What’s a Sellout?

Re: “Selling Out: The Next Level” by Miles Raymer, April 9

The point was always lost on the Chicago Reader, but the dumb-ass mid 90s arguments that pitted “sell-outs” against “the authentic” in the debates over who topped which music charts—as well as the more recent, grown-up version informed by the corporate and independent music distribution systems, the business of licensing agents, and contemporary avenues of access to high-end audio-recording facilities—are not, in fact, questions about how “indie bands” can, or should, survive. They are about who is granted entrance into the increasingly exclusive club we think of as American arts and culture, and how that jives with our notion of this country as a democracy. Big-picture questions like this are missing from Miles Raymer’s recent trend-watch piece, “Selling Out 2.0” (I may have the title wrong), a glowing review of the union between culture and consumption in the commercial music industry and a follow-up to his last piece on the phenomenon, “I Totally Give You Permission to Sell Out”—although I may have that title wrong too—to which I also responded on these pages and for In These Times (“In Continued Condemnation of Opting In”).

Raymer’s article describes the virtues of various albums recently emitted from soda companies, footwear manufacturers, and drug makers (oh wait! That last Raymer does not describe, despite Tylenol’s 2005 Songs of Hurt and Healing, a groundbreaking release in terms of the history he outlines), but no space is offered for potential downsides. Such as: when we marry freedom of expression to the free market, we get neither inexpensive nor terribly diverse cultural production. In fact, we get well-packaged but well-worn music, art, or performance that both reflects and perpetuates consumerist ideals. It is because these consumerist ideals circumscribe a race, class, gender, sexual preference, age range, and income level (affluent straight white males 18-34) reflected both in the target audience and in those chosen to attract them with their musical stylings that we cannot consider fully branded culture a crisis of conscience. It is a crisis of democracy.

But I do not mean to hold Raymer accountable for the lack of institutional memory or fact-checking skills that led to these overlooked points. This would be exactly as pointless as accusing bands of “selling out,” when “selling out,” as he rightly points out, means continued viability in the commercial market. (He does not describe the great number of bands that are dropping out of, or failing to enter, the commercial market in order to make interesting music.) Thus, “selling out” is not what’s going on in contemporary music.

Selling Out: While the commercial metaphor still resonates, the autonomy implied in it does not. Certainly, one can “sell out” when one has a range of options from which to choose, a first guaranteed to bring integrity, another big bucks, and a third, perhaps, the ladies. But one cannot be said to be “selling out” if one’s options are narrowed to only one choice. And given the media representations by media monopolies, well-placed sponsorships and endorsements, cross-marketing deals, constant advertising, non-music companies’ musical releases, and articles such as Raymer’s, few bands entering the musical field today can find any evidence of musical creation beyond the commercial. Already, the industry has “sold out,” and what individual artists do within it is sort of irrelevant. (Except, of course, for U2. They’ve found a way to retain their integrity and...oh my god, I’m sorry. I can’t even finish writing the joke.)

But when the very definition of “band” includes “commercial success,” there is still a small contingent of artists working today who don’t qualify. They won’t get the Fresca recording contract, and will therefore be kept from an ever-growing number of venues and distribution sites where, in better days, a more diverse range of sounds could be heard. Probably, the band will consist of members of a class, race, gender, sexuality, or age not currently favored by either our commercial culture or, frankly, governmental policies. And so, at an ever faster rate, members will tire of competing in a hostile environment, and stop producing music completely. These are the facts of cultural production under commercialism: only a select few are chosen to produce the commercials. We, the audience, eager for innovative sounds, or new role models, or—hell—even wacky fashion tips—we, the American people, lose out.

It is part and parcel of any well-informed discussion of “selling out” that we acknowledge the artificial narrowing of choices within the culture produced; that we, in short, begin to address the inability of democracy to survive under late-stage capitalism. Raymer may be thrilled with the benefits that Mountain Dew’s Cool Kids’ album brings both Mountain Dew and the Cool Kids, but he’s overlooked the opportunity cost inherent in the rigorous democratic access to media, art, and cultural production that is being trampled by the ascendancy of commercial culture. And that will cost dearly.

Anne Elizabeth Moore

Miles Raymer replies:

There are many fine points here I’d like to argue—like the number of commercially sponsored groups I mentioned with members of a class, race, or gender “not currently favored by either our commercial culture or, frankly, governmental policies”—but I’ll stick to just a few.

At a time when labels from living room operations to multinational corporations are struggling to keep up with musical trends created by MySpace and YouTube—and other democratic Web 2.0 innovations that demonstrate the power of demographics outside of the “affluent straight white males 18-34” norm—the idea that the American, not to mention the global, cultural dialogue is becoming more exclusive is ridiculous. For better or for worse—and I personally tend to think the former—record industry kingmakers like Ahmet Ertegun and monocultural behemoths like the Rolling Stones have been supplanted by blog commenters and a fantastically fractured musical landscape that offers opportunities to work outside of major media’s reach that a DIY-er 15 years ago could only have prayed for.

The whole point of “Selling Out: The Next Level” is that there is an ever-increasing number of ways musicians can make a living without having to sign up with the major label complex. Quite a few of them involve marketers, and artists engaging with capitalism on that level can understandably turn off some musicians, fans, and ideologues.

But a musician who wants to make a living in our country has to do so within the confines of the capitalist system, and any musician capable of landing a gig at Potbelly deserves to get something for it. Those who can monetize their talents can follow their own consciences. Some artists are saints and some are whores, but anyone judging them needs to acknowledge that the free flow of information that’s made music so much easier to spread around has also severely damaged their ability to live off it. Accepting a paradigm where it’s OK to freely trade artists’ work without their permission means accepting that consumers don’t get to tell those artists how they should make their rent.

