‘Selling out’ and authenticity

In the “indie” music realm (a loaded term, but ya know what I mean), musicians are often judged on their authenticity, how “real” they appear to be, their refusal of mass-market appeal. Doesn’t it make you squirm when you hear your favorite song bastardized in a commercial, like this Ford Fiesta commercial featuring Edward Sharpe’s “Janglin”? Or this Cadillac commercial with Phoenix? Or Tune-Yards’ “Fiya” in a Blackberry commercial?

OR THE WORST commercial- the infamous Outback Steakhouse remake of Of Montreal’s “Wraith to the Mist (And Other Games)” from The Sunlandic Twins. It’s hilariously bad that they changed the lyrics from “Let’s pretend we don’t exist” to “Let’s go Outback tonight,” it kiiiiills me. Not a good sign when everyone starts associating your work with artery-cloggin’ Bloomin’ Onions.

Master of satire Stephen Colbert tackled this topic with a “music-whoring throwdown”  between The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on The Colbert Report last January. Skip to about 4:00 to see the “sell-out off” between these Alternative Rock Grammy nominees.


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Indie culture is centered around authenticity, a sort of subversion against the mainstream. Clearly one could make the argument that independent rock has become the mainstream, what with Arcade Fire winning Grammy of the Year and countless other examples, but regardless authenticity is still a tenet of this far-sweeping genre.

Existentialists describe authenticity as a sort of autonomy; in Being and Time, Martin Heidegger argues that authenticity is the act of allowing a unique, embodied self to emerge. It is not to be confused with the idea of “being true to yourself” within a particular definition of humanity or set of standards. There is no standard, and instead you should aim to embrace the artificiality of yourself and increase awareness of the reasons behind your world-view.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a great definition of authenticity (by the way philosophy nerds, CHECK OUT this free online resource if you haven’t yet!):

The norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am… Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can commit myself.

In understanding music licensing, one needs to take a realistic look from the perspective of a musician. The era of the talentless mega-star raking in bucks from album sales alone is a thing of the past, as today’s musicians need to maintain a small-business mentality through multiple forms of revenue (touring, production work, etc). Licensing one’s music for commercial purposes is a guaranteed paycheck in a volatile industry, where benefits and a steady income are difficult to come by. It does not seem that one is acting inauthentically if one’s motives behind ‘selling out’ are to provide a means of livelihood for oneself and one’s family.

Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal actually responded to the Outback backlash in an Op-Ed piece in Stereogum, writing:

Selling out, in an artistic sense, is to change one’s creative output to fit in with the commercial world. To create phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful. I’ve never done this and I can’t imagine I ever will. I spent seven years not even existing at all in the mainstream world. Now I am being supported and endorsed by it. I know this won’t last forever. No one’s going to want to use one of my songs in a commercial five years from now, so I’ve got to take the money while I can.

An artist needs to examine their motives for ‘selling out,’ and whether the message that they are promoting is cohesive with their understanding of their own ‘unique, embodied self.’ But still, KB, that Outback Steakhouse commercial is pretty god-awful.


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