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Sunday, September 25, 2022
You! Me! Selling Out!

Kyle Sparks - Total Awesome

You! Me! Selling Out!

You know what they say—""Mo' money, mo' problems."" I've had considerably more experience with the opposite, though, and I can personally attest that the logic still holds—""No money, mo' problems."" Being wealthy certainly has its hang-ups (where on EARTH will you even park that thing?!), but the same is true for people who are forced into buying knockoff ramen noodles and stealing kitchenware from local taverns.

 

Marnie Stern knows what I'm talking about. In an interview with Impose Magazine in August, the always-ravishing experimental-rock artist admitted a willingness to drop just about anything for some more serious cashflow.

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""Oh, fuck yeah, I'll sell, I am so poor,"" she confessed. ""If [Red Bull] said we'll give you $20,000 to get naked with the guitar I wouldn't do it, but in my brain, I might.""

 

That's a different ideology from a lot of us on the outside, though. From the record-buying public's point of view, a band scoring a corporate sponsorship is tantamount to using steroids in professional sports. It makes us ask, what is our money really going toward?

 

That used to be the case, at least. Back before most of us students ever learned how to add or subtract fractions, ""indie"" actually meant something. Bands that were a little too left-of-center to be picked up by a major record label would embrace the do-it-yourself ethos and print a modest number of albums with an independent label that truly reflected the personal investment—a stark opposition to the mechanical hit-making of mainstream music.

 

It wasn't so modest for long, though. And the more popular bands like Belle and Sebastian got, the more revenue these smaller, ""independent"" labels were earning—and the bigger they were growing.

 

Some twenty years later, we don't necessarily think of labels like Sub Pop and Matador as underdogs anymore. Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Spoon, Pavement, No Age, Beach House, Nirvana—those two indie stalwarts are responsible for a large majority of what kids like us have cared about for years now.

 

But in an economic (or, more importantly, file-sharing) climate as tumultuous as The Internet Age, popularity no longer equates to prosperity. It doesn't matter how many people are listening, because it's very likely that very few are buying.

 

Consequently, we need to approach the ""sell-out"" taboo with more scrutiny these days. We need to be able to account for alternative means of income and determine artistic integrity by some metric other than appearances in television commercials or on soundtracks to Zach Braff films.

 

Los Campesinos! has become a perfect example of this distinction in the past few months. This summer, the Welsh septet released an EP that reworked a handful of tracks from their latest LP, January's Romance is Boring. The EP's new versions were drawn-out, melodramatic and miserably trite. Need proof? It was named All's Well That Ends without irony.

 

Now fast-forward a few months, when the opening chords of LC!'s ""You! Me! Dancing!"" were a part of a Budweiser advertisement that played between innings of a baseball game this past Saturday. Once champions of the do-it-yourself indie mindset, the twee-pop wunderkinds were now cashing checks with the insignia of a multinational brewing conglomeration stamped in the upper left-hand corner. You can probably anticipate my reaction: good for them.

 

I would be lying if I said ""You! Me! Dancing!"" hadn't turned around more than a few of my gloomy afternoons, and it's to the song's credit that its acute commentaries can have such widespread appeal. More importantly for this conversation, it's to the band's credit that they could achieve such acclaim without sacrificing the youthful sensibilities they held on their very first EP.

 

The same can't be said for All's Well That Ends; and ultimately it's the limited-edition tour EP, not the Budweiser advertisement, that was more painful to hear and that proved more costly to the band's public perception. It's not who signs your paycheck that matters, it's what you had to give up in order to get it.

 

Marnie Stern acknowledged as much in that same interview with Impose. ""Anything I put out I'm really proud that I did it, so I'll put it anywhere, anywhere,"" she said. If record sales won't do it, musicians have to find some other way to earn their keep. They're only artists, after all; and so long as the art isn't sacrificed, it shouldn't matter who's life it's serving as a soundtrack for.

 

Well, it doesn't really matter to me. And if Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, the Dodos or any other ""indie"" band to have popped up in TV commercials over the past year are any indication, it doesn't matter to many people either. And you know, so long as my personal income isn't responsible for their paychecks, I hope all my favorite bands sell out. I just hope they don't sound like jackasses when they do it.

 

Did you like Kyle before his column went mainstream? Let him know at ktsparks@wisc.edu.

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