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Selling out

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Selling out

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Selling out is a common slang phrase. Broadly speaking, it refers to the compromising of one's integrity, morality and principles in exchange for money, success or other personal gain. It is commonly associated with attempts to increase mass appeal or acceptability to mainstream society. A person who does this is labelled a sellout.

Many people see nothing wrong with tailoring a product to the tastes of its audience, or with taking practical and financial considerations into account when making art. And, in regard to theater shows, musicals, etc, a "sell out" show is simply a show so popular that all tickets are sold out, and is generally considered as a milestone in terms of success. Selling out may be then gaining success at the cost of credibility. Though generally associated with the entertainment industry, regular individuals who similarly compromise their ideals (e.g. a Bohemian individual who suddenly switches to a socially conservative lifestyle) could also be considered sellouts.


History of terms associated with selling out

Urban legends and myths were often created around American jazz musicians in the early 20th century to add to the artist's mystique. One popular myth was that the blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in order to become successful. It's thought that the modern idea of selling out is a natural progression of this idea.

In the 1990s, comedian Bill Hicks coined the term "sucking Satan's cock", which he used to describe musical acts who make bland music to maximise sales, or allow their music to be used in advertising. This phrase has since become a widely used neologism, and is commonly used to describe the act of selling out.

In addition, "selling out" has very literal roots. For example, selling out of a company means selling all the stock one holds in a corporation. Selling out of an investment brings direct financial gain with a relinquish of responsibility for the content or service provided by the company.

Criticism of the term

Selling out has frequently become used to describe anyone who changes artistic direction, as many fans assume that this must be done in an attempt to attain wider commercial appeal. This may fail to account for natural artistic development, which may lead an artist in directions that their original fans disliked. Also, it can result in the artist(s) being afraid to show artistic evolution out of fear of alienating existing fans, which many argue is a prime example of going against one's beliefs or values in the pursuit of monetary gain (ie: selling out).


Although rare, stand-up comics face criticism of selling out. Most comedians who start out in comedy clubs often use foul language and blue humor in their routines. A comic who alters his routine by "sugar-coating" his language and using less-offensive material to obtain mainstream success may be accused of selling out. Some would also argue that comedians who decide to enter the film industry with comedy movies are selling out, depending on the quality and content of their movies. For example, some may accuse Adam Sandler of selling out by making movies in his now-trademark "goofball" style (though his starring role in Punch-Drunk Love is a striking exception).

One comic who has been labeled a sell-out is the ground-breaking George Carlin, who had changed the original title of his album and special, "Complaints and Grievances". The original title was "I like it when People Die". In light of the September 11th attacks in NYC, he changed the name, out of respect for those who died.


The phrase is mainly heard in the musical community, where it is used to imply that an artist has compromised their artistic integrity in order to gain radio airplay or obtain a recording contract, especially with a major label, the classic example of this being when Chumbawumba signed to EMI after years of viciously attacking the organisation. Often, the label will force the style of a particular record producer on the performer, or insist on inclusion of songs by commercial songwriters; or the label may refuse to release an album, deeming it uncommercial, though this indicates that the artist or group maintained their standards or values.

Heavy metal

Thrash Metal

One band often accused of selling out is Metallica. During the 1980s, the band was known for playing fast, aggressive thrash metal and band members repeatedly stated that they would never record a music video. Eventually they yielded, recording a video for the song One from the album ...And Justice For All in 1988. Some fans felt that this marked a changed in their style, resulting in more radio-friendly, commercially-acceptable music than what the band had performed in previous years. A few others have accused the group of adopting a less aggressive sound in the 1990s, similar to alternative rock bands popular at the time. The band also received criticism and accusations of selling out after filing a lawsuit against the peer-to-peer computer network Napster in 2000. In contrast, the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, which covers the lengthy process of creating the St. Anger album, shows the band recording an endorsement for a radio contest against their wishes, in order to secure airplay for their new material.

