Every musician or artist who has dared to put their work into the fire-pit of public consumption risks being criticized, but hopes for better. Those who end up having to work for success, to climb hand-over-fist upwards will inevitably leave a few fans behind. Fans who feel betrayed because the journey doesn’t go the way they would have hoped, or because it goes on tangents to places that are different from where they started. That’s progression, though. Art doesn’t always move in a straight line, and progression by definition means change. It’s how we ebb and flow as humans, it’s the way we live in our relationships. It’s the cadence of being alive.
Since music builds a hugely intimate relationship between the creator and their audience, the deviation from a sound, a feeling, or a genre sometimes feels like a betrayal. And if you’re looking for a knife-cut to the gut, the go-to phrase to callout a formerly favored artist is “sellout”. The implication that a person is so low-brow as to trade their integrity for some scratch is pretty vitriolic. And insults feel good to throw around if you’ve been betrayed, so why not?
I’d argue that there’s no such thing as a sellout. That’s why not.
Let’s define what we’re talking about here. A sellout is thought of as a person who has forgotten their roots, who has sacrificed their personal integrity in order to grab at some fame, fortune, or notoriety. Obviously this happens all the time. We’re all drowning in a culture of reality shows where people are falling on their dignity-swords right and left to get their name mentioned anywhere, everywhere. But I can’t believe that they are selling anything out. If that’s where they’re willing to go, that’s who they’ve been all along.
This applies to musicians as well. We all know there are Big Men in Big Suits in Big Buildings, shot-calling what they think will be next. They’re scouting and grooming, with no love or respect for the roots of any genre. There is no shortage of grabbing hands begging to be plucked up and molded by these guys. And the formulaic, nicely packaged box they put out into the world is glossy, shiny and as easy to swallow as a gel-coated sugar pill.
But those pre-fabricated sounds are not sellouts either. Again: if that’s the core, if that is their endgame, that is who they have been from the start. Their roots were not dug in anywhere, they have been untethered from the beginning. There was nothing to sellout, because it was never theirs to sell.
In fifteen years of making music, it should not be surprising to know that what I create in 2013 is going to be very different from what I did in 1998. I think it would be more startling to have not moved in any direction in that time. I look back at tracks like “It’s You, It’s Me” and it’s meaningful to me still. But if I continued to recycle that one vibe, over all this time, I’m pretty sure no one would be left listening to even weigh in on if I’d sold out or not. Not only that, but when a track is finished, it’s the end of that sentence. New paragraph.