Bands and Brands: The Changing Art of ‘Selling Out’

Olivia discusses the evolving music industry, and the shift from 'selling out' being career suicide, to perhaps an artist's only guaranteed paycheck.

For generations of musicians and music lovers alike, “selling out” was the worst thing a musician could do. A stinging insult and verbal slap to the face, it meant sacrificing musical quality or original intentions in favour of commercial success. But is ‘selling out’ really as bad as it sounds, and could the modern digital world be driving all artists towards putting commercialism over creativity?

Back in the early ’90s, when the music industry was thriving, brand deals weren’t the way artists got ahead — the punitive value outweighed the relatively small financial gains bands made for licensing a song to an ad campaign. But in a changing music industry, with increasing rates of piracy and falling profits for musicians in the streaming age, artists still need to make money, and the many faces of ‘selling out’, whether it be writing to please the mainstream, endorsing products, or sacrificing musical identity, have become a means for a paycheck.

“….revenue generated from such associations, … is now essential for artists to make a living”

Sony Music and Syco’s Head of Digital Marketing, Anya Du Sauzay, believes that “brands allow artists to grow a profile outside of music because streaming doesn’t lend itself to instant chart impact in the traditional sense anymore”. “It’s no longer the case that you release a few tracks and you’ve got a new pop star. It can take two or three years to break an artist simply because with streaming, you don’t get that same immediate volume and impact that the old school release model allowed”, she adds. In 2018, streaming revenue grew by 34%, with paid streaming services, and their 255 million users worldwide, now accounting for almost half (47%) of global music revenue. With a subsequent 10.1% decline in physical revenue and a 21.2% decline in download revenue, the way that musicians are making money has changed dramatically; whilst artists do get paid, particularly from advertising revenues, the payment model from streaming is far more complicated. This has driven some artists to begin to focus their efforts on brand building, using their music as a form of advertising to peddle products and services for companies; an act that in a time before would have been an assault on their integrity, if not career.

“…‘selling out’ has become merely ‘selling’”

Balancing commercial imperatives with artistic integrity has become a key part of industry success, and artists risk fading into the background of the social hemisphere if they aren’t seeking out their next brand deal.

Charli XCX, now a household name, spent years writing hit hooks for other artists like Icona Pop (‘I Love It’) and Iggy Azalea (‘Fancy’) before one of her solo cuts became the theme song to the hit film, The Fault In Our Stars, and went platinum.

In an increasingly cluttered marketplace, advertising deals have become a major platform for getting the word out about new artists, and have shifted to become a respected and desirable launch pad into the industry. The revenue generated from such associations, which can range from $2,000 – $12,000, depending on the size of the brand, is now essential for artists to make a living and can even cover the cost of recording, equipment and tour expenses.

We are becoming so used to seeing Taylor Swift sipping from a bottle of Diet Coke, Kendrick Lamar slipping into a pair of Reeboks, and hearing Charli XCX as the soundtrack to our new favourite movie, that ‘selling out’ has become merely ‘selling’.

“Brand deals have become part-and-parcel of industry success”

Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore”, Drake said plainly in a recent promotional shot for Sprite, “there just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist”. He sounds like a venture capitalist, but he speaks the truth. Brand deals have become part-and-parcel of industry success, and those who aren’t embracing the change risk being left behind.

The industry has been turned on its head, and artists selling themselves to brands and the commercial world, which previously meant career suicide, has become as important as the catchiness of their next song.

So don’t be too quick to judge next time you see your favourite artist on an advert for toothpaste, it might just be their only paycheck.

Olivia Stock

Featured image and article images courtesy of Keith Cooper via Flickr.

Image use licence here.

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