What’s a Sellout? Art and Commerce, Now vs. Then

Once upon a time, the careers of two highly respected, hard working underground bands, the Long Ryders and the Del Fuegos, were destroyed by one decision. Their offense? They did a commercial for Miller Beer. It’s hard to believe nowadays, in an age where scoring a commercial is a potential career-maker. It certainly doesn’t send bands’ fans into a debate over whether it equates to “selling out”.

But back in the mid-‘80s it sure did.

Judge for yourself: to a backing of them singing a Miller jingle, Los Angeles’ highly respected Long Ryders say, “We’re trying to make music with integrity.”

The Long Ryders were thereafter knows as “The Schlong Ryders”. Their careers were essentially over.

Boston band the Del Fuegos suffered a similar fate. Watch as they innocently sit around talking about music and offer up, “If you’re not honest about it, people can sense it. Rock and roll is folk music pretty much. ‘Cos it’s for folks.”

To both bands’ fans, it was an affront and betrayal. Critics had a field day. Spin magazine ran a scathing story, eviscerating bands like the Long Ryders, the Del Fuegos and the other two bands Miller signed on for commercials, the Cruzados and the db’s, for “selling out.”

Long Ryders’ guitarist Sid Griffin: “People felt, when all is said and done, that, how can this band, the Long Ryders, be these hip, cutting edge guys, rebellious, and have songs that are anti-war and questioning this and that and sign up to a big American corporation? And that’s a really good question to ask. And the answer is: we needed the money.”

Long Ryders’ drummer Greg Sowders: “Now, everybody sponsors everything. You know Vans presents the Warped Tour. Punk rock bands have sponsorships. It’s not what it used to be. But at the time, I think some of our fans felt betrayed. And, you know, we had been critic’s darlings for quite a few years, it was time for them to turn on us.”

The Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, who took a lot of heat for being one of the first underground bands to sign to a major label said at the time: “I would rather a band do a commercial, so they could pay their rent, and then have the freedom to make the music they want to make. I just thought it was so obvious. I mean most bands sell out by co-opting their music to please a record label. That’s selling out, when you try to write a hit or write a single. You’re selling out when you bring in a producer you don’t want to work with, or when you make a record that you don’t believe in because it’s what the label wants. That’s selling out. Taking X amount of money so you all can pay the rent and go back to the record label and say, “We do it our way, or you’re going to have to drop us.” That’s integrity.”

That was a very forward-looking view, and pretty much exactly how bands justify doing a commercial now, but in the ‘80s, things were very different.

Shortly after the outcry over the Long Ryders and Del Fuegos did Miller Beer commercials, my band Divine Weeks was offered a cameo in a party scene of a movie. The director told us we had to cut our hair and dress in full ‘60s psychedelic regalia. We passed. Certainly the flack over the Miller Beer commercial played a part in our decision, but there were other factors. We were trying to distance ourselves from any ‘60s affiliation and establish our own image separate and apart from the Paisley Underground movement in L.A. On balance, telling people we turned the part down and why had more value than whatever commercial gain we may have gotten from appearing in the movie.

Looking back, was our decision rash? Maybe. Would we do the movie or a commercial in today’s landscape? Depends. If it, in some way, cheapened the song then no. I still believe it’s crucial for a young band to make smart decisions when partnering a song with a product. Because that’s what it is. You are marrying something precious you made to a product.

In the last 10 years, bands like Vampire Weekend have found massive success teaming up with Sprint; Neon Trees with the City of Las Vegas; Phoenix with Cadillac and Grizzly Bear with Volkswagen. That only scratches the surface. You can’t turn on the TV without getting the feeling ad writers and TV show producers are playing an elaborate game of one-upmanship, daring each other to find the coolest obscure indie song to drop into a commercial or show. These days, appearing in an Apple commercial is like a book getting mentioned on Oprah. Instant success.

It’s not just commercials and TV shows. Retailers now want tailored music mixes to enhance the brand experience. Hot Topic and Starbucks pipe into their stores carefully chosen songs which marketing department heads hope will appeal to their chain’s audience. A shopper in the store can find out what’s playing from an electronic box that lists the artist and song.

So why do Vampire Weekend, Neon Trees and Grizzly Bear get a free pass and the Long Ryders and Del Fuegos’ got destroyed?

Theories abound. Let’s start with the psychobabble:

Eighties underground fans, press and the bands themselves were Gen Xers, groomed on a suspicion of all things corporate or inauthentic: Don’t trust “the man”.

Of course, background-check the majority of the most influential underground bands of the 80s, and you’ll find most were middle class, went to college, and weren’t exactly rags to riches stories. Still, legitimacy and street cred were essential, so there was a certain guilt factor over not having suffered. Having a vigilant single-mindedness about artistic integrity was a way to make up for not having grown up in sufficiently wretched circumstances. The entire underground scene lived by that.

