We’ve all heard it before. Don’t be a sell out! Be true to the art form, be true to yourself. Don’t sacrifice that for fame and fortune. Bla bla bla. Noble words coming from people who usually (a) aren’t in the music business or (b) are in the music business but need to hold another 2 jobs to stay afloat. Good for them! Let them make the “noble” choice but don’t let their choices influence you. Selling out is not copping out and I will explain exactly why in a minute.
The music industry is like any other industry, right? Your music is a business. You are a brand. But too often we don’t treat it like that. For some reason we think it should abide by its own laws – that those that have a true love for the artform, those that are the most gifted/talented, those that have the best songs should come out top, and those that approach it as a business should not. Wrong. Music is like any other industry, and the reason we make it so hard for ourselves, the reason we think the industry is inherently “tough” is because we don’t approach it this way.
Anything in life is about supply and demand. If there is no demand, there is no exchange. Feel free to follow the art-form and make music that you love, just remember that that does not necessarily mean that everyone else will love it or that it will be popular. If you are happy with writing, recording or performing music that is not well received commercially just remember that from a label/promoter’s point of view you’re not marketable and don’t expect to get rid of your day job.
Please note this is not coming from a place of greed, it’s simply the reality. If anyone wants to make music a career you have to treat it like a business, and with a business comes much needed research and product/service customisation to meet a need/want in the market. If you’re looking at earning your wage through being an artist, i.e. through record sales, performances and related merchandise, you might have to do what some people refer to as “selling out”. All that it means is that you’ve listened to the world’s music-taste and you’ve adapted your art to meet it so that an exchange can happen.
I say selling out is not copping out because its simply understanding the industry and giving it the respect it deserves. The music industry is far from saturated. Music listeners do not select their favourite artist and simply move on with their lives like they would with a brand of toothpaste or their favourite soft drink. There is always space to invite a new artist into their collection. The thing that makes the industry so fresh is that music gets old. Isn’t that ironic! Sure its great to listen to the classics but you can’t spend your whole life listening to the same CD over and over. You need to make room for the new, i.e. there is always demand.
Finding that demand is key to staying alive in the industry and to be able to do what you love for a living. Yes, “what you love”! Sure I write soft-rock because it comes naturally to me, but if you told me that if I had to make orchestral music or pop music in order to have a profitable music business therefore negate the need for the potentially unfulfilling day-job, hell yeah I’d do it! You mean that I’d be able to spend my working days creatively, pursuing something that has my name directly attached to it! Sign me up!
You see for me, and I’m sure for a lot of you, being creative is number one. Take away my guitar and I’ll make the best piano-ballads this year. Take away the piano and I’ll play drums in the most brilliant accompanying rhythm section to come out this summer. Whatever I have, I’ll pour my soul into it. I’ll give my all. Why? Because I LOVE music. I truly love the art-form and appreciate all aspects of it. Restrictions don’t stunt creativity, they stimulate it! A good musician can express him/herself with any instrument/any genre. Isn’t that the music ethos. The code?
Selling out is an excuse that unsuccessful people use. We are all scared of putting our heart and soul into something only for it to fail. It’s natural to use excuses to prevent us from getting hurt, to maintain that comfort zone. Please just don’t impart that disease in someone else’s head because you were too afraid to follow your own dreams. And please please don’t look at them with regret when they’re getting all the attention and living the life you’ve always wanted playing music that you could play in your sleep!
Remove the “Sell out” myth from your vocabulary. Love the artform, love all aspects of it.
Sean David is a singer/songwriter, music entrepreneur and journalist from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. For more info on what he’s been up to click here.