Black metal

The black metal scene is notorious for the elitism of its fans and main members. One term that is regularly used is the word 'true'; that is, which bands should be considered 'true black metal' and which ones are simply posers. Bands considered 'true' are those who remain attached to the underground scene and its ideals; for example, since black metal was founded by anti-Christian bands, Christian black metal bands such as Antestor and Horde are inherently considered 'untrue' by many in the scene.

The debate has become more relevant in the recent past due to the increasing commercial success of bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, who have their roots in the black metal scene (and maintain that image) but who are often considered sellouts by 'true' black-metallers.


With the increased popularity of nu metal bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the placement of a band into the nu metal genre has largely become a litmus test of selling out among metal fans. Bands that change their musical style are often accused of "jumping onto the nu metal bandwagon" for the sole purpose of gaining more airplay on radio and MTV. Metallica themselves have been accused of this upon the release of St. Anger, with which they jettisoned guitar solos for the first time in their history. Another example of this is the death metal band In Flames. Some of their fans claim that the band's most recent albums are no longer "metal", but are more in the vein of bands such as KoЯn. It should be noted that the term nu-metal itself is used mainly as an insult, and many bands who are placed under the nu-metal category by fans would not consider themselves nu-metal, such as System of a Down. The term nu-metal, while having formerly been merely a descriptive term, now has pejorative connotations.


The Welsh band Funeral for a Friend have been accused of selling out after they re-recorded the song "Juno" for their first studio album. The new version, named "Juneau" is much more melodic and easier to listen to for a more mainstream audience. Funeral for a Friend have denied this, and say it is showing that the band have matured. Ironically, the version they play live more closely resembles the original. This is most likely due to their large fanbase.

In more recent years, however, there has been a significant decline in the influence of nu metal on mainstream rock. This has been coupled with a tremendous rise in popularity of metalcore groups such as Atreyu, Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, and Avenged Sevenfold. This, in effect, has caused many fans to shift their accusations of "selling out" away from nu metal (no longer considering it to be important) and directing it instead towards metalcore bands (see fashioncore).


The accusation of selling out is often made against punk bands who sign to major labels (e.g., Green Day, The Offspring), since punk has a cultural tradition of independence and doing it yourself. Similarly, it is often heard in the indie rock and metal communities, which like punk have a tradition of mainstream rejection and/or anticonsumerism. The most famous indie rock sellout band would probably be Soul Asylum, who discarded their punk roots to adopt a mainstream rock sound in the early 1990s. Some of the early influential punk bands released records on major labels (Sex Pistols (Virgin / Warner) and The Clash (CBS); some Sex Pistols fans argue that Virgin was still an independent company when the group signed to it and that Warner was the "sister" company of Virgin (like Capitol and EMI with The Beatles). In the early 90's Green Day was signed with an independent punk record company called Lookout! Records, but in 1994 they signed with Reprise Records and released Dookie. The album drew scorn from the band's earliest fans. More recently and more commonly, Green Day was accused of selling out with their album American Idiot, since songs like Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and Wake Me Up When September Ends are believed to be too pop-oriented, and receive airplay on top 40 radio stations, in spite of the fact that Green Day are not considered "punk" at all by some Punk rock fans. Some of these artists have defended these actions as a necessary evil in order to achieve widespread distribution of their records and messages, and argue that selling out only occurs when the artist compromises the music in order to appeal to the broadest mainstream audience. As in the case of Green Day, some of their songs are more pop oriented because it helps tell the story. (American Idiot is a Punk Opera, that is, it tells a story throughout the album)

Hip hop

Selling out is a controversial topic within both hip hop music and hip hop culture, with two wholly opposite views on the matter. Traditional "underground" hip hop artists and fans decry "selling out", and heavily criticize artists who change their style just to reach the top. They also heavily protest an emphasis on material things, gloss, and other such ornamentation. The hip-hop community also considers a performer to be a "sell-out" when they shun hip-hop's traditional African-American and Latino communities and appear to be pandering to a mainstream (usually white) audience. For example, Kurtis Blow was considered a sell-out in the 1980s, MC Hammer was accused as being a sell-out during the 1990s, and 50 Cent during the 2000s.

