While My Fanbase Gently Weeps: The Music Business Sell-Out

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 24 November 2017 |

In the finest of music biz stories, there comes a point at which the hand of commerce takes over, the essence of the initial excitement goes out of the window, and the hardcore fans head for pastures new. All that remains, is a large and easily-satisfied audience consuming something that’s been calculatingly re-aligned to cater for their representative focus group. The vibe is dead. The dreaded sell-out, has come to pass.

Making a record which a lot of your long-time fans find “too cheesy” is not, per se, selling out. There have been shades of this with Noel Gallagher’s recent track Holy Mountain, and even the man himself has publicly acknowledged some fans’ disgruntlement. But with someone who's already a huge name with a lot of clout, a sell-out accusation is hard to qualify. Sell-out is really a climb-down in the face of industry or market pressure. In the traditional sense, to "sell-out", is to build a fanbase on the back of a clearly expressed and definable integrity, and then dump that integrity in order to gain a heavy financial profit. If an artist does something simply because they wanted to do it - however "cheesy" it may seem - it's not a classic sell-out.

Today, in fact, it’s become fairly difficult to find any obvious examples of the classic music-business sell-out. That’s down to a combination of factors. Top of the list? Most likely the transfer of R&D from record companies to the artists themselves, with the rise of the Internet. Because the Internet gives new bands and artists the means to measure how widely and how well they’re connecting, musicians are assessing and addressing their own marketability before they ever become visible. By the time the industry picks artists up, they’re already pretty well-optimised for a wide market, and proven compatible. That heavily reduces the need for them to U-turn for a mass audience after being signed.


Another important change has been music’s de-integration with fashion subculture – once a major component in perceived sell-outs. Up until the mid 1980s, bands often deliberately rode on the back of existing youth culture identities in order to connect with a pre-made crowd. Mod, Rockabilly, Punk, New Romantic, Goth… These were not just genres of music – they were also fashion identities. And the terms of identity were applied to the subculture’s followers, just as they were to the music and the artists. A fan of Punk, was “a Punk”. A fan of Goth was “a Goth”. The fan shared in the artist’s success, much like a football fan, and would be extremely loyal to the artist whilst the cultural identity was in vogue. Allied with a fashion identity, artists could, dare I suggest, sell records that… well, weren’t very good.

The problem was that if a band built their rep on one youth culture identity, and that identity plunged in popularity, the band’s sales would plunge along with it. The artists would either have to die out with the trend, or leap into a new pigeon-hole and be accused of selling out.

Above: Perhaps the greatest danger zone for UK sell-out accusations was the post-punk era of 1977 to 1982. At this time, trend-alliance could still make and break careers, but the trends had become overly sub-divided and short-lived. It was easier for true innovators to thrive, but much harder for bandwagon-hoppers to survive without being accused of selling out. Pictured memorables from the time include (L-R from the top), Neville Staple performing with The Specials. Maz Roberts and Kim Leslie backing The Piranhas as The Wealthy Tarts (subsequently with Paul Young as The Fabulous Wealthy Tarts). Endearingly bonkers pop genius Kate Bush. And Kevin Rowland fronting Dexys Midnight Runners. All of these artists maintained their cred by leading rather than following. Images were captured from BBC TV footage.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, fashion alliances had driven pop success. There’d been several notable periods of accelerated reinvention, but the one beginning around the end of the 1960s was particularly interesting. If you look at the artists who adopted glam in the early 1970s, you find them in all sorts of diverse situations a couple of years earlier. The glam genre didn’t have any musical roots – it was really just a huge candy-coating for slightly lost souls of the late ’60s who needed a better market. A sell-out? I’ll leave you to decide that, but it was certainly not a step towards greater integrity.

Slade had shed a skinhead styling to enter the glam camp, Bolan had dropped acoustic folk, and Bowie had left behind a collection of psychedelic tracks and an almost boffin-like image. And apart from its bias towards catchy structures, even the fully-established glam rock did not have a unified musical approach. The outlandish fashion was always more important than the sonic parameters.

The decline of glam led into to the event horizon of punk, at which point all known predictive indicators of UK chart success broke down. Your average glam and prog group couldn’t even sell out after punk. They were too old and too bang-to-rights on self-indulgence to claim any new wave cred. The best chance they had was to jump onto the disco bandwagon – and plenty of them tried. Some raised a chorus of “sell-out!” from embarrassed fans and at least a moderate hum of laughter from the the rest of the community. Early disco adopters The Bee Gees, however, got away with it in epic measure.

Post punk, the environment was fertile for maverick leaders, but virtually impossible for followers. Trend-hopping artists found fashion’s sub-divisions getting smaller and shorter lived. By the time they’d jumped onto a new bandwagon, the trend was on its way out.

One perfect illustration of a post-punk trend was Two-Tone – a fashion-driven genre fusing older Jamaican musical styles with modern British energy, and allying itself with the enticingly smart Rude Boy/Girl image identity. It exploded as a phenomenon in summer 1979, truly storming the UK pop charts; but it was virtually dead by 1981. The Two-Tone records, seen in the picture above, were highly focused in terms of musical style, and had a strict, uniform look, hinting at the fashion. The simplification to black and white was heavily symbolic, promoting inter-racial unity, and in the label’s heyday even the picture covers were reproduced only in monochrome.

