Selling Out has Sold Out

Among the many terms that should be considered cliché and overused, “selling out” is a phrase that is often abused by vindictive and selfish music fans. Bands are frequently labeled “sell-outs,” because their original fan base felt they became too famous. More often than not, this tends to be an inaccurate accusation. Not every famous band betrayed their fans and their principles for fortune and fame.

One could debate whether or not being famous is a good thing, but I don’t believe that every band that achieves mainstream success can be considered a sell-out. Nevertheless, no matter the band, the CD, the situation, someone will inevitably criticize them and apply the dreaded sell-out label, especially if he or she is a die-hard fan. This is something I cannot understand.

Bands that play together for an extended period of time slowly form their style and undergo an organic transformation, in many cases eventually sounding completely different than their initial music. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are considered a staple rock band in today’s music industry and have come a long way to be considered such. They gained a very loyal fan base in the late 80s for their rap lyrics and psychedelic funk sound, culminating in their breakthrough album Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991.

This album gave them some big hits, but the one everyone is most familiar with from this part of their career is “Under the Bridge.” The song was written as a personal poem about Anthony Kiedis’ drug use, and he didn’t intentionally write it for use as a song. Almost twenty years later, it is still considered one of their greatest songs. It also broke the mold for them. When they had their comeback in 1998, the softer side of the Chili Peppers allowed them greater mainstream success. You can bet the original fans gave them a hard time about it. However, so many other fans were able to appreciate their new music direction.

No one would ever make the mistake of calling a one-hit wonder a sellout. After all, a group defined by one big song and nothing more cannot be accused of changing its style to find success – success found them. How is this different from how other bands become famous? One day they get lucky and one of their songs becomes a hit, and that’s the start of the next phase in their career. The original fans may grow to dislike the very song everyone else likes, as they now have to share their secret discovery with everyone else. These fans get bitter, and as a result they start throwing that dreaded label around.

It is easy to overlook the reason why a song becomes a hit: it’s good. Commercialization has a lot to do with which songs are considered better than the others, but there are countless examples of manufactured hits that fail to sell, and unexpected hits that explode out of nowhere. The band in question did something right to win over these new fans. Something in their music resonated, and understandably they want to continue to expand their sound so that these new fans can be pleased and so that they can improve on what is working for them.

When a band enters the mainstream, the most obvious benefit is that they can reach out to many more people than before. Something that original fans need to realize is that the bands that refuse to “sell-out” are the ones that won’t be known by very many people. As much as many people enjoy the idea of being among a selective group of people, early fans should look forward to sharingn their favorite songs with a larger group of people. The more people that hear the message, the more effective the message is. As Rage Against the Machine put it, “We’re not interested in preaching to just the converted.”

Let’s be honest: truely die-hard fans will support their favorite band, even after it becomes something everyone loves. Anyone who doesn’t is more attratced to the idea of exclusivity than to the actual music.

Bands play music in public for a reason: they want attention and they want people to listen. Obviously, the more people that listen, the better.

While it is true that some bands want fame and fortune above all else, but others choose to use their spotlight for better things, spotlighting important issues or the art of music itself.

These “true,” original fans need to get over themselves. It is not a crime for a band to reach out to a wider audience and work on music that pleases more people. Labeling their favorite bands as “sell-outs,” for the simple act of trying to reach out to a wider fan base is simply selfish, shallow and unworthy of a true music lover.

Kerry Wakely is second-year English major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.