Credit: Daniel Kramer

What does it mean to “sell out”?

By Evie Glen

What’s in a label?

In 1965 Bob Dylan invoked musical Armageddon with the strum of a Fender Stratocaster—the feedback resonating like a Judas Kiss on the cheeks of orthodox folkies across America. It was a betrayal of his acoustic roots, of the dispossessed and repressed, of Woody Guthrie, of the anti-war movement, of the American youth, of the people who ‘made him’ and those who felt made by him. That same week, the Rolling Stones swung into their third week at the top of the charts on the jangly hedonistic strings of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. From the perspective of the folk purists, Dylan’s turn to rock amounted to the sale of his soul. As it happened, the devil incarnate was no more than a pouty English boy in a turtle-neck jumper; not possessed, merely dancing.

In the years since Dylan went electric, his ex-communication from the folk pantheon has become a critical phenomenon mirrored across genres. Since the 1970s, it’s been a phenomenon distinguished by the accusation of a musician ‘selling out’. By its earlier interpretations, a musician might be considered a sell-out if they sign to a major record label, grant advertising rights to their music or drastically change their sound to align with popular commercial tastes. In the algorithmically-generated music scene of the present, however, this interpretation of the sell-out seems to be declining in relevance.

The punks of the early 80s endorsed a distrust of major record labels, viewed as the corporate police of artistic freedom. This created a rippling that produced a slew of independent record labels founded on principles of free thought and expression. Anti-establishment and anti-conformist in both art and identity, for a punk to sign to a major label was like a Communist owning a Marx gift shop or, for that matter, Nirvana becoming a triple platinum alternative-punk-rock band. The latter were predictably branded sell-outs by grunge fans, proving the 90s were no more sympathetic to the majors.

Something has, however, changed since the 90s. In 2023, music sales were dominated by the ‘big three’ labels: Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Entertainment and Warner Music Group. Independent labels have amassed in recent years, representing artists whose popularity has so transcended their ‘alternative’ categorisation it has been reduced to meme (have you heard of Radiohead?). Yet their industrial power and influence has never come close to threatening that of the big three. If the 2024 Grammys are anything to go by (debatable) music’s frontmen are all, bar one, signatories of major record labels. And yet, none are popularly branded ‘sell-outs’.

I wager this is due in part to the lack of any subgenre from which to be sold. In the cases of Dylan, the punks and Nirvana, the move from sub-genre to popular genre rendered them sell-outs because they essentially moved towards everything their fans believed them representative against. This was more than just an artistic pivot, it was the death of a subculture. And in their grief of their cultural identity, fans labelled their icon a ‘sellout’ because it was easier to accept their subculture was created and abandoned by its leader, than that it never existed at all. These days, with the perpetual cultural rephrasing accelerated by TikTok, the death and renewal of genres and subgenres is so constant none ever really last long enough for people to become too attached. Genre-free, Jack Harlow can sell KFC without invoking quite the same derision as Iggy Pop did selling car insurance.


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