Mainstream hip-hop music, on the other hand, embraces materialism and a "bling-bling" mentality. Such visual representations of wealth are seen as status symbols and things to be aspired to, as opposed to the attitude of traditional "hip hop heads" and punk or metal artists that states that these are things that artists should in some way feel ashamed of. Mainstream artists such as Master P and P Diddy have achieved vast personal fortunes and business empires, and often revel in their affluence in their music.

Hip-hop's lyrical content has changed very much as well, as mentioned in the above paragraph, new hip-hop is now much more popular and the artists are wealthier. Today the lyrics in hip-hop seem to reference more the wealth and "high life" of the rappers, where as in older hip-hop the lyrical content was more about "the ghetto" and were anti-establishment. Long time hip-hop fans express dissatisfaction with this change.

Mainstream hip hop music's fixation on bling bling and other material and luxury goods has led to much criticism from media pundits, musical critics, and the non-mainstream hip-hop community. They charge that the phenomenon promotes consumerism and materialism, and strengthens racist arguments that young African American men are incapable of higher or more virtuous or spiritual goals than material gain.

Some of the most vocal critics of "bling bling"-oriented music are alternative hip hop artists. An example of this is the group Dead Prez, from "Hip Hop" [1]:

All y'all records sound the same
I'm sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio
Same scenes in the video, monotonous material
Y'all don't hear me though
These record labels slang our tapes like dope
You can be next in line and signed; and still be writing rhymes and broke
You would rather have a Lexus? or justice? a dream? or some substance?
A Beamer? a necklace? or freedom?


Bob Dylan outraged folk music purists by, in their view, selling out their favorite music for rock and roll when he first played an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival (1965). However, Dylan has changed direction repeatedly throughout his career.

The band Queen have been considered as 'sellouts', as they have appeared on the popular show American Idol, presumably for a large amount of money. The show has had appearances by artists such as Shakira, and is thought to be pure pop music.

References to selling out


Many songs have been written about selling out, including:

"Hooker with a Penis" by Tool
"As I am" by Dream Theater
"Tinsel Town Rebellion" by Frank Zappa
"Selling Out" by Tom Lehrer
"All Men Play On 10" by Manowar
"Cashing in" by Minor Threat
"Cherub Rock" by The Smashing Pumpkins
"Corridor Of Chameleons" by Meshuggah
"Chainsaw Charlie (Murders In The New Morgue)" by W.A.S.P.
"Have a Cigar" by Pink Floyd
"Pull My Strings" by Dead Kennedys
"I'm Not Allowed to Like A.C. Anymore Since They Signed to Earache" by A.C.
"Johnny Quest Thinks We're Sellouts" by Less Than Jake
"Never Sell Out" by The Exploited
"Radio Stars" by Insane Clown Posse
"Sell Out" by Bigwig
"Sell Out" by Reel Big Fish
"Selling Out" by Tristania
"Our Broken Hearts (Scene from Top Gun 2)" by lostprophets
"Two Tabs of Mescaline" by Glassjaw
"Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" by Nirvana
"I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am" by Regurgitator
"Bliss" by Delirious?
"Rock for Sustainable Capitalism" by Propagandhi
"Gone" by U2
"Mediocrity Gets You Pears (The Shaker)" by Against Me! (who subsequently signed to a major label.)
"Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners" by Against Me!
""you sold your rock 'n'roll" by gwem and the gwemetts
"Handbook for the Sellout" by Five Iron Frenzy
"Cut your Hair" by Pavement
"Sons of Plunder" by Disturbed
"Death or Glory" by The Clash
"I Told You So (Corporate Rock Really Does Suck)" by Carcass
"Know it All" by Lagwagon
"Champaigne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends" by Fallout Boy
"Sellout" by Biohazard

These songs range in approach to the term "selling out"; from declarations that the band will never sell out, to aggressive messages towards fans accusing bands of "selling out".


