I grew up in the Seventies and in the Seventies artists didn’t expect to get rich being artists unless the artistic value of their work was magically discovered by the world or they did what most artists would never, ever consider doing: sell out.
Selling out meant they went commercial.
I remember my first encounter with the concept. It was in 1988, when Eric Clapton played “After Midnight” in the famous Michelob commercial that turned many of his fans against him. What was he thinking? Did he really need the money? Didn’t he have any integrity? These were the questions people were asking at the time.
I remember the scene in the movie The Doors. Jim Morrison came back from one of his black-out drinking binges to discover that the rest of the band sold the rights for “Light My Fire” to a car commercial. Jim was incensed. How could his bandmates have sold out like that? Nowadays, most bands would kill to sell their music rights to a television commercial.
The late Sixties, the Seventies. Antiestablishment years. Us against the man. The Man, represented by the cops, the politicians, and corporate America.
The Eighties saw the rise of a different kind of attitude. In the movie business the corporations took over and started developing content. Star Wars and Jaws began the trend, while films like Flashdance sealed the deal. Gone were the days of Apocalypse Now and Midnight Cowboy. At some point, making a big, popular movie wasn’t considered “selling out,” it was considered “making it.”
I’m not sure artists struggle with the concept anymore. I don’t hear people complaining about how their favorite musician, film-maker or author “sold out.” The only guy that comes to mind for me is Kenny G, who I mentioned in my last blog. He went from being a brilliant, unknown jazz fusion artist to a hugely successful brand name, playing simple, sappy elevator music for the masses. I really don’t believe he was playing the music he loved, I think he was playing the music that sold. In my humble opinion, of course.
I suppose it’s really up to the artist involved. If an author writes a purely commercial novel that he hates to write, just so he can widen his readership and make some money, has he “sold out?” Or has he simply given himself some breathing room, so the next time he can write the “special” novel that may or may not have a chance at gaining commercial success?
I tend to think that most authors I know write exactly the type of novels they want to write. Some try different genres in an effort to gain a foothold in new readership, but I don’t know if they see themselves as “selling out” when they do this.
Most authors I know just want to write for a living. They’ll write anything and everything in an effort to turn that dream into a reality. I do, however, know an author who turned down a high-paying ghostwriting assignment because the employer was a highly-annoying radio talk show host who didn’t share the author’s political views. I don’t know if the author would have considered himself a sell-out if he’d taken the job; I think he just realized that the money wasn’t worth the headache it would cause.
Personally, I’d love to only write books that I’m passionate about writing. I was passionate about writing Boulevard and Beat. When my agent told me to write a “bigger book,” something more “international in scope,” I struggled to find my way. It felt like I was trying to write for the market. And no one can predict the market. It felt like I was writing Hollywood screenplays again. I had to come back to myself to determine what I really wanted to write, something that may or may not be considered commercial or marketable. I only have so much time to devote to my writing and, in the end, I want to know that I really love what I’ve written. Maybe this is what keeps me from getting those juicy ghostwriting gigs. Not that I wouldn’t take them–because it’s work and I want to be a working writer. But if ghostwriting doesn’t pay enough to quit the day job, if all it does is take time from the projects I love, well, I’d rather let those opportunities go. I’ll keep the boring day job and write passionately, for myself, after hours. I guess these are the choices we make. As far as “selling out,” I don’t think I’ve found myself in a position where I can make a choice either way. I first have to establish a career from which to sell out. I’m working on that.
So, what do you think? Are there any authors, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, or film makers that you feel “sold out” in order to advance their careers? Does it even matter?