That doesn’t mean that the only way to make rent is to sell off their songs to Mountain Dew. If Ms. Moore opened her eyes she’d notice the wild array of music making its way to the public—partly through the pages of the Reader—without any marketers, publicists, or record labels involved, and without anyone asking permission.

Pissed About Parking Meters

Re: “FAIL: How Daley and his crew hid their process from the public, ignored their own rules, railroaded the City Council, and screwed the taxpayers on the parking meter lease deal” by Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke, April 9

I so appreciate you guys making sure all this information is available to the public! Now I hope you’ll take this topic further and tell some of the real stories of how the meter rates, not to mention the cost of the tickets has had an absurdly disproportionate effect on the lives of Chicagoans. I work for one of the oldest AIDS services agencies in the city and we have lost clients and volunteers, had disabled staff hassled by exorbitant tickets (though their disabled placard was in plain sight!), and who knows how many people who would’ve come for anonymous testing have put it off, all because the parking meters in front of our offices are now more than most of our consumers can afford. We have written to Alderman Smith, whose office is two doors down from ours, but have so far not received a response. All I can say is that I hope to continue to see empty meters all along our block of Broadway and I applaud those drivers who are saying NO MORE to the rampant persecution this city perpetuates against those who dare to own a vehicle.


As for a protest, I would suggest a multi pronged approach.

1.Call 311 every time you park and report every meter/pay box broken. Whether it is or not. And if you’re walking, just find a meter number and report it anyway.

2.Stuff every meter with every penny you have. Literally pennies. Make them overflow every time then report them broken.

3.Email TDiPaolo@lazparking.com (Chicago operations) to express your disdain for their performance

4.Email ALazowski@lazparking.com (CEO) and tell him how you feel

5.If you use Morgan Stanley for any services then STOP... and tell them why.

It will eventually work. And calling 311 instead of calling LAZ directly will send the city a clear message.

The Angry Chicagoan

It doesn’t surprise me the city is selling off its public services to private entities. Cities have done it before with utilities. But among the things which do surprise me about this story of the parking meters is where is the supposed opposition papers like the Reader predicted from the newly elected aldermen and women. A vote of 40-5 and 49-0 for on some projects? This isn’t a democracy. This is a totalitarian society. There was a lot of confusion over the meters changing over on January 1, 2009. The posted rates were still the same from 2008. Now, it makes sense the new rates didn’t go into effect until March as the deal wasn’t finalized until later. But all of the city’s newspapers served their own interest by not reporting that. Seems papers like the Tribune had better fish to fry by trying to oust Blagojevich (and printing Federal evidence after the feds asked them not to) whom they have never supported. Where was the public hearing on the parking meters? Can’t someone sue the city over this?

Mike Smith

I found your piece very informative. Unfortunately, it simply adds to my embarrassment of living in Chicago. We are a joke. This has got to be the largest, most corrupt muni-government in the country.... As long as the culture exists of people being paid to do nothing and repression of an open market of hiring and contracts, nothing will change in Chicago.

Ronald Scott

Many thanks to you at the Reader for putting your ass out there and demanding information that was denied to aldermen, not to mention us citizens. At least someone’s doing their job. Aside from the flagrant disregard for the democratic process on the part of Daley and his cronies (that we’ve come to expect in this city), I am also alarmed at the loyal-puppy response of the aldermen who find it too much to ask to “read the fine print.” If they won’t take control of the city for us, this recession-near-depression environment will bring some citizens to take matters into their own hands, whether it’s through protest, art or coup.

Margarita Korol

A Theater Company’s Mission

Re: “What’s Their Motivation? Why 23 members of the 24-year-old American Theater Company ensemble walked” by Deanna Isaacs, April 9.

What irks me is that the board allowed, even promoted, actions like this. It is unfortunate that they just bit off so much and then had the apple go bad on them. I sure hope they can chew it. I wont be attending their shows any longer to find out, however.


My hunch is that American Blues Theater—not hobbled by a million-dollar budget and a big staff—will have the better chance of surviving in a time when everybody has to hunker down. There is nothing wrong with a theater organized around a visionary talent. (Brecht anyone?) But this company was created and sustained by a group of artists. To say that the company still exists when the vast majority of the artists have left the building is like saying a someone is still alive even though the soul has left the body. If Paparelli can sustain the loyalty and excitement of a board with his vision and put up good stuff, then he will earn a place to do so. I’m putting my (very metaphorical) money on Kate and Rick and Carmen and the others. I know their work and will go to a theatre on the promise of seeing what next they have to offer.

Jeff Sweet

To quibble with one factual detail—Casey Campbell is misinformed about several important points of the plot of Hedwig and the Angry Inch—it isn’t about a drag queen in Berlin. It’s about a former Berliner who immigrates to America, and who becomes transgendered in order to marry and get through immigration. In other words, while I’m dubious about some of the new ATC programming choices, I consider Hedwig to be an excellent (albeit edgy) exploration of ATC’s mission—like ATC’s more conventional choice of Tintypes, it’s an exploration of what some go through in order to become Americans.

I’m interested in the postulation of PJ’s that one can form a theatre company around a mission OR a group or people, but not both. It’s an interesting concept that I wouldn’t mind seeing debated further. I think that many theatre companies do form with the unwritten mission “we do the plays we want to do and use our performers in them” and the mission is more something each new production chosen is *justified against* than something the company truly cares about and serves. I think a lot of companies with really vague missions have such vague missions because spelling out the actually reason for the company’s existence would sound too self-indulgent.