In Defense of (Not) Selling Out

Or How I Learned to Love Generation X All Over Again

public domain pic c/o pexel

When I was in high school and college, many of my friends and I were preoccupied with the idea that people we knew and artists we loved might “sell out.” Saying that someone had sold out was a way of insulting their life choices and declaring your newly generated hatred for their artistic output.

This was trend was sparked in my peer group by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit album, but it was nascent in the punk and indie scene for at least a decade earlier. A friend of mine was an early fan of Nirvana’s Sub Pop album and had been invited to a warehouse to watch a show, which would be filled for a video. When the video for Teen Spirit was released and he saw himself bopping along in the bleachers, he was furious that they had sold out, and that he’d been duped into participating in their corporate bullshit. He hated them forever after.

The strict dividing of artists (in this case, musicians) based on whether they had or ever would sign to a major label was soon justified by Steve Albini’s essay in The Baffler Magazine, which detailed the financial enslavement bands endured in exchange for selling their souls to a corporation. If enslavement seems too strong a word for this, understand that Albini’s invective led us to believe that such a terms was justified (it isn’t).

The flipside of sell-out culture was DIY (Do It Yourself). DIY was punk. It meant publishing your own magazines, producing your own music, starting your own record label and booking your own shows — in your own basement if necessary. These endeavors were time-consuming but rewarding. We learned new skills, created art and made friends. Kids were running their own companies for the fun of it, for the art of it, to stand outside mainstream culture. To stand above culture, looking down on it, judging it lacking.

I, for one, planned to never sell out.

The first time I realized that selling out might be justified (if not acceptable) was when I learned that a member of Built to Spill (a band that I liked) had a child with serious medical issues, and the band had decided to sign with a major label in order to pay for their families’ medical bills and insurance for the child. Their next album wasn’t as good as their “indie” ones were, which reinforced the idea that corporate sponsorship killed art, at least I understood that the needed to pay the bills.

Time passed. I told myself that law school wasn’t a sell-out move as long as I did “good” work, and eventually I learned to be marginally less judgmental. The music industry was revolutionized by digital music, affecting corporate and non-corporate musicians, as well as the music industry as a whole. I know longer listened to enough new music to know what selling out meant anymore. The distinction had become lost on me. I, too, had to focus more on whether my kids have health insurance than on a band’s funding source.

“Selling out” popped back into my brain after I read this article Generation Sell Out, about why the critique of selling out doesn’t really appeal to millenials. I’ll let you go read the article but this paragraph struck me hard:

The critics of selling out have largely disappeared, maybe because no one dares to criticize a generation so sold out by the economy and capitalism. But a lot of other things have changed too: It’s hard to stay underground in the internet age. Our everyday lives are becoming increasingly commercialized, our attention and private data sold for ad dollars.

As a critic of selling out, I wondered if my criticism has really disappeared. Then I realized that I didn’t really understand my own critique 25 years ago. This article helped me see “selling out” for what it was.

The “selling out” critique is extremely class-based. Only those of us with access to the means of producing art were able to do so outside the confines of corporate arts funding. We were kids whose parents bought us computers, had copy machines at their office, or a Kinko’s in their neighborhood. They gave us musical instruments and lessons, and the time and safety to practice at each other’s houses. We lived in vibrant cities or college towns, and went to college ourselves, where we met other middle-class and affluent culture producers and critics. We could afford to exist outside the mainstream and criticize those who wanted to be a part of corporate culture.

Even though the “selling out” critique comes from a place of real psychological and economic safety doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means it’s incomplete. The real problem is not that snobby, mostly white kids wanted to create art and culture, it’s that we didn’t demand it for everyone else.

That’s not completely fair. A lot of the kids I knew back then support healthcare for all, access to education and art without corporate influence for every community. A lot of those Gen X hipsters never rejoined the formal economy completely. Lots of them kept on being writers, artists, musicians, teachers and small business owners, or went to work for unions and non-profits. A lot of the lawyers I know are in public service or non-profits. Some of this had to do with gender (none of my female friends from law school work at a law firm any more), but a lot of it had to do with refusing to join the corporate economy on the corporations’ terms.

And that’s a good thing. The more people opt out, even partially, of corporate culture, the more alternative culture can become mainstream. Millenials aren’t selling out in the same way we feared our artists would. Many of them are also culture producers, even if we Gen-Xers don’t understand their media (e.g. YouTube and SoundCloud). And they also want healthcare, education, arts and journalism. Unions are more popular among millenials than they are among people my age, suggesting younger people understand collective action and people-powered movements better than the rest of us.

This is an argument in favor of bringing back “not selling out.” Only this time, let’s include more people, and be less judgmental when people need to operate within the dominant culture in order to meet their needs. It’s better to find ways to meet our needs by creating our own social order, but until that happens, we need to find ways to support each other. Or as we used to say, “Support the scene!” But make the scene bigger.

I write, parent, arbitrate, not necessarily in that order. Please subscribe to my newsletter:

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