20 Sep, 16

Selling Out

When The Flaming Lips released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2002, it became an instant classic in my small circle of friends. We all adored their previous LP The Soft Bulletin, and Yoshimi was a superb follow-up: colorful, catchy, and expansive but still similar enough that it felt like an extension of its predecessor’s breakthrough.

There was one song in particular that caught our collective ear upon early listens: first single “Do You Realize??” The song is nearly perfect; unique, sincere and incredibly memorable. (It better be good if I’m to forgive the double question marks in the title.) The lyrics are especially touching: “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?/Do you realize we’re floating in space?/Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?/Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” They teeter on the edge of being saccharine but are delivered honestly and without irony. This was a very important song for myself and many people I knew.

It was only a few years later when I heard “Do You Realize??” in a television commercial for the Mitsubishi Galant. My heart sank, as did the heart of my longtime friend and bandmate Kathy Foster. Kathy was an even bigger fan of the Flaming Lips - and of “Do You Realize??” in particular - than myself. The song had summed up so much about what we adored and feared in life - love, beauty, and the permanence and inescapable reality of death. Now the song was being used to sell us a mid-size sedan.

We were offended, although we were already well into the era in which "selling out" was no longer considered a bad thing. In fact, a band licensing a brand new song in 2004 was already a normal part (or at worst, a necessary evil) of releasing an album. In the years when record sales were plummeting as digital piracy thrived, bands were no longer judged harshly, or at all, for licensing songs for commercial use. How else were they supposed to make money? Television ads became not just a good way to recoup recording costs and offset tour expenses. For some artists, they were now an integral part of promoting a new release. An easy way to expose a single to millions of potential new fans.

Kathy and I are old school. We grew up in the ‘90s, when many artists we admired would have been loath to let their music be used to sell anything. Could you imagine Sonic Youth or Nirvana songs being used to hawk a product? We couldn’t. This new age in which art and commerce commingled annoyed us. We were not only dismayed that our favorite bands were selling out, but that music fans no longer seemed to care. Kathy and I said that we would never do that, which is a very easy thing to say when no one’s throwing any money at you. It’s hard to sell out when no one’s buying.

Eventually, someone did come buying. The Thermals were in the van on a U.S. tour when we got a call from our label, Sub Pop: General Motors (Hummer, specifically) was interested in licensing “It’s Trivia," the first song on our first record, for use in a television ad for a fee of $50,000.

We had barely been a band for a year. We were doing well considering how young our band was, but we all had day jobs back at home, and would for a while. We definitely could have used the money. Who couldn’t? It’s impossible to say for sure, but had it been a different product or company, we may have taken the offer. But it was Hummer, a product that then, and still now, represents so many things we dislike in the world: greed, over-consumption and the militarization of private society, to name a few. We took just a few minutes to discuss the offer, but really there was no question about it - we wouldn’t be doing business with Hummer. Sub Pop fully supported us in our decision, and we never regretted it. We weren’t sellouts.

Things, however, change. A few years ago Kathy and I licensed one of The Thermals’ most popular songs, “A Pillar of Salt,” to Guitar Center, for an online ad that ran for three days. There are probably many fans of ours who are just learning about this now, from me of all people. Why am I throwing myself under the proverbial bus and giving my own fans reason to be angry or disappointed in me? Because I have reached a time in my life when I care more about being honest than I do about being liked. Did I sell out? In every sense of the word. Do I consider myself a “sellout” for letting Guitar Center using one of my songs for a few days? No more than I consider myself a sellout for releasing records on a label partially owned by Warner Brothers (Sub Pop) or for writing songs for a studio owned by an enormous corporation (Amazon).

Didn’t I want to be like my heroes Sonic Youth and Nirvana? Didn’t I want to stay pure and never sell out? I did, but I’m in a different position than they were. I’ve never been nearly as financially successful as Nirvana or even Sonic Youth. Besides, both of those bands - like most of my alternative/grunge idols - signed to major labels, seen (once upon a time) by many as the first and worst “sellout” action possible.

Every artist follows a different path. Along these paths come different choices to make, different decisions to live with, and different bills to pay. Why did we sell out? For the most obvious reason: we had bills to pay. We have given Guitar Center a lot of money over the years and didn’t feel bad about taking some back from them. It was our choice to make, and we are ok with it.

Of course, our fans have to live with it too, in the same way that Kathy and I, as fans of The Flaming Lips, have to live with their decision to license “Do You Realize??” I do hope that by licensing “A Pillar of Salt,” I haven’t ruined the experience of listening to it for anyone, but I understand that, for some people, I may have.

I didn’t apologize to our fans for letting Guitar Center use the song, just as I wouldn’t expect an apology from The Flaming Lips. And I don’t need an apology. Honestly, I’ve gotten over it. I’ve gotten over a lot of things as I’ve grown older. Many issues I used to stress about just aren’t as important to me. My time on Earth is short, and I tend to spend my time thinking about bigger, more important realities. I am floating in space. Happiness makes me cry. And everyone I know, someday, will die.

By Hutch Harris, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Westin Glass, distributed under the CC-BY creative commons license.

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