Beyond Our Control: Why we’ll never avoid being cut by the double-edged sword of success in the music industry

26 Mar

The dust might finally be settling in Austin following its week-long occupation by SXSW-goers, but there’s still a buzz around what was seen there. And while Austin’s locals are still shaking their fists and telling us not to move there, I’m sure someone is currently roaming the “Help Wanted” ads hoping to high-tail it into the so-called Music Capitol of the World.

Nevertheless, Houston is only a stone’s throw from Austin, and our local music scene and city pride is just as strong – just without the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign featuring that eye-sore of a font.

So I wasn’t very surprised when Chris Gray, Editor of Houston Press’ music section, wrote an article reflecting on how the heart of SXSW Music has somehow become covered in Doritos cheese-flavored dust.

Now, more than ever, SXSW has become one big walking (or driving) advertisement. Nearly every surface in Downtown Austin is wrapped in saran wrap (to cut down on the time and cost of removing stickers and posters), while pretty much every official showcase is “hosted” by someone. And whether it’s Sony handing out free breath-mints and koozies, or Taco Bell hooking up with MTV, you’ll be hard-pressed to close your eyes and remember an object that wasn’t covered in ads.

And while Gray hit the nail on the head with that one, he got me thinking about how the music industry, not just SXSW, has changed in general.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to make it out to the entire festival this year, but I did get to go to the showcase that fun. played at Stubb’s on Friday night with Delta Spirit and The Drums. I saw crowds come and go for each band, but I distinctly remember getting irritated with the hundreds of people that cleared out as soon as their latest single, “We Are Young,” finished.

To some, the fickle crowd might have been caused by something many would call “selling out,” but in my eyes, it only furthered my growing resentment for those people who chew bands up and spit them out.

When “We Are Young” debuted in September 2011, it entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 53, but quickly became just another great song by fun. that I would appreciate alone in my car. However, the cast of Glee covered it on an episode in December, and people took notice of it – including Chevrolet, who used the track on their Superbowl commercial.

In 2008, fun. was formed by lead singer Nate Ruess due to the demise of his former band, The Format. He asked partners Jack Antonoff of Steel Train and Andrew Dost of Anathallo, two bands he’d toured with, to embark on the journey.

The group’s debut (and only other release), Aim and Ignite, featured “Walking the Dog” – which was later used in an Expedia commercial. For Ruess and Antonoff, it was the first time that a band they were part of had seen any kind of commercial success.

So while Gray might not have intentionally suggested this in his article, it got me thinking about how often the term “sellout” is thrown around by fans, critics and musicians alike. Perhaps it’s my inner-optimist, or the fact that I love to see people find success doing what they love, but I tend to avoid the word at all costs. More importantly, I would never say that a band like fun. wasn’t deserving of their single making it to #1 on the Billboard charts, no matter how it got there. Then again, I’m only one person.

So now I’m left wondering what exactly makes a band deserving or undeserving of their success. Is it simply because their music is played on the radio, or used by outside companies? Is it any group that signs a recording contract that will allow for their music to be licensed out, or is it something else entirely?

In recent years, I’ve noticed more and more indie bands being used for things like movie previews and promoting sales at Old Navy. Maybe it’s just a trend, but can we really get mad at a band if their record company requires bands to license their music in exchange for money to record their album? Or what about the fact that we’re in a recession, and indie artists might be cheaper than Top 40 artists? And have you ever stopped to consider that indie film-makers are more interested in bands from Barsuk or Saddle Creek than Warner Music Group?

The truth is that indie bands can license their catchiest tunes for years and go completely unnoticed. If you don’t believe me, you must not be a big Mates of State fan. They’ve been featured in commercials, movies and TV shows over the last ten years, yet they’re still only playing in small-to-medium sized venues.

Then there are bands like Matt & Kim. Six years ago I was telling everybody they would blow up (and getting laughed at in the process), but I won’t lie when I say that their success surprised even me when they won an MTV Woodie award for their “Lessons Learned” video in 2010. I’m just happy to admit that they’ve never changed, and I doubt they ever will.

Truth be told, they were the only reason I went to SXSW in the first place, and now I couldn’t get into their shows if I tried.

Sure, I could hang my head and mope about how I’ll never get to chance to see Matt & Kim play to 50 people the way I did in 2008, but I’d much rather see hundreds of people smiling and dancing then walking away shouting that they deserve more credit.

Music isn’t a selfish thing. And as both a journalist, fan, and rational person, I can’t find a better word to describe people that complain about “selling out” than “hypocrite.” If you like a band enough to support them, you obviously like them enough to tell people to listen to them. If you’re telling people to listen to them, you can’t really be surprised when word gets out and they’re climbing the charts and suddenly playing sold-out shows in Europe.

I stand with Gray when he openly expresses hope that bands aren’t writing songs with the intent of being featured on commercials, but in this day in age, bands are lucky to be heard at all. Sure, local music scenes will always support their own, but the truth is that attention spans have diminished to the point where listening to an album in its entirety is virtually unheard of. Instead, it’s cheaper and easier to consume one song via iTunes for .99 cents than it is to splurge for the entire album, that is, if you’re lucky enough to get people to pay for your music at all.

I’m glad that I’ve got men and women like Gray on my side who refuse to let the music industry fold to corporations looking to hawk off their latest inventions, but I will say that we need to re-evaluate how we view and value success.

The concept of being a rock-star isn’t new, but if bands are constantly waiting for daggers to be thrown at their backs every time they do something that gets even whisper of attention, what’s the point of making or listening to music? And conversely, if they’re expecting fans and critics to start name-calling at all, what’s stopping them from embracing that stigma and slapping their music to any and every ad they’re offered?

Sure, we can argue that art is made to allow the artist to express oneself, but like paintings and sculptures in museums, the best bands will find their way into the public’s eye whether they’re trying to or not. And if someone could tell me how a 30-second clip of a song is “less legitimate” than the entire track being played on a radio station, I’d love to hear it.

So here’s my advice: if you like the music someone’s making, then enjoy it, recommend it, sing and dance along to it. If you’re making music, take advice from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.

The duo, which also includes Patrick Carney, once turned down $130,000 that would have allowed for their song to be featured in a British mayonnaise commercial, and they say they’ll never turn down money again.

“That would have paid my rent for two years,” Auerbach told Spin. “It’s almost insulting to my mom, who works every day teaching kids and doesn’t get paid shit. As long as your art is pure, who cares where it is?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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2 Responses to “Beyond Our Control: Why we’ll never avoid being cut by the double-edged sword of success in the music industry”

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