To cry “SELL-OUT!” is to wield a brand of red-hot iron. To press it sizzling painfully against the skin of a human performer like it was the skin of a cow. To spell out in two simple words just who the masters are and who is the dancing monkey.

It’s an age old dilemma that rock n’ roll philosophers have pondered for decades: does your sound evolve and risk that fiery “SELL-OUT!” brand? Or do you recycle the same handful of ideas over the course of your career and pedal your wares to a guaranteed crowd of die-hards, but risk artistic stagnation and irrelevance?

To sell-out is defined as ‘to betray one’s principles for reasons of expedience.’ The principles being the property of the performer and so, the decision to betray them is entirely up to him/her.

But then you factor in the crowd…

The mere mortals who make up 99.9% of the music consuming public only encounter a band’s principles indirectly through their music. A sort of musical manifesto set loose on the world’s airwaves.

Where before they would have published a pamphlet, in the 20th century that pamphlet metamorphosed into the 2-3 minute single. And from there, it evolved into the LP. The mythic album.

Then, the dots get joined together, and the songs on an album form the cohesive whole that is the artist’s sound. This is then taken as their aforementioned musical manifesto. But, to deviate from that manifesto is to risk the alienation/wrath of a once loyal following and the red hot iron of the brand that spells “SELL-OUT!”

And so, the question is posed once again: do you evolve? Or do you re-hash past glories?

If a musician elects to evolve, then that brand is almost inevitably pulled from the flames to strike at any skin left exposed. But if they continue to rip themselves off, the inevitable stagnation sets in. Like a pair of concrete shoes.

But ‘selling-out,’ is a betrayal of principles. Not a betrayal of sound.

While a band’s principles certainly covers their sound, they also extend to cover much wider ground. Sound, image, ethos, are all factors in a band’s set of principles. Once these principles gain public traction, they become not just a manifesto. They become the band’s identity.

It’s this identity that the aforementioned music-eating crowd not only enjoys, but holds close to their heart. And any sort of deviation from their favourite band’s original identity is seen as treason.

An identity however is subject to change.

People are subject to change. And lest we forget, rock n’ roll stars are as merely mortal as the rest of us. Despite whatever evidence we think we have to the contrary.

So they grow up and change into a different person. Fame and fortune changes them. Addictions and travel and photoshop all throw their two cents worth into the melting pot that is a rockstar. So, to expect that group of people to make the same sort of music they did when they were simply piss-and-vinegar fuelled punks when they’ve turned 45 is an unreasonable/unhealthy expectation.

But that still leaves the question: evolve or repeat?

To continue in a tried and tested vein, to re-hash past glories to those faithful die-hards, to repeat. That is the true selling out.

When you have a guaranteed audience, when the new album is certain to sell even if it’s only a certain amount, when the bills are definitely going to be paid and a level of comfort is assured, to continue to mine the same musical seam in the pursuit of lucre is selling out. It is the desecration of an art form for money.

But totally understandable.

We are all mortal. We all have to eat and we all need a roof and a bed. Greed has at least a finger and at most an arm up all of our assholes and to some extent, we are puppets of it chasing the big house/fancy car.

There are other motivations for rock n’ roll tail chasing however.

‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’ as HP Lovecraft so eloquently put it. To venture out into uncharted territory, to set sail into the distant horizon, takes a certain daring rare among people.

Especially when the charted waters have earned you a loyal fanbase and a steady income. When confronted with that fear and that choice, it is easy to see why many a rock n’ roll star has elected to stay snug in their ivory tower. It’s easy to see why artistic integrity and evolution are sacrificed to the demon of greed, Mammon.

 

Fear though, is never a commendable reason for doing something.

To run away from creative potential out of fear, be it fear for your bank balance, fear for your fragile ego or any combination thereof, is to set a very poor example.

Creativity is one of the facets of the human condition. A wondrous, beautiful side of an uncut, unpolished diamond.

To let fear curb our creative potential, and then to hold it up as an achievement worthy of album sales, is to cut a deep psychic scar in our collective consciousness.

Some of our favourite bands may brag about being ‘unchanged’ since their inception. But, by chasing that carrot they call ‘success’ over the course of a career of eerily similar records, is to not only sell themselves short. It is to sell us short.

People are subject to change. And to change is as natural as sex, birth and death. While no one band can ever claim that they have documented the entirety of what it means to be human, any band that remains unchanged over any sort of lengthy career certainly can’t make that claim.

So, is it evolve or repeat? Chase the dollar tied to our tails, or sail out into the unmapped seas of humanity?

But remember, money is a tool. It is not a master. It is useful. Not defining, nor evolution enhancing.

We have rights and responsibilities. We have the right to make money. And We have the responsibility to do it well.

by James Fleming

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