Nirvana made repeated references to the act of selling out (including, clearly ironically, thanking their audiences for "pretending we're still punks"). One popular T-shirt produced by the band features the slogan "Flower Sniffin', Kitty Pettin', Baby Kissin' Corporate Rock Whores". Frontman Kurt Cobain also proposed the titles Verse Chorus Verse (in reference to the formulaic structure fans had come to expect of their songs) and Radio Friendly Unit Shifters as possible titles for the album that eventually became In Utero. Cobain further lampooned ideas of Nirvana's new commercial appeal by appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine wearing a T-shirt reading "Corporate Magazines Still Suck". The first Nirvana item to be released following Cobain's death was the perhaps sarcastically titled VHS tape Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!.

The Who

The Who Sell Out is an album by The Who with mock endorsement advertisements on the cover. The album pretends to represent a radio station that plays nothing but Who music, including mock commercials and radio-station promotions. The Who became very prolific at selling their work by the end of the 1990s, including "Love Reign O'er Me" for 7-Up, "Bargain" for Nissan, "Overture" for Claritin, "Happy Jack" for Hummer, "Baba O'Riley" for Hewlett Packard, and "I Can See for Miles" for Sylvania Silverstar headlights. More recently, their songs have been used as themes for all three CSI series.


The term selling out is used in a similar sense when discussing the movie industry, in particular its directors.

George Lucas

George Lucas has often received heavy criticism from Star Wars fans about selling out. An early example of this was on the issue of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Many fans saw them as too "cutesy" and felt that their inclusion in the film was merely for marketing purposes towards younger audiences. These accusations would resurface and become more intense after the introduction of the controversial character Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogies. Some fans saw the production and quality of the prequels themselves as evidence of selling out from Lucas (for example, the perceived excessive usage and reliance of CGI special effects in the movies). Furthermore, fans have criticized Lucas for making changes in the re-releases of the Star Wars films, in particular, the now infamous Han/Greedo shootout scene from A New Hope.

On a more general level, Lucas has also been criticized for the mass-marketing of Star Wars merchandise such as toys, cartoons, lunchboxes, etc. This has been pejoratively referred to as "milking the Star Wars franchise for money."

Peter Jackson

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson began his career directing b-grade cult horror films such as Dead Alive, Bad Taste, and Meet the Feebles. Jackson's skill as a director, his over-the-top use of violence, and non-commercial yet highly ambitious plots filmed on tiny budgets made him a hero in the horror community. His two films following Meet the Feebles strayed from his extreme style, but it wasn't until he signed onto the Lord of the Rings trilogy that accusations of selling out arose. It's also worth noting that fans of the trilogy were excited to see that the series was entrusted to someone who many felt they could "trust." Since then he directed King Kong for a reported $207 million and has agreed to executive produce the Halo movie for Microsoft.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith achieved a cult following with his ultra-low budget indie flick Clerks., but has subsequently been labelled a sellout on numerous occasions, particularly by people who saw the cheaply-made style of Clerks. as a mark of artistic integrity, rather than a financial decision. The accusations began with his second film, Mallrats, in which he made many changes to the screenplay to appease studio executives. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert recalled, in his review of the movie [2], acting as chairman for a discussion panel of independent filmmakers at the Cannes film festival. One of the filmmakers was Smith, and whilst the other filmmakers discussed measures they could take to avoid excessive studio interference with their work, Smith said that he would do anything to get the movie greenlit. At the time Ebert thought he was joking, but in his opinion with Mallrats, Smith did just that.

For his part, Smith has taken to applying the phrase to himself with self-deprecating enthusiasm, for example, saying in an interview, "I've been saying I sold out for years. When Miramax bought the first movie (Clerks.), that was a sellout. And you know, we followed up with Mallrats. We sell so much damn merchandise on our Web site that it's kind of become a joke that I like to make money." [3]. Smith has also mocked this by wearing shirts that jokingly say "SELL-OUT" and "INDIE" on them, as seen in making of footage for Clerks 2.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.