Juxtapose that attitude with hip hoppers’ up-from-the-streets ethos—the idea that material wealth is something to be proud of and flaunted. Hip hoppers never wanted for street cred. For underground bands, street cred was everything. Considering that hip-hop has been the dominant form of pop music for more than a decade, it’s no wonder today’s consumer is indifferent to cries of “Sellout!” from the peanut gallery.

It’s a new generation of consumers who have reconciled the quandary of working for “the man”. Gen Xers are no longer the primary music buyers. Kids today see nothing particularly sinful about working within the system to achieve success. Ask what their reaction is to seeing a Black Keys song in a Victoria Secret ad and they’ll tell you, “Um, I downloaded it.”

In the ‘80s, a significant chasm existed between the mainstream and the underground. Back then, music was controlled by only a handful of people – major labels, AOR radio, and MTV. College rock, as it was known at the time because college radio was virtually the only place you’d hear that music, was a very possessive, insular lot governed by the bands’ fans and a small, cliquish underground press. It was like a check-and-balance system to keep everyone’s egos in line. It was ALL about a band’s body of work and its career arc. Fans and rock critics became heavily invested in bands like the Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth and the Smiths, and were hyper-protective to the point of self righteousness about those bands’ every move.

But in the ‘90s, with FCC deregulating media, leading to the rise of behemoth entertainment conglomerates, people forgot that record companies were beholden to radio, who were beholden to advertisers. Radio stations started to hone in on only a snippet of a song. Radio would go back to labels and say, “Your music didn’t test well” and ask bands what else they had. So it really became the search for THE SONG. Not a body of work. “What’s that song?” Not WHO does that song. We don’t care about a band’s career anymore. What we care about is hunting and gathering. We’ve got to have it. Not much different than the search to find the shades or shoes you saw Angelina Jolie wear in her latest movie. Gotta have it.

Digitizing music and file sharing was the response of people fed up with paying $20 that record companies were trying to get people to pay for a CD with only one decent song. Now we’re at a point where the art of the album and artist development has been rendered moot.

I asked my 16-year-old daughter if she cares more about bands or songs. Duh, songs, of course.

There was a reason we invested heavily in music and in bands back in the day. It felt like our music because we were buying it. A decade plus of illegal downloading has created an environment where no one feels like it’s their music because it’s been pilfered. People can say they don’t feel guilty about stealing music, and I’m not going there, but my guess is people are less inclined to condemn a band for selling its songs because they’ve been stealing it their whole lives.

At this point, who can begrudge indie bands for taking advantage of every opportunity they can get? Bands have been screwed out of royalties and publishing payments for eons. The chance of getting played on commercial radio now is a pipedream at best. An argument can be made that placement in a commercial or TV show is the new radio.

But for a band whose image and style and ideals are not firmly established yet, it can be a dicey decision as to what products you lend your songs to. It’s one thing to have your song appear in a commercial to showcase your music. It’s another for Of Montreal to let Outback Steakhouse bastardize the lyrics to their song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist” to suit the steakhouse.

I’d like to see more examples like the Thermals turning down $50,000 offered by Hummer to use their song because of their feelings about Hummers. Apples in Stereo have a policy of not working with anything that promotes cigarettes, alcohol, leather, meat or the military. The Walkmen turned down the Gap because the proposed commercial emphasized the band’s image and very little of their music. Kings of Leon refused to let their song “Love Somebody” be used in “Glee” because the song had been oversaturated. Gnarls Barkely initially turned down commercial offers, but now have the cache to demand to be part of the creative process of putting the ad together so they’re comfortable with the content. Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü and Sugar) turned down many offers, but felt comfortable licensing “See a Little Light” to TIAA-CREF because they service the creative community.

I’m a Gen Xer so I know it’s a generational thing. I’m still getting over Pete Townshend’s decision to sell “Bargain” (a paean to God for crying out loud!) to a Nissan Pathfinder commercial. Sounded like a penny pincher’s theme song: “They call it a bargain, the best I ever had.”

Fortunately, there’s still some sanity out there. Randy Bachman, thankfully, turned down an offer from a toilet paper company to use “Takin’ Care of Business”(!) and Johnny Cash’s family blocked Preparation H from using “Ring of Fire”(!!). Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes had to sue his own band member, Gordon Gano, for letting Wendy’s use their song “Blister in the Sun.” What possessed Wendy’s to put a song about masturbation over a shot of processed cheese being slowly poured on a baked potato is beyond me.

I’m getting more used to it now. I mean, who could begrudge the ever venerable Paul Westerberg for letting Payless use “Mr. Rabbit”? Here’s a guy who fought the good fight for 25 years and never licked a boot or sold out his ideals once. God bless him, hope he got paid well.

Bill See is a longtime indie musician who toured extensively with his band, Divine Weeks. He is the author of 33 Days: Touring in a Van. Sleeping on Floors. Chasing a Dream.