What is the nature of art’s relationship with commerce? Whoa – that’s a big question. Even if I don’t answer it fully in this post, I’d like to swim around in the issue for a bit. And where should we dive in, dear reader? Why not with a comment on the matter so spectacularly wrong as to be a photo negative of insightful commentary?
The ungracefully named Hamilton Nolan wrote a piece for Gawker on art and commerce. In it, Nolan decries the demise of a pop culture concept supposedly retired too soon: selling out. The claim goes that in the halcyon days of yore, the general populace evaluated musicians not only on the aesthetics of their work, but also the business model with which said work was coupled. Should a musician lease the rights of their recordings to companies who wanted the music disseminated in the context of advertising campaigns, the public (all of us, in one grand chorus) would censure the musician, the performer’s reputation left a smoldering husk. Now, in our ruined, nigh-apocalyptic age, we have turned our back on the tradition of scorning sellouts, and we find society diminished for it.
Nolan’s get-off-my-lawn battle cry aside, this claim suffers from fundamental misunderstandings of both the history and economics of selling out. Firstly, we consider the history; some of the most popular musical acts of the twentieth century represented commercial empires that would make the free-credit-score band blush. The Beatles weren’t hurting for advertising money when their career soared on winds of record-breaking record sales and sold out shows. Long after their bank accounts rendered them well-off, the Fab Four continued to charge fans for recordings and performances, free of public backlash (see also: the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and any multi-platinum act from 1960 to 1980). When we think of the many millions taken in by these folks, the question of whether or not car companies were involved seems a splitting of hairs.
Secondly, we consider the economics; why have product placement and television advertising emerged as important sources of revenue for musical artists? It is no coincidence that the advent of online piracy coincides with this trend. Hit performers of the late twentieth century could make the bulk of their millions from album sales and top off their income with the yield of live performances. These days, that former sales category has mostly evaporated. Popular performers have historically had deals with major record labels to expand their reach and distribute their work, but how can record companies finance such an operation (of which Nolan approves) without dabbling in alternative revenue such as advertising (of which Nolan disapproves)?
Finally, we return to history. I know, we already did that section, but that’s where we’ll find the punchline. While Nolan feels content to refer to “selling out,” in vague terms that suggest a universal culture with universal terminology, the term is, in fact, connected to a particular moment and movement. When the aforementioned Beatles rose to prominence, there was little discussion in popular media of the band’s authenticity. The pop music culture we know today, the one that would’ve pointed out their co-opting of traditionally African American musical forms and questioned the non-commercial virtue of their motives, largely didn’t exist. It was only once rock ‘n’ roll had been a behemoth in record sales for many years that fans began to question which musicians met their standards for not selling out. The classic rock era saw divisions in fandom along lines of perceived selling out, but it was the punk rock movement that represented the peak in music fans’ love of the non-commercial. Punk culture positioned itself as an opposite to disco, the more corporation-friendly genre of the time. But punk could not hold onto its free, anarchist beginnings. It, too, became popular, and young people with disposable income across the world purchased a taste for rejecting sellouts. Between fans of Led Zeppelin and fans of The Clash, an imprint was made on youth culture that would last for years.
People of Nolan’s perspective voice their frustration now because this is the point at which the lamely dubbed Generation X is being phased out of demographic-targeting strategies for the music industry. These folks were always buying art within the canyons of the corporate West, but once upon a time those corporations felt it would be profitable to cater to perceptions regarding selling out. Now, that era passes away. Whatever the musical concerns of the current 18-35 age group, selling out doesn’t seem to be one of them. And who can blame them? It was a bourgeois delusion to begin with.