When Two-Tone’s formulaic sound began to noticeably irk the music media around summer 1980, it was clear that the trend’s days were numbered, and that most of the bands associated with the label would need to take some sort of action. Staying afloat whilst avoiding the dreaded cries of “sell-out!” would not be easy for the Two-Tone bands, but there were some options available…


Various workarounds were employed by musicians to avoid stigma when ditching the identity upon which they’d built their profile. Easily the most popular option was for a band to split up, and then immediately reform with a different identity and target market. This sidestepped the accusation of sell-out, whilst allowing the nucleus of the group to conveniently dump members who wouldn’t ‘play ball’, or whom they’d simply decided they didn’t like. Part-reformations and drastic restylings were rife in the early 1980s when the fashion scene was so changeable.

Some groups did, however, manage to detach themselves from the fashions without losing their musical integrity or officially reorganising. Initially on Two-Tone, Madness were clever in the way they steadily evolved their style and look, but kept the essence of what had attracted fans to them in the first place. It allowed them to retain their name, identity and line-up, but to distance themselves sufficiently from Two-Tone to avoid going down with the ship. It didn’t look like a sell-out – in part, perhaps, because it was a gradual evolution and not an immediate U-turn. Plus, the band shifted away from Two-Tone long before the identity started to lose traction. That made the evolution look like the band’s choice, rather than some desperate reaction to a market nosedive.

However, Madness had the luxury of some extraordinarily good songwriting and some humour/novelty appeal which, even early on, almost eliminated their dependency on any given trend.

Whilst Two-Tone quickly fizzled out as a fashion, it continued as a small record label, and notably went seriously global in 1984 after the Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. This highly successful track was a major international protest encapsulating Two-Tone’s original ethos and featuring an extended cast of artists including Elvis Costello. The band was led by Jerry Dammers, who’d masterminded the record label in ’79, and had stuck with the theme regardless of its fashionable fortunes. If ever there was an example of an artist resisting extreme pressure to sell-out and winning, that was it.

But the market for political protest in UK music did begin to wane in the 1980s, and that in itself prompted another round of “sell-out!” taunts. Groups or artists who decided they weren’t political, after mobilising their entire rise to fame on the formerly in vogue “Rock Against Thatcher” ticket, were always going to face particularly impassioned cries of “sell-out!”.


The “sell-out!” chant has of course been aimed at a broader section of the music industry than just bands and singers. Record labels, music magazines and pirate radio stations are among the entities whose paths struck that familiar turning point, after which they were deemed to have commercialised, and were rejected by many of their original devotees.

Once big investors get involved, the pressure to deliver a financial return can outweigh all else, and money alone becomes the business’s raison d’etre. At that level, everything ends up chasing the most lucrative market. It can’t not.


But sell-out is harmless or victimless though, right? Not always. The biggest music business sell-out of all time was fuelled by a goal of appeasing prejudice.

1950s radio and TV stations played white artists’ pallid, weak covers of black artists’ classics, as opposed to the original tracks, because they perceived that the audience wanted white artists. Over time, this same sell-out to perceived audience prejudices even used white faces to front the actual music of black musicians.

As late as the first half of the 1970s, despite popular music’s black roots and relentless history of black influence, very little of the major UK chart success was black. The charts were white, because the airplay was white. Media attitudes only started to change after a run of phenomenal successes from black disco artists in the middle of the decade. And even then it took a long time for radio and TV to fully recognise the extent of the public appetite for authentic, original black music.

Today, artists like Dizzee Rascal (seen above in a still from BBC TV footage at Glastonbury in June 2017) show that the mainstream of music is now dictated by the people rather than second-guessing panels of ‘media decision makers’. Whilst pirate radio helped bring a wealth of black music out of the underground (particularly pre-internet), the World Wide Web has well and truly bypassed ‘panel wisdom’ and allowed the public to make their own decisions.


Musicians in advertising campaigns have raised some particularly aggressive “sell-out!” jibes. It’s easy to see why when an artist has endorsed a product or service with particularly low integrity and received a life-changing sum of cash for doing so. But the fact that an artist would need to get involved in low-integrity endorsement at all does raise the question of whether musicians are fairly rewarded.

It’s probably fair to say that musicians (and artists in general) have high moral integrity, and that creative personality types are among those least comfortable with supporting disingenuous claims or sociopathic corporate intent. But they’re entitled to fair compensation for what they’ve contributed to the world, and they’re often not getting that from the music industry. Many of them have known poverty and are well aware of how transient fame can be. If you’re offered a life-changing sum of money which will finally serve as proper compensation for all the times you’ve gone without, all the unpaid work you did, all the risks you took, and all the industry schemes that decimate your earnings, you’re going to at least consider it.

Do we, ultimately, have a right to criticise any musician for “selling out”, when we’re consuming everything they worked and invested to create and deliver, on YouTube, for free?

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