The Ethics Of… Selling Out

‘Sell out’. It’s a simple label but depending on which industry you’re in, it can be one of the most damning accusations going. No matter if you’re a musician, a politician, an artist, a designer, a business leader or a academic, ‘selling out’ means you’re done. It’s all over. Whatever magical spark of creativity, intelligence, critique or idealism you once offered the world has petered out, and all that left if another cog in the great machine of society. You’re finished, friend, a has-been. Time to roll you onto the refuse of history and try to remember the days before you became the hack you now are.

Of sure you might still be popular – in fact selling out might have propel you to levels of popular success you could never imagine – but what good is love and acclaim by the masses, when deep down you know that what they love about you is the junk you now produce? You might be rich beyond your wildest dreams, but no volume of cash, cars or cocaine is ever going to chase away that nagging little voice inside your head; ‘You sold out sister. You might be walking, but you died right then’.

As dramatic as it sounds, this is very much a real accusation levelled at leaders and creative types all the time. You’ve got great musicians like John Butler, known for his incredible finger-picking guitar sound, who made a more conventional soft rock album and was immediately branded a sell out by fans and reviewers alike. Then there’s Metalica, a great bastion of metal declared ‘the greatest sell out of music history‘ after changing their sound, and protesting about people stealing their music.

In the art world you have rebels like Banksey, known for his provocative, anti-establishment and almost always illegal street art, who once railed against the evils of advertising and greed – and who is now worth $20 million. Even painting heavyweights like Picaso and Michelangelo come in for a hiding, being accused or churning out derivative crap they personally loathed in order to make that sweet sweet money.

You might be less surprised to hear that politicians get called sell outs, given they’re in the unique position of deciding if they’re being corrupt or not (legally at least), but it is still relatively rare that a politician manages to alienate their core voting bloc. Sure practically the entire world hated George Bush Junior by the end of his blundering reign of terror, but the people the loved him were still doing their darnedest to hold him up as a great political visionary. Less so Australian politicians like Peter Garrett. This guy was a hero of the environmental movement, work for aboriginal recognition, workers rights and every other progressive cause under the sun. An icon of Australian rock, when he declared he was going to try his hand at politics every single one of his fans expected him to bring that fire to the election. Then he joined the Labor Party, Australia’s kinda-sorta-occassionally middle-left wing party where he landed the gig of Environment Minister and did precisely fuck-all for four years before retiring into obscurity.

And if you’re looking for examples of selling out in politics then look no further than good old Barak Obama! One of the few men in history to be simultaneously called the socialist anti-christ AND a capitalist warmonger in the same term.

These posters have turned out to be impressively versatile over the years.

Of course if you think about it, this whole ‘selling out’ business could easily boil down to ‘people doing things I don’t want them to’, which isn’t so much a failure of integrity as us dealing with the fact that reality isn’t perfect. I mean, who are we to criticise a painter for taking a paid gig they’re not really into, a politician for adapting to complicated problems, or a musician for changing their sound – I mean it’s theirs sound for crying out loud, they can do what they want with it.

But of course selling out is a bit deeper than that. It’s not just ‘doing things slightly differently to normal’, it’s compromising your values for one very specific reason: money.

Man, I love me a concept with a nice clear definition.

Selling out isn’t just about making changes, nor doing things you don’t fully believe in to get by, both of those are justifiable since everyone needs to eat and your artistic integrity doesn’t . Nah, what truly counts as selling out is when you take your principles – those guiding values that have lead you throughout your career – and willingly ditch them for a big pile of money and a spot on MTV Cribs. It’s not about getting by, it’s about compromising your integrity to get rich.

Right away this puts some of our examples up there in a different light. John Butler and Metalica are establish, famous band that aren’t short of a quid already. If they decide to change up their sound and try something new then that’s not selling out, that’s them doing what they want to do with their music. Sure your fans might not like the change, and of course that’s their right to do so, but if the artists decide they want to stick with it regardless of how it affects their popularity then so be it – if anything they’d be selling out to change their style back due to popular demand.

Similarly it’s hardy fair to rag on Michelangelo for taking jobs he didn’t really care about in order to support the work he was passionate about. Hell that’s how roughly 90% of artists function in real life. Shit, that’s how most people in general function in real life. Unless you’re working for an organised crime racket to support your work with victims of crime, then it’s not really a matter of ‘compromising your values’ so much as it is ‘supporting your basic needs’.

