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August 29, 2007

Defining “sell-out”

Hipsters have long argued the merits of selling records out of your trunk at dive bars versus using The Man's money to finance and distribute subversive anti-materialist rants. The recent release of the This Is Next: Indie's Biggest Hits Volume 1 compilation and a forthcoming Sonic Youth retrospective exclusive to Starbucks have thrown several gallons of diesel onto the eternal flame that is the selling out debate. But what once was a quaint attempt for trust fund kids to protect their indie cred by making sure their favorite bands would be forced to keep their day jobs now seems closer to the ravings of a lunatic captain hell-bent on going down with his ship.

Despite a ridiculous name reminiscent of epic right-wing book titles like Bernard Goldberg's Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve or John Stossel's Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media, This Is Next: Indie's Biggest Hits Volume 1 is a nondescript mixtape of perfectly reputable songs by artists that are indie either in actuality (Ted Leo, M. Ward, Deerhoof) or in spirit (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sonic Youth, Cold War Kids). It was assembled by a consortium of independent and major boutique labels who will each share in the profits, and MTV2's Subterranean – AKA the tattered remains of 120 Minutes – will air advertisements for the disc. Vice Records label manager Adam Shore said in an interview that "the focus is going to be Wal-Marts, big box stores, red states, and TV advertising – to really go beyond... We don't really expect indie rock stores to support this record. It's for the casual fan." In other words, it's targeted at kids like me who grew up in small towns with no college radio stations, no indie record stores and no way to experience underground music. Hopefully they'll catch a video on MTV, buy the compilation, move to Williamsburg and spend their days collecting Volcano Suns b-sides.

Sure, the idea for the whole thing is a little far-fetched, but who cares? All that can possibly come of this is some people discovering music that they wouldn't have heard otherwise and a few cash-strapped labels making a little money in the process. M. Ward's "Chinese Translation" and Cat Power's "Lived In Bars" are old news for music nerds, but hearing them for the first time may change the tastes of a kid in Wyoming or Arkansas forever. And independent labels desperately need a sales boost. Though new albums from Arcade Fire and Spoon debuted in the Billboard Top 10 this year, those successes are bright spots in an industry on the verge of collapse. Like it or not, the money that comes from mainstream exposure floats the boat for everyone. It's pretty simple: Sigur Rós gets played on CSI: Miami, people hear the song and buy the album, their small label gets some of the profits, the profits are redirected to finance Vashti Bunyan and Animal Collective records. Everyone wins, except maybe David Caruso.

So what has been the reaction of indie tastemakers? Shock and horror. Pitchfork, which single-handedly launched the careers of bands like Tapes n' Tapes and Deerhunter and whose reviews are held in the same regard as Rolling Stone's forty years ago, gave it a big fat 0.0 out of 10 in a piece that's basically an indictment of money. Hipsters simply cannot abide by a package modeled after the NOW! That's What I Call Music series that's intended for Wal-Mart sales.

Don't get me wrong; I have the utmost respect for anyone who works outside of the system. Ian MacKaye has spent his life creating a business model just as revolutionary as his music, refusing any corporate involvement whatsoever. But did Sonic Youth sell out by using David Geffen's money and Starbucks' promotional juggernaut to get their work to the widest audience possible? Did The Clash, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones and David Bowie all sell out when they signed to a major label? Using the system to get your music out is not a sin. There is such a thing as crossing the line, though. If you want to attack some sellouts take a look at The Hives, avowed socialists who are currently doing ads for Nike. Using corporate money to fund your art is one thing, actively promoting products made by sweatshop labor is quite another.


  © copyright scott howard