January 24, 2011

Sell Your Songs, Not Your Soul

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When indie bands sell out.

As a fan of both the over-the-top political satire of Stephen Colbert and blog-approved indie rock, one can imagine that the recent appearance of The Black Keys’ and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on The Colbert Report had me drawn to my television like a fat kid to a cupcake. For those unfortunate readers who missed this quality bit, I shall summarize: since Colbert won a Grammy last year for Best Comedy Album, he can now vote for the winners of this year’s awards. Colbert, after eliminating the other nominees for Best Alternative Album for suitably ridiculous reasons, plays referee in a head-to-head “Sellout-Off” between the two present groups.  Vampire Weekend and The Black Keys keep upping the ante, going commercial platitude for commercial platitude until things ultimately elevate and, in typical Colbert fashion, devolve into fisticuffs. It was a whimsical skit that did a good job of ribbing the so-called indie scene’s commercial ambitions, but raised some questions that I have as a fan of a scene that values integrity. When is it okay for a band to sell their songs and does it matter what their songs are used to endorse? Which is the greater responsibility, for the artist to protect the message behind the songs or to ensure financial security so that they can continue providing their fans with great music?These are hardly answerable questions. Vampire Weekend especially has  drawn criticism for their commercial exploits, comments that are only exacerbated by their preppy style and Ivy League education. Discerning hipsters whose voices ring so loudly through Internet comment boards generally see these characteristics as contrary to the band’s chic bohemian style. Many decry such capitalistic actions as crass prostitution of a group’s art, while others set arbitrary standards for what companies or media are cool or worthy enough to lend a song to. Few people sympathize with the harsh reality of the current music industry, where record sales are so low that a band like Cake can have a #1 record with only 44,000 albums sold (pointed out by AVClub for comparison’s sake, 10 years ago N’Sync’s No Strings Attached sold about two million more records). Indie bands especially are in danger. Even punk rock lifer Ted Leo, whose Pharmacists have been touring low key venues for the past 11 years, has expressed concern for his financial security. Advertisements not only offer artists a sweet payday, but a chance to hit it big. Matt and Kim’s “Daylight”, featured in a Bacardi ad, has helped them become indie pop heavyweights.From my perspective, I feel that decisions about allowing companies to use songs in a commercial need to be evaluated on a case-to-case basis. Bands have an aesthetic that their fans are attracted to, whether or not they want to admit it. They must remain somewhat faithful to it, in order to keep from being labeled sell-outs. A band like Phoenix, whose music and lyrics sound very slick and suave, can get away with sound-tracking a car commercial because the visuals in those commercials match up and the message of the song does not contradict the capitalist statement inherently being made by a commercial. On the other hand, The Shins, whose song “New Slang” was once used in a McDonald’s ad, fell into this trap of hypocrisy, since the song contains lyrics that allude to the unsanitary conditions of a burger place. Bands need to use certain discretion in how they act or else they will face extreme backlash.  And while commercialism can be good, by no means does that mean you should change the lyrics of your song so that you can promote Outback Steakhouse. Oh Of Montreal, how deeply you betrayed us.

Original Author: James Rainis