On the Concept of Selling Out

The other day, I was listening to Nitro Game Injection, which is a weekly radio show devoted to covers of video game music. They were doing an interview with pianist Daniel “Kareshi” Brown, and they asked him for this thoughts about the man commonly billed as the Video Game Pianist. Summarized in one sentence, Kareshi’s thoughts were essentially “[The Video Game Pianist], while very technically skilled, seems to be in it for the glory more than the love of video game music”.

The next day, I reflected on Kareshi’s remarks. I don’t personally know The Video Game Pianist, although I have seen him as a part of Video Games Live, a show which I very much enjoyed, so I don’t know how true Kareshi’s assessment really is. But the direction of my thoughts took me to “If he IS in it for the glory, as opposed to love of the music…why is this bad?”

I took my question and decided to expand it further to the concept of “selling out” in the music world. For some reason, it seems that people who listen to music resent the ability of their favorite musicians to make money. For that matter, they resent said musicians ever getting popular. It happens over and over again–a devoted audience clings to a band at the early stages of their career. Eventually, if they’re lucky, the band will attain mainstream popularity–at which point the early devoted audience will invariably, immediately desert them, decrying them as “sellouts”–regardless of whether anything actually changed in the sound of their music.

Part of it, I think, is the thought that the major record labels are somehow “the bad guys”, mega-corporations concerned with making money above all else, including the welfare of the artists. True as this may be, it ignores the history of music and its creation and performance. Picture this: Your humble site administrator/writer/musician gets a job working for Bill Gates. My job description? Essentially, write music just for Mr. Gates, eight hours a day, five days a week. The worst kind of selling out on my part and the worst corruption of music on the part of Mr. Gates? Before you answer, consider that Johann Sebastian Bach, considered one of the greatest composers in history, worked under very similar conditions for a part of his life, for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and later for Prince Leopold–music was, literally, his job, and that didn’t seem to stop him from producing great works. And amusingly, sites like Tailored Music are exploring this ancient idea in a 21st century way.

But back to my point. The prevailing attitude today as regards music and money is that they must be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, this attitude must have manifested itself only recently; in times past, as in Bach’s age, this was hardly the case–music-for-payment was practically expected. So what changed? And why is the idea of musicians making money from their work suddenly this taboo concept?

Thoughts? Comments? Exclamations of righteous indignation?


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    • Anonymous on October 17, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    I basically agree, hatred of selling out comes from hatred of the profit motive, which inherently dumb and hypocritical.

  1. I don’t think people who really love a group/composer for his music would abandon him just for making money. I don’t feel like going into it much, but I loved System of a Down’s first two albums. Their third one sounded pretty bad too me. Yeah it adds on a bit of extra lameness that they got all popular, but the main reason I stopped following them is because their music started sucking.

    Also, the Bach analogy is a bit apples/oranges. Again, I don’t wanna get into it, but I think he was writing the way he wanted to write.

    • Aku on October 18, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Well the reason why kareshi and others feel he’s just in it is because he first of all has a very big ego according some people (I don’t really know about that one though) and because he doesn’t really arrange the music, he rather gets them written to him or take official sheet and just plays them. kareshi writes down and arranges everything he does

    • kareshi on October 18, 2007 at 10:23 am

    It’s been a moral struggle for hundreds of years- does art for money/fame cheapen the art? I don’t think it does- by itself. But, speaking as what I’d consider to be an artist, I like to know the artist who makes works for money still cares about what he’s doing. If I am faced with evidence he doesn’t care, then THAT cheapens the art. “VGP” doesn’t do most of his own arranging and is playing the most popular video game music he knows about, and doesn’t actually seem to be interested in video game music, judging by his lack of presence in discussion on the subject anywhere on the internet, including his webpage (which is maintained by someone else.)

    • James on October 18, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Hey two quick notes– your comments are really tiny fontwise and the name following “Posted by” needs to be a brighter color (doesn’t show up on laptops unless you highlight it.) Onto the subject at hand…

    I think music is such a personal experience, so moving, that we want to believe our “heroes” in the musical realm hold their own art to as high of a standard as we do. Writing enduring music is a bit like catching lightning in a bottle, it’s one of those things where circumstances come together just right and magic is created. Thing about all the crappy songs that fill out some of your favorite albums, written by the same people.

    The idea of selling out is especially painful to fans when the band goes against the ideals and thoughts they touted in their music/interviews (case 1: Metallica, who originally said making a music video was selling out, people should trade cassettes instead of overpaying for music, etc.) Not many bands are able to consistently create great music and I’m certain “getting big” curbs creativity to a point, with the distraction of a thousand other indulgences.

    Now, when it comes to video game music I think it’s almost absurd to think of anyone selling out. I don’t remember the Video Game Pianist ever saying he didn’t want to make money or proclaiming game music to be the providence of the people. Heck, game music in itself originates with a commericial intent.

    As someone who writes for a living, and finally is making a living doing so, am I selling out when I write ad copy for a cat food company? Is my guide book nothing more than a plight to grab the money and run, morals be damned? I don’t post like crazy on hiking web sites but I consider my work to be very much from the heart. It’s similar… but like any artistic endeavor, I have a strong vision of what should be in myself AND others. So even though Kareshi may view it as selling out, it may be nothing more than a difference in style.

