but we think people can be a bit too serious when it comes to the whole ‘selling out’ idea. I mean, just do what makes you happy and enjoy the ride.”

Pet Lions (Chicago)
Pet Lions. (David Elliot/Courtesy of Pet Lions)

On indie labels:

“Indie labels give exposure and funding to artists that major labels might never pay attention to. More often than not, I think indie labels are putting out more interesting music, because they like that music and they’re willing to take a chance on it. Of course, they still want to sell records; but I think there’s less concern about everyone and anyone liking their releases.”

On selling out:

“We’ve had our music used in a commercial and definitely would again. For an unsigned band like us, the money from licensing our music is what has allowed us to record without paying out of our pockets. We don’t have a record deal, and we’re not making much money elsewhere. If someone wants to pay us to use a song we would have made anyway, I see it more as them ‘buying in’ rather than us ‘selling out.’ If a band is making music specifically with car commercials in mind, then that’s a little different. And I’d never rule out signing to a major. I’d just be wary of what we might be compromising.”

“If this had been a standing rule for us (never allowing our music to be used to sell a product), then yeah, I’d probably stick to it. In this instance [with GoldieBlox], it sounds like the Beastie Boys song was used and edited without their permission, which I wouldn’t be okay with either.

“The landscape is very different from when Beastie Boys probably put that rule in place for themselves. They’ve also made tons of money already, so it’s a bit easier for them to stick to it. I get that it provides perspective for how much the industry has changed, but I’m not sure how fair it is to compare the approach of current bands to that of bands that existed profitably before the Internet.”

Japanther. (Courtesy of Japanther)
Ian Vanek of Japanther (Brooklyn)

On the Cults interview and payola:

“I think Oblivian’s blanket statements makes him sound jaded, privileged and ignorant. Payola still exists in 2014; it just changed its costume. Just ask Macklemore. It all comes down to your definition of success. He wanted his message on the radio; and guess what, now it is. If you want to spend months in an expensive studio making bland songs, go ahead. If you want to reminisce about back in the day and make slick disco tracks, go ahead. To me, that’s not success. Japanther strives to connect with our audience, through independent zines, DIY shows, and small labels.

“Conversely, we also hang our work in some of the most prestigious museums in the world. Pop radio isn’t my dream, because I feel what we already have is much greater than that. We fought to own our publishing rights, but we are hawks about where the synchs end up. For example, we are proud to be a part of Grand Theft Auto, but turned down a lucrative alcohol commercial.”

On GoldieBlox vs. Beastie Boys:

“Funny how we highlight the stands we want and ignore the sexism at the core of early Beastie Boys. So, f*ck their moral high ground. Like I said, as long as the artist owns the publishing, and actually works it, it’s none of my business.”

Panda Riot (Chicago)
Panda Riot. (Kerri Hacker/Courtesy of Panda Riot)

On the Cults interview and payola:

“The Cults interview is interesting. I think they are right that, as counterintuitive as it sounds, payola might be a more fair system than what we currently have, which is a much more insidious and expensive pay to play scheme. It’s definitely true that there are a lot of sleazy companies out there whose sole purpose is to make money off of people’s dreams.”

“Everyone knows that you have to spend money to get a lot of exposure. So, bands will pay someone who promises to promote them and book shows for them; but then if the band doesn’t ‘make it,’ the company can attribute it to the music not being popular enough, and not to the fact that they didn’t do their job. At least with payola, you know where the money is going. If the reason for dismantling payola was to level the playing field and take money out of the equation, why are the only bands on the radio major label bands with a lot of money?”

On goals and success:

“We definitely don’t think of success as making money or being famous. But for us, success has two components: creating exactly the music that we want without compromise, and having our music reach lots of people. As for making the music that we want, an integral part of what we do involves taking money out of the equation as much as possible.”

“We don’t want to have to worry about owing money to a label or the cost of studio time, so we push our DIY aesthetic as far as we can and do everything ourselves: write, record, mix, master, make videos, design the album art, etc. The only thing that we can’t do ourselves without money is promotion. You can make the best music in the world; but if nobody knows about it, they can’t listen to it and [can’t] buy it.”

