September 22, 2023
Music History

How Long Have People Been Calling Artists “Sellouts?” Like, Forever

For many fans, art should be done for art’s sake. Any attempt to willfully make money from any artistic endeavour is to pervert and corrupt it. Salon has this history of the whole concept of “selling out.”

It’s been so long since musicians have been criticized for corporate sponsorship or licensing that it’s conspicuous when it happens. “When I hear Grizzly Bear in a Volkswagen commercial, it kind of bums me out,” said Trent Reznor—a representative of, arguably, the last generation that worried about such things—in an interview with Vulture this week. “[S]omewhere along the line it became okay to get in bed with a sponsor. More specifically it became okay for rock bands to talk about. When I started to hear musicians talking about their sponsorship deals as something to be almost proud of, it bothered me.”

The once-explosive accusation of calling someone a sellout, aimed at artists who make accommodations with commercial industry, has come to seem obsolete and a little naïve, but it once had career-threatening power. Anxiety over the interplay of art and commerce is evergreen—Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110laments, “Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view/ Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear”—and the condemnation of monetary compensation for abandoning one’s values goes back as far as the Bible and Judas’ 30 pieces of silver. Musicians had depended on patronage for centuries, though, and until the rise of the mass culture industries, the relationship between artist and patron was considered pragmatic and natural.

Sellout—as applied to musicians—was a slur that had a birth. It rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when two communities in which the term was common came together at the intersection of politics and music.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37091 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “How Long Have People Been Calling Artists “Sellouts?” Like, Forever

  • To some extent every artist ‘sells out’ as soon as they sign with a record label. My understanding is that, at the very least, the label can reject an artist’s work if they don’t feel it’s sellable. This can extend to the company having at least some level of creative control. Frank Zappa said, in the 80s I think, that no band signing a contract at that time would have the level of control that he had.

    And yet we wouldn’t hear a lot of artists if it wasn’t for this system. It is at least somewhat responsible for a lot of the music we love.

    So, a complex issue.


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