Selling Out is So Over (Part 2)
(This is Part 2 of a two-part feature, click here to get caught up with Part 1!)
In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Shins frontman James Mercer described the McDonald's deal as having paid "enough to get me out of debt, and enough for me to make what was a very hard decision." A 2007 piece on Alibi.com tells us that Mercer made enough from the McDonald's royalties to buy a home in Albuquerque. Others have pointed out that the money also helped the band fund a tour and relocate to Portland into their own modest studio space, all against a backdrop of one local Albuquerque alt weekly running an article called "McShins, New Corporate Suck-ass" in vitriolic response to the band's decision. (Editor's note: this tidbit is from Wikipedia, and if I could find the article I would [happily!] link to it. Alas, I cannot, and we'll all just have to take Wiki's word for it.)
It's not a responsible argument to say that Mercer was in some way guiding mainstream thought on this subject, but there is value in seeing his actions as evocative of a stance that was beginning to take shape, at least among artists. Somewhere along the line, a switch flipped, and the idea of being monetarily successful enough to not have to work on the side became alluring. In parallel, the idea that artists have to be isolated and destitute in order to create substantive art flew out the window. In a generation where young adults were first realizing that they might not end up having as much wealth as their parents, the idea of selling out quickly became outdated. As we would find over the next twenty years, this was in large part due to wages that hadn't seen meaningful increases in decades (when the numbers were adjusted for inflation). Musicians may have been uniquely able to first identify this due to the hand-to-mouth lifestyle of being a performer. In retrospect, it appears they were merely in the vanguard of a battle that we are now all consigned to fight.
In the intervening years since the Shins' dalliance with McDonald's, the dominoes have begun to fall at ever-increasing rates. Fox's show The O.C. famously used indie bands to coax all the possible emotions out of its melodrama, going so far as to compile soundtracks that were essentially below-the-mainstream mixtapes for tween and teen fans of the show and occasionally even providing airtime for performances by those bands. The Twilight movies took this idea and ran with it, having indie icons curate scores that featured songs one would never hear on most local radio stations. LCD Soundsystem paired with Nike to create a workout-length mix aimed at runners and other fitness enthusiasts. The commodification landscape is now chockablock with cruises and VIP experiences and curated playlists and Urban Outfitters-only vinyl exclusives that would have been unthinkable only 25 years ago for both indie artists and the labels that house them. The value of "selling out" as a denigration for artists making money has effectively been muted in our current sociocultural moment.
One proof of the theorem that the Shins were on the bleeding edge of a new philosophy when it came to selling out is the fact that not a lot of Shins fans may know that the song was even used in a commercial - it is hard to even find on YouTube, a fact in itself which is not insignificant. The ad was run in a very limited way, and it never had a chance to saturate the market because its aesthetic didn't fit in the wheelhouse of McDonald's typical advertising fare. While it is certainly the sort of thing music fans (especially indie music fans) could realistically obsess over, it is probably not even on the radar of people who don't fit that personality profile. If the idea of selling out had maintained its relevance and cultural cachet, then everyone would know about this instance and it would color their debut album's legacy in much more significant ways than it currently does. As it turned out, Mercer may have been a bit of a pioneer: an artist that led the way toward the Promised Land of mailbox money by allowing his music to be used for a hefty profit. He never really apologized for it either, though one can find him in later interviews paying lip service to the idea of it being a little weird.
Where past generations built their futures on idealism, American culture is now largely constructed on a foundation of shaky pragmatism. The audience's thought evolution on what it means to sell out is but one small example. The reality that this generation will not, in general, eclipse that of their parents is one that we have felt for some time, even as we have only been able to prove it out with data relatively recently. In this context, it is no wonder that audiences would be more sympathetic to the idea of a band actually making money through their music. Practically speaking, the idea of selling out has always been difficult to account for both in its indefinability as noted above and, more importantly, in the application of its principles. In too many ways it has been a cop-out to dismiss a band that one has other problems with, and its deeply-rooted tenets are ones that have a disconcerting way of falling apart under scrutiny. For these reasons and more, it is doubtlessly better for all of us that we are no longer using the false dichotomy of "real vs. sellout" as a barometer to gauge what constitutes the "right" kind of success within the scope of modern discourse.
The imagined purity of thought and action begins as a well-meaning conceit but tends to become an acid that corrodes everything in our line of sight - the extent to which it does this is a matter of degrees. An audience that allows its favorite artists to succeed without making them feel bad for it is one that believes in at least some small way that the artist's success is defined by them and not by us. While merely not being as selfish as we used to be is a relatively small step for each of us individually, it is a giant leap for fankind.