On GoldieBlox vs. Beastie Boys:

“We are split. We think it is important for artists to get paid for their work, and we worry that with services like Pandora and Spotify, artists are getting paid less and less for what they create. But the way that the GoldieBlox ad subverts the sexism of the Beastie Boys song is hard not to like.”

Blackstone Rangers. (Courtesy of Blackstone Rangers)
Derek Kutzer of Blackstone Rangers (Dallas)

On indie labels:

“I think there are plenty of independent labels that are still functioning under the old ethical parameters of what it means to be indie. They have a direct love of the music they put out and forge personal relationships with the bands they sign. Captured Tracks and Slumberland seem to be good examples of this, as is our label, Saint Marie Records.”

“We deal directly with the owner of our label in all matters. He is a huge fan of our music, and is in the industry as much out of a desire for good, honest art as he is a desire to make a profit. It seems that the indie labels that Cults mentioned exist on a larger plane than what we have dealt with. We feel that in our case, the relationship between label and band is solid and meaningful. Cults has probably seen a world that we have not seen, so I’m not doubting their experience. We just haven’t shared it.”

On selling out:

“Ultimately, I think the perception of a band ‘selling-out’ is largely in the mind of music fans and consumers, and it actually says more about those fans and consumers than it does about the band itself. This is not to say that a band can never make a stupid, greedy decision. They do it all the time. But, in the end, a band knows what it needs and what it wants more than a fan.”

“As musicians, we’d all love to quit our day jobs, and make money doing what we love. If an artist ‘sells out,’ per say, it’s more likely that they have always wanted to get to that level than it is that they pulled a fast one on everybody. Fans should be a little more careful not to hold artists up on such a high pedestal. We are humans, too, with human needs, and human wants. And we live in a capitalist, consumerist world where music competes in a fierce market place, and it doesn’t always benefit the basic needs of the musician. We are all trying to get ahead and climb to that next step. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But I do think that ethics should be involved. If you go around railing against air pollution and environmental destruction, while you license your music to be used in a gas guzzling SUV commercial or to an oil company known to pollute the ocean or something, there’s really a lot wrong about that. But, still, it’s likely that that band has always been wishy-washy about what they really stand for. I would have no problem licensing my music out to promote something that I could stand by, but I’d draw a line. In the case of Beastie Boys, they chose to never license their music for commercial purposes. I respect that. But, as a financially poor musician, I could use a little break.”

On goals and success:

“Honestly, we’d just like to do music as a profession; to not have to have a day job to support our artistic endeavors. We hope that one day soon, we’ll be able to live off of our craft.

We find success in little things: a fan coming up after a show saying how amazing the experience was for him or her, selling a T-shirt to a glowing kid, being asked by a band we really like to play a show with them, and things like that. We don’t think about playing stadiums or anything grand. We take it one step at a time. One show at a time. One record at a time. One good review at a time. And so on. We’d just like to make a living off of our music.”

Mish Way of White Lung (Vancouver)

White Lung. (Kate Brown/Courtesy of White Lung)

On defining success:

“This is a really interesting question; because, depending on when you asks an artist this, the answer will never be the same. I was speaking to my friend Steve McBean [of Black Mountain] about this. He pointed out how when you start playing in a punk band your goals are simple: write a bunch of songs, play with bands you like, and maybe make a 7-inch or do a small tour. That was always kind of my goal when White Lung started; I just wanted to play because it is the best feeling. It’s just so fun. I can’t not play. Then, when people start to care, you have expectations; so your goals change. But its not calculated or anything, no chalk board bullet points. You just keep trying, chugging along, pushing yourself. I think competition between peers and friends is ugly. I only compete with myself. My definition of ‘success’ changes as things evolve around me; but ultimately, getting by doing a job I love doing more than anything else (writing and music) is pretty good. But I’m always hungry. I naturally want to out-do myself.”

Leah Pickett writes about art and pop culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @leahkpickett.