The same goes for Banksy. Sure it’s kind of ironic that someone protesting against how the world works ends up making $20 million in the process, but what is he going to do about it? If you make art protesting the system you live within, then (assuming you’re right) then congrats! That’s a very ethical thing to be doing. And while accepting payment from people who like it does indeed involve operating in the system you are trying to change, exactly what else are you supposed to do? Refusing the payment is all very noble, but it also prevents you from making a living, which in turn prevents you from making your art. Whereas if you take the payment, you make a living directly from your art, which makes it easier to create more art, which spreads your message further.

The guy paints his stuff on public walls for god’s sake. Not exactly wrangling for top dollar here.

This criticism in particular gets leveled at political bands like Rage Against the Machine a lot; how can a group that’s constantly on about hating capitalism and revolution justify being signed to Sony, a multinational corporation and the very thing that they despise? Simple, according to guitarist Tom Morello;

“When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels. Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that’s where people buy their books. We’re not interested in preaching to just the converted. It’s great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it’s also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart.”

Contrast this against someone like Peter Garrett up there, who didn’t just make some changes to the way he did things, but rather decided to join up with a group that didn’t really support his ideals in the first place, all so he’d have a better chance to get into power. You might argue that this is exactly the same as working within a system you disagree with in order to change that system, and that was likely Garrett’s intentions. But that reasoning rings hollow when he what he went on to do with his new position was exactly what his new party wanted, often at the expense of his own values. And it rings doubly hollow when there was an alternative political party that did fits all his values that was very available for him to join.

But if you’re looking for a perfect example of a sell out, someone who rose to prominence on a set of strongly held beliefs, only to turf those away when money was offered, then look no further than Flavor Flav. As part of the hip hop group Public Enemy, Flav became famous for his attacks on racism in the USA, aggressively criticising the system he lived in, and calling for others to tear it down. The hit ‘Fight the Power’ sums up this message powerfully, even going so far as to claim that historic wins for racial equality were just shams to trick coloured people into thinking racism was over.

That was Flavor Flav then. This is him 16 years later.

Flavor of Love for those lucky enough not to know what that is, was a reality TV show based off The Bachelor. I could go into more detail here, but frankly reading about this mess is lowering my IQ. Needless to say, it took all the contrived, artificial tripe of The Bachelor and mixed up with possibly the trashiest stereotypes of ghetto culture you can imagine. You can call it ‘satire’ all you want, but since that usually implies an intelligent critique of the subject matter – rather than doubling-down on that subject in a way that the Black and White Minstrels would be proud of – I’m not inclined to agree.

So here we have a fellow who rose to fame as a renegade, opposed to racism in his nation, fighting against a system that keeps black people down, and calling on all of us to “fight the powers that be”, strutting around like the vilest parody of his people, not just perpetuating stereotypes but creating new ones, and doing so at the behest of a massive multimedia organisation owned by rich white people. What on earth could have lead such a champion of the civil rights resort to this sort of behaviour?


He ain’t exactly subtle about it

Once again, it’s not that Flav made money off his work that is the problem here. And if he was doing this sort of work to survive and support work he actually believed in, it could (maybe) be justified. But that’s not what’s happening here, is it? This is an artist, once driven by powerful values, not only abandoning those values but becoming the very thing he once opposed, all for a bunch of cash that he clearly doesn’t need too desperately considering he glues precious metals to his fucking teeth.

But hold up a second here; so what if he’s changed his values? If there’s one overriding message on this blog it’s that people can and should change their values over time. Being able to do so is the sign of a wise person, and failure to do so in the face of the evidence is daft as well as unethical.

But there’s the key word: evidence. Yes people should absolutely be willing to change their values and beliefs over time, and folks like Peter Garrett and Flavor Flav have definitely done that. But such changes can’t just be based on whatever you feel like doing today – they need to be justifiable based on the evidence in front of us. If nuclear war broke out and those who survived found themselves scratching for a living amongst whatever primitive culture remained (sorry, been playing fallout) then yeah, betraying your deeply held beliefs in order to survive can almost certainly be justified – basic survival is quite a bit more important than racial discrimination or environmental sustainability. But even then I would expect people to resort only to the smallest evil they need to in order to get by – remembering here that the benefits only justify the costs if we go with the best possible option available to us.

Ultimately the entire concept of selling out is a solid one that tends to get confused by those who forget that changing a musical style,or changing an opinion based on new information is not the same thing as abandoning one’s values. Getting paid to do what you does not make you a sell out, nor does taking job that you don’t believe in in order to support the work you do – provided you don’t undermine your values in the process. What really counts as selling out is when you take those values and throw them away when the gravy train comes along. To betray everything you believe to be right, purely for self interest? That’s an ethical failure in a nutshell.

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