Saturday, December 27, 2008

Welcome to the Post Sell Out World

In case you missed it, Jon Pareles writes a great article in the New York Times titled 'Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan' (12/24/08).

In it Pareles notes the increasing phenomenon of artists aligning with brands. It is a trend which produces conflicted feelings in the author. For even as Pareles laments the reality of musicians actively (and some would say shamelessly) seeking out corporate sponsors, he simultaneously accepts the situation, if only because the circumstance is now so blatantly manifest. There's just no going back.

Early in the article Pareles acknowledges:

"I know — time for me to get over it. After all, this is the reality of the 21st-century music business. Selling recordings to consumers as inexpensive artworks to be appreciated for their own sake is a much-diminished enterprise now that free copies multiply across the Web.”

I've shared Pareles' pain, but personally I am over it. So, Welcome to the Post Sell Out World, I guess. What I mean by that, is not that we –this consumer society– has suddenly abandoned its core principals, but that, like 'copyright', we understand its time to change the definition of 'selling out'.

It may still include entering into a contract that commits one to executing actions one would not do otherwise simply for the sake of getting rich. But it does not include a co-branding agreement where all parties entered into the agreement benefit mutually.

It's ironic, but by the this standard, artists of yesteryear who knowingly signed a draconian major label contract simply in order to satisfy a lust for fame and celebrity are the sell outs. But an independent artist who enters and agreement with a fashion house in order to produce an exclusive line of branded apparel is not.

On a micro level, I went through my own struggle with the issue of selling out when I started producing music for commercials in the early nineties. It sounds hilarious now, but in 1994, I was really just trying to come to terms with the fact that I was using a potentially 'God Given Talent' to sell French fries.

Oh dear, the moral dilemma.

And as hip and cool as it sounds to some, to have a career where people making million dollar videos are asking you what kind of music should adorn their moving image, producing music and sound design for TV commercials was not what I was thinking when I was honing my songwriting and composition skills as a kid.

But maybe, identifying the 'right' sound for a specific utilitarian use was in fact my real 'God Given' talent. Cause no one was banging down the door for my songs, but I was very good at using music to influence the purchasing habits of millions of people around the world.

Good? Evil? Maybe beyond good and evil. Anyway, I did enjoy what I was doing.

Fast forward to the present and today I primarily work with artists hip to personal branding and are trying to figure out ways to use both traditional and new social media in order to build and sustain their careers. I've hopped the fence from advertising into entertainment, but -initially surprising– the landscape is still very much the same.

If Pareles overlooks anything in his article, it's that pop music was ever appreciated for its own sake. Or maybe it was, but if it got recorded, released, promoted and distributed, someone somewhere was trying to make money.

There's also big difference between 1969 and now. Forty years ago music provided the score to a generation and a movement. Because culture is intangible, the music only appeared to exist in its own right. But it never did, it was fueled by –one might even say 'carried by'– youthful energy hungry for broad cultural change.

At the time, even the most melodic Beatles tunes sounded like noise to Bing Crosby fans, and even the most inanely conceived and dumbest pop tune seemed inherently capable of stoking the fires of revolution. But today, once rebellious rock songs sound just limp enough to be included on the playlist at at your local supermarket. And the same people who once disdained the rock sound are now singing Michelle ma belle all the way to and from their bridge games or the shuffle board deck.

It's both funny and interesting how tastes not only change, given time, but the way we listen, and what we actually hear, can simply transform reality.

And the new reality is that rock has gone mainstream. Having done so, it's become the voice of the establishment. No surprise then that if you're in the business of selling rock'n'roll in the new millennium, then you're going to have to figure out a way to distribute your creative assets to the Man.

So, the real question now is not whether mixing art and commerce is evil –romantics will still lament– but simply: If one is an artist, and knowing the history of advantage traditional business entities have had over artists, just how does one navigate the capitalist construct without getting taken stepping on a metaphorical land mine, just because, say, you have an MFA instead of an MBA, so to speak.


Ty said...

Musicians are looking for ways to monetize their music, especially since the advent of digital (free) downloads and torrents.

Labels are just greedy, and having a label commercialize an Artist - no good will become of it.

As a musician getting back into music after a long absence, I can tell you that musicians today have the tools to reach audiences they never dreamed of, however that takes patience and most of all diligence.

Terry O'Gara said...

Thanks for the great comment, Ty. It's a bit interesting, isn't it, how technology is upending everything. Although I don't think all people at all labels are greedy, just like not all musicians are starved for celebrity. I may be wrong about the last bit (ha ha). Seriously though, Ravi Coltrane's boutique label RKM is one example of a label getting it right. Of course, it's indie! For readers not familiar with Ty, check out his own fantastically interesting blog which documents his personal journey through music and this amorphous thing we call production. It's @