Is It Possible to Sell Out in 2010?
Today's New York Times brings a startling bit of news: the sneaker company Converse is opening a recording studio in the heart of Williamsburg, to be called Converse Rubber Tracks, where bands "deemed dedicated and needy enough" will be able to record for free. Artists selected to use the space will retain the ownership rights to whatever they record there. (Though Converse also promises that the studio will "give bands the means to expose their music to a much larger audience through content captured while recording, including songs and behind-the-scenes video," meaning that those things will be posted to the Converse website. Whether that's optional, they don't say.) The article's author, Ben Sisario, after first detouring through why Converse (and a host of other companies) would do this (it's good branding) and why bands would cooperate (they're broke, and don't care), arrives at the central question that arises from such an unconventional arrangement. To paraphrase: does doing business with Converse necessarily mean selling out? And, more basically: Is it even possible to sell out in 2010?
"In the short term those services are much appreciated by bands," Sisario writes. "But what long-term effect the brands' power will have on musicians' careers -- or on the music itself -- remains to be seen." Then he takes a guess anyway:
Critics have often complained about the influence of licensing and advertising on music. In the mid-2000s, for example, rap started to develop lots of blippy, simple melodies that would sound good in ringtones. It may be too soon to tell whether the patronage of Red Bull, Mountain Dew and Converse will warp the sound of indie rock. But if young bands are developing with their attractiveness to corporate America in mind, will they, say, avoid political content?
Here's an answer: no. Not because corporate America doesn't exert an influence on those who depend on its patronage (a quick look at the United States Senate, among other places, will prove that it does). And not because most indie bands wouldn't sell out in a heartbeat, if they could. It's because selling out has long since stopped existing as a meaningful concept. The Converse studio and other unconventional partnerships between big corporate entities and the bands they employ will not change artists' behavior because artists' behavior has long since been changed by factors far bigger than opportunistic advertisers. Converse Rubber Tracks is a symptom, not a cause. In 2010, everyone's a sell out. (Or more accurately, no one is.) Doubt it? Ask yourself this:
Who's Betraying Who, Really?
In the old days, major labels and the money/corporate interests they represented were the enemy. They were Walmart, or the Home Depot, moving into town, putting smaller entities out of business, bringing with them everything from unfair labor practices to environmental wastefulness to cheap commercialization of local industries. As a band, signing with an indie constituted a repudiation of that system in favor of a more admirable one: more cooperative, less exploitative, more artistically independent. Bands like Nirvana or (ahem) Sonic Youth that lent their talents to a major were essentially turning their back on that system (to say nothing of depriving that system of the royalties from, say, In Utero). Consumers could then vote with their dollar as to what system they wanted to support. Fast forward to 2010. How do consumers vote with their dollar? By not spending it at all. Ask Ted Leo--people are no longer buying enough records to support musicians, period. Major, independent, whatever. No wonder then, as Sisario puts it, "lifestyle brands are becoming the new record labels." Someone has to pay artists, and increasingly, we're not doing it. So who is the enemy in 2010? We are. Not the majors. Not Converse. Us.
For That Matter, Is "Us" A Category That Still Meaningfully Exists?
The other half of the sell out equation in the '90s was cultural. Indie rock, backpack rap, hell, even emo--all were defined in part by an opposition to not just the corporate culture described above but also an aesthetic one. Hence Pavement taking shots at the Smashing Pumpkins, Sub Pop pranking the New York Times, or even Adam Horovitz lecturing the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards about feminism. Bands that chose to take corporate dollars were implicitly endorsing corporate aesthetics: Alice in Chains, Woodstock 99, The Real World, and so on. But today, the nineties oppositional culture is essentially at the controls. We are the ones helping Pavement sell out four nights straight in Central Park. We are the ones who reunited Jawbox on national television. We are the ones that made the Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend the most popular bands in this country for weeks (OK, a week). We are they now, and they are us, and there is no real alternative--indie rock is rock music, period. So how can a band betray an aesthetic or cultural program in a year where that cultural program was, among other things, the officially licensed soundtrack to Super Bowl XLIV? As Sisario points out, Fader Label and Green Label Sound have as much to do with the current blog-rock continuum as Matador or Merge. There simply is no more "us" and "them"--aesthetically speaking, anyway.
And Let's Admit That If "They" Do Still Exist, They Make Some Pretty Good Music, Too
We need not use the words "poptimism" or "rockism" here to note that the past decade has also seen a whole lot of people who were fiercely committed in the old days to staying on their side of the fence cross over, if somewhat tentatively, to the other side. Katy Perry is great. Dr. Luke is even better. The ringtone rap Sisario derides in his Times piece was in fact a kind of exciting time in hip-hop--maddening, at times, but would we really be better off without "Tipsy" or Rich Boy or D4L? No. Soulja Boy is more important in 2010 than Nas (if we may channel the ghost of Tom Breihan here for a second). Even if there were two distinct cultures that you could distinguish from one another, an underground and a overground, a fiercely committed, politically radical alternative and a vapid, money hungry mainstream, could you say for certain who was making better music? Doubt it.
All of which is not to say that some of people featured in Sisario's article are not shockingly tone deaf. Whatever Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino was thinking when she told the paper of record that the Converse-commissioned song she did with Kid Cudi and Rostam Batmanglij earlier this year was "a fun song...that will hopefully make people dance around in their Converse during the summer," she's surely already regretting it. Ditto with the ad agency bro who told Sisario that "Indie-inflected music serves as a kind of Trojan horse...Consumers feel they are discovering something that they believe to be cool and gaining admittance to a more refined social clique." That type of marketing speak is really every bit as evil as it sounds. But the underlying behavior is not, necessarily.
We can mourn the apolitical bent of modern pop music, whether indie or not. We can decry the influence massive conglomerates like Converse and Mountain Dew have gained in the music scene since the industry basically fell apart. But to do so, we must also acknowledge who is at fault: consumers, for not supporting the artists and leaving a breach for Converse to rush into; ourselves, for growing up, and turning our oppositional culture into what is more or less the mainstream; and, of course, our own stubborn tastes, which often don't track very well with our ideals. If bands could still sell out in the way that, say, Steve Albini still thinks they can, they probably would. As it is though, they're just trying to pay rent like the rest of us.