Selling out is possible. It isn’t always wrong, but it is possible.
I’m a big comedy fan – and one of my favourite comics is melted -Morrisey-lookalike Stewart Lee.
In one of his recent shows Lee performed a wonderful version of Galway Girl by Steve Earle. This was at the end of a long routine about how betrayed he felt when Magner’s Pear Cider started advertising their product with the slogan ‘Give it to me straight like a pear cider that’s made from a hundred percent pear’.
He claimed that this was a folk saying that his family had employed for generations and that Magner’s had stolen it and ruined it for him.
He goes on a long rant all built on the absurd premise that what is clearly a marketing slogan was in fact something that originally belonged to the people and has now been sullied by commerce.
Then he plays his version of Galway Girl, in which he includes a verse about the use of the song in adverts, which destroyed the meaning of the song for him. He also includes references to Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop, both of whom had recently been involved in commercials.
Yesterday I heard the excellent news that The Fierce and The Dead have signed to the record label Bad Elephant Music for their next record. This is a great partnership and I know it won’t suddenly involve TFATD having to make artistic sacrifices for the sake of commerce – that’s not what the record label is about.
However, perhaps related to this event Matt Stevens, social media addict, certified ‘good egg’ and guitarist extraordinaire posted on facebook asking what ‘Selling out’ was – whether it was something worth thinking about at all.
The short, flippant answer is ‘who cares, it’s no big deal anymore,is it?’ After all, I would never object to a musician choosing to pay the bills. Using your musical skills to earn a pay cheque could never be considered immoral.
Except, that’s not all of what I think, and it’s not all the answer – in fact, I’m kinda with Stewart Lee.
Not all things should be for sale. Prostitution for example is morally difficult because it involves selling something that many of us would think should not be sold. Slavery is definitely unacceptable because it involves selling something no-one thinks should be for sale.
Both are at the extreme end of the spectrum, but they’re examples of things we generally don’t consider to be commodities.
Less extreme, but of a similar nature is the artist and her intentions. Intention matters in art. In comedy how a comedian means a joke can change the entire complexion. A sexist remark in the mouth of a sexist is just that, the same remark in the mouth of someone who means it ironically – and is understood to mean it so by the audience – is different.
The same is true with music. Use your song to sell jeans, and suddenly it’s not a song, it’s a marketing jingle. That’s not immoral of itself, but it changes the meaning of the art. The songwriter can’t then claim that the song has the same meaning, because it has been tainted by the other use.
Meaning doesn’t just come from the words, it comes from place, context, intention. If your music is an advert, it’s an advert. You can do that of course, but don’t then be surprised if the audience has a different relationship with your work.
Galway Girl was, to Stewart Lee, a song with meaning. Hearing it used in an advert debased it – and although he doesn’t criticise Steve Earle (What’s an artist to do, for the kind of money they offer you?) he does mourn that change in meaning and wants it back.
Selling out is possible – it could lead to music being used for purposes for which it wasn’t originally intended. The musician needs to be aware of that change, aware that the audience has an emotional stake in the music – feels ownership.
That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong, it certainly isn’t. It also doesn’t mean it’s more important that earning a living, putting food on the table and all those practical things. But if your music is on an advert, don’t be surprised if people think of it as an advertising jingle.