    By the way Marc, as much as you hate em Tool has a song exactly about this “Hooked with a Penis” off of Anema. You’d appreciate it if you didn’t hate them so much :)

    • emptyeye on October 18, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Okay, going point by point here. Or maybe not.

    First, the name issue should be fixed. The comments are a bit easier to read as well.

    Onto the actual discussion. First of all, to Pingo, well, I’m glad Kareshi came and elaborated a bit on what he said. I don’t think my one-sentence summary was incorrect by any means, but of course it lacked the nuances of the full explanation. Now then, re: SoaD, one thing to remember about the third album (If we’re both thinking of the same third album, that would be “Steal This Album!”) is that it was “16 songs not good enough for Toxicity”. I suppose the fact they chose to release it regardless sort of proves the selling-out point, but anyway, I think there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg at work in general with this sort of thing–that is, you say “I didn’t like the third album because it was bad”, but how much of the “badness” was from a subconscious reaction to their getting hugely popular?

    (To self: Wow, the comment box when you’re logged in is really annoying in that you have to scroll it down yourself. Do something about that…)

    Onto the “VGP”, as Kareshi has dubbed him. True, he seems to play only the most popular of video game songs, and he may or may not be full of himself (Though if I were playing Video Games Live, you bet I’d be full of myself too). But this goes back to my question: Is this inherently a bad thing? The very thought that there exists glory to be had playing video game songs, and some songs are popular enough to allow this to happen…are these not positives? Maybe the VGP is just really shy and a less talented arranger than piano player…should he be condemned for this (If it’s true, of course)?

    Finally, as regards Metallica, I won’t go into the “betraying their ideas” argument, other than to say that I don’t think they said what you think they said. Something similar, yes (To both counts), but different enough that the distinction is important. Instead, I want to bring up something about their sales figures. Yes, the Black Album was a marked departure from their earlier style. Yes, the Black Album sold mega-millions of copies (13 million as of January 2005, to be precise). No, I do not believe that the change in direction was solely motivated by the desire for commercial success. Let’s not forget that …and Justice for All was quite the success in its own right–going double-platinum by the time the Black Album was released (At least if this topic I found can be trusted…have you noticed my aversion to Wikipedia yet, by the way?). I believe the Black Album also debuted at #1–in other words, bunches upon bunches of people bought the cd songs unheard–though I can’t find an online source confirming this. So I think that they would have found the level of success regardless of the sound of that album.

    And I think that’s everything. Now to address this comment box…

    • James on October 18, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    Actually, Metallica was pretty clear–I remember the specials they had on MTV when “One” came out as a video. They showed clips of the band saying they would never make videos, always encourage their work being shared (which is part of the emphasis of the $6.98 EP, that it was cheap enough for everyone).

    I’m not arguing the facts, just saying that they seem to represent the classic “sell out” scenario–go against previous statements (admittedly probably said when they didnt think they COULD get that big), cut the hair, adopt the latest sounds, trade in torn jeans for eye makeup and noserings, etc. From my point of view, the Black Album wasn’t anywhere as good as their previous efforts and from thereafter, the only tunes I like are some of their covers (It’s Electric in particular). But to see families going to Metallica concerts is obviously a bit weird…

    And you’re right, the Black Album debuted at number 1–they had a lot of buzz leading up to it.

    And a caveat before leaving work: I actually got to talk to James Hetfield (we did a feature on him for Hooked on the Outdoors). It wasn’t much, but you forget that people’s public persona is just that: image. Sometimes there is an amazing contrast, like meeting Jewel and seriously thinking she may be borderline mentally retarded, but she comes off as a poet or something.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write OJ’s next book, “If I Do It Again..”

    • James on October 18, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Also on the comments–Do you have HTML enabled? There’s no breaks between paragraphs.

    Is there?

  2. Hi,
    Just a note to let you know your site is impressive AND what a nice surprise to find intelligent conversation; actual meaningful words, being bantered about. Bravo EmptyEye!

    I’ll comment more (or less…) fully at a later date. just wanted to say “hey” and thank you for your help and contributions.

    Peace, J

    • emptyeye on October 18, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    That’s right, the Black Album did debut at number 1. If I remember right from the Megadeth Behind the Music, Megadeth’s newest-at-the-time album (I believe it was Rust in Peace, though it may have been Countdown to Extinction) had debuted at number 2 not long before that, and when he heard Metallica had hit number 1, Dave Mustaine was like “Curses! Foiled again!!” Only much more serious and less 40s serial villainy, being as he (probably justifiably) hated them and all.

    ANYWAY. Is HTML enabled? Yes; see my links in my previous comment. Oddly, I don’t see an option in WordPress either way, but maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. As for the line break issue, I’m not quite sure…I’ll have to take another look at that. It appears that there are BREAKS, but no WHITE SPACE between paragraphs, even if I put it there.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words, J. As I’ve said elsewhere, I can’t really take credit for (Most of) the presentation, though the content is certainly mine.

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