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Crass Commercialism?

October 7, 2009

I arrived home Tuesday evening after a couple of days out of town to find the new Beatles remastered box set in my office waiting for me.  I immediately kissed my wife and children goodbye, even though I’d just arrived, and retreated into my office to spend some time with the Fab Four.  Although I’m not the world’s greatest Beatles fan, I have to admit that I’ve looked forward to spending significant time with this set for quite a while.

I don’t know if it’s serendipity or bad karma, but I stumbled upon this USA Today article on the new KISS album, Sonic Boom on the same day my Beatles box set arrived.  Now I’m not interested in comparing the relative merits of the Beatles and KISS in this post, what interested me were some comments from Paul Stanley:

“We’d be idiots to put out things fans don’t want. . . . The idea that we’re genius businessmen is ridiculous. If someone says, ‘Gee, I’d like a belt buckle,’ we give it to them. And anybody who says, ‘I’m only in it for the music’ will find himself washing cars and wondering where the money went. Gene and I believe in working hard and making no apologies for what we get for the hard work.”

Stanley tapped into the ages-old question of “art” versus “commercialism”.  This issue has been highlighted recently with all the hype surrounding the Beatles box set and accompanying Rock Band release, Pearl Jam’s decision to release Backspacer exclusively in Target stores, and AC/DC’s Wal-Mart-only Black Ice.  I think in all three cases (most notably PJ’s) you’ll find portions of these bands’ fan bases decrying the connection between their favorite bands and what can only be labeled as a blatant attempt to sell records.

Indie rock hasn’t been immune from these issues recently, either.  See Phoenix’s recent selling of their song “1901” to Cadillac for use in a commercial, or the decision by many bands to appear on the soon-to-be blockbuster New Moon soundtrack.  Many pixels have been burned in the interests of examining this phenomena, and often the phrase “selling out” gets thrown around in these types of discussions.

I came of age in the Nineties, and no 90’s artist embodies the DIY anti-corporate independent attitude like Ani DiFranco.  Spurning multiple record offers by the time she was nineteen, Ms. DiFranco chose to start her own record label, Righteous Babe, and she has since released every solo album she has ever done on RB.  Through her music, DiFranco has eloquently painted the picture of the artists’ dilemma:  freedom to do what you want independently versus the slow co-opting of your artistic integrity by rich white folks in the boardroom.  In Ani’s world, signing to a major record label makes you an employee of that label and even though they might have the best of intentions, label executives will almost certainly steer your music in the most “commercially viable” direction.

DiFranco’s worldview has been turned on its head slightly in past years with the growing popularity of digitized music and subsequent file sharing.  The album has ceased to be a viable revenue stream for bands, forcing them to play more live shows and explore merchandising as means of making bank.  The reality for most independent artists is that they are forced to get a buck however they can because they can’t count on album sales to do much more than finance the production of a record.

Interestingly enough, many of the deals being made now are done outside of the corporate record company structure anyway.  Cadillac bought the rights to “1901” after it was conceived and released, thereby absolving the company of any accusations of influence over Phoenix’s music.  The Pearl Jam/Target deal is a distribution deal, to the best of my knowledge PJ recorded the album on their own.  And I’ll maintain that the New Moon phenomena has more to do with the industry credibility of music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas than the desire of top-flight musical talent to be involved with a teeny-bopper vampire movie (Death Cab for Cutie excluded).

A fascinating (and completely original) take on the artist’s dilemma comes to us from Citizen Dick, where the author points out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with licensing music as long as the artist maintains control of how their material gets used within the licensing medium.  While I’m not sure I agree with this conclusion, I think it’s an angle that merits consideration.

What’s my take?  Basically it’s that as long as the artist is making music that is pleasing to him- or herself, it doesn’t matter where the music is made, how its funded, or what’s done with it after it’s made.  I think the labels we put on music are our own silly constructs without any sort of objective reality.  I don’t give a flip whether you call it country, rock, indie, classical or whatever–if I like it I’m going to play it on my Ipod.  I don’t really care what you do with it.

I don’t begrudge rock bands for trying to make some money.  I hope to do that someday myself.  If my favorite band can make a buck by licensing their song to Kentucky Fried Chicken, more power to them.  But when they start making music that they hate just to keep the Colonel happy, they’ve crossed a line.  If they make something they love but I can’t stand listening to, I’m not going to cheapen their effort by accusing them of “selling out”, I’m just not going to listen to that product.  End of story.

Now, pardon me while I head to KFC.  Not planning on listening to any music there–all this writing about food is making me hungry.

  1. October 8, 2009 10:07 am

    Wow, Caleb, this rules! Spot on.

    Spin had PJ as their cover story this month, which discussed the Target deal. This record is a self-release – their first post-major. PJ owns the masters and Target is merely distribution. The band seems to admit that this represents a softening of their anti-corporate mentality but maintains that Target’s head is in the right place philosophically (not sure in what respects, though). They ain’t no Walmart but they ain’t no indie record store, either.

    • Caleb permalink
      October 9, 2009 10:15 am

      Thanks, T.D., appreciate the props. One interesting thing about Pearl Jam is their seeming desire to return to the “glory days” of Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy. Each of the last two records has been touted as “the PJ we once knew” and while the band may not have actively pushed that concept, they haven’t done anything to quell it either. It’s almost as if after many years of being basically an independent band, they want back into the mainstream rock club. The Target deal is their most overt move in that direction, but it was there on the self-titled album too. I’ m not knocking that, more power to them, but I do wonder why now?

  2. October 10, 2009 9:59 am

    Hey brother – thanks for the kind words about our Citizen Dick post. I thought Kevin made a compelling and unique argument, too, and quite a post-post debate started up in the comments section where (surprisingly, for the internet) everyone was smart and solid in their argumentation. Glad you read us and glad to read you too!


    • Caleb permalink
      October 10, 2009 10:53 am

      Thanks, Justin, I just picked you guys up recently and dig your stuff. Keep up the solid work bro!


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