Friday, March 25, 2011

On Selling Out

Last year, a student came up to me after class one day and told me that she thought it was "kind of wrong" to get paid to write a piece, that it was so much more "pure" to do it for free. I was never sure exactly what she meant by that, but to me it sounded like she was implying that when you create art for money it is almost like prostitution. That it can't be as meaningful if you're getting paid for it, or that it's somehow dirty, commercialized, and cheap.

Here are some questions to ponder: is it dirty when a surgeon is paid for removing a dangerous tumor from a loved one's diseased body? Is it wrong to pay teachers for instilling knowledge in our children? Is it cheap when you pay a mechanic to figure out why your car is making that terrible noise? All of these people provide valuable services to us, and arguably, to the community. Why is it somehow impure to pay artists for providing valuable services to us and to the community, through art, music, dance, theater, etc.? Why is there a stigma surrounding artists who earn income?

Now, let me make a distinction here. There are several stigmas going on. One is this first one I mentioned, the thought that getting paid to create art is somehow impure. I think this stems from the Romantic view of the tortured artist, that all artists create art to relieve our tortured souls, and therefore shouldn’t get paid to relieve the torture, because, well, we need to do it anyway or else we’ll die. Somehow, expressing your deepest emotions is something we shouldn’t get paid for (maybe because so many of us pay therapists to listen to us do it). But we should really get over that. Not all art comes from a deeply emotional place, but that's a whole other topic- and even so, it’s irrelevant. Regardless of why we’re creating art or what inspired this creation, expressing it properly requires skill, expertise, and talent, and deserves to be properly recognized- and yes, compensated. Why not?

Stigma number two: Selling your art equals selling out. I don't think this is so much about whether or not it's pure, innocent, right, to get paid for your art- this is more about valuing your work as an Artist. I think a lot of people may disagree with me here, but I’ll say it anyway: Just because you make money from your art does not make you a Sell-Out. (It may, but it doesn't have to.) It seems that in the world of new music, composers are thought of as selling out when they start making money from their music- which is very, very different from writing music for the sole purpose of making money. The problem is that writing music to make money more often that not requires pandering to an audience/publisher that will pay a composer to write a specific kind of music, which may not be what the composer would otherwise write, whether it comes from a deep emotional place or if it’s just the next thing he wants to explore as an artist.

While I’m not here to judge either type of composer, I do think there is a distinction between composers who write music for the purpose of making money (incidentally, was Bach a sell-out?) and composers who write music that happens to be profitable. I can think of many examples of composers who do, in fact, make money from their music who I don't think are considered sell-outs, although in some circles, as soon as you start making money you're considered a sell-out. I also believe that most people who write music in order to get paid are not in the new music, classical world, but there are probably some. And even so, do we really know why anyone writes music? The line between writing music you want to write and writing music that you know will make money can be blurry- and again, why do we need to judge?

I came across a band called Pomplamoose a few years ago, and I thought they were great. Here's an example of their earlier work.

This past holiday season, I saw a Hyundai Sonata commercial featuring none other than Pomplamoose. At first I was kind of excited to see them on tv, and then the artist in me kicked in and yelled "Sell Outs!!!!!!!!!!" Here's the video, for your viewing entertainment:

Even though I was a bit disappointed in them, I still love Pomplamoose- because a) they're really cool and b) they make good music. So I will still listen to their music- and really- why do I care so much that they "sold out?" If they're making money from their music, they can quit their day jobs and spend more time making more awesome music... what's wrong with that? What is the real reason artists are so quick to judge other artists as sell-outs? Is it because making money from your art is "impure?" Are you no longer a legitimate artist once you start making money, and why not? As long as you're still creating the kind of music you want to create, with no input from anyone else (especially the people who are paying you), what's the problem? Don't most composers dream of quitting their day jobs so they can focus on composing, and in order to do that, don't they have to start making money from their music? It seems a bit hypocritical to me.

Most people expect to be paid for doing their jobs, which is spending their time and using their expertise doing something they are good at. Composers also spend their time and expertise creating what can be called a "product" and should therefore be paid for it, just like anyone else, and we shouldn't feel dirty or ashamed by it. It almost seems as though we bring this on ourselves- maybe because we do something we love and because it is so difficult to make a living from it, we punish ourselves by castigating anyone, including ourselves and our colleagues, who profits from it (or maybe we're just jealous). Maybe the real reason composers are unpaid or underpaid for our art is because we've bought into the purity stigma and are too afraid of selling out.

Posted by Sarah


  1. This blog can be related to many fields besides composing. Why is it considered "selling out" to get paid for providing a service or product. I don't feel it is wrong in any way for a composer to be compensated. What about all the composers who write music for new movies- would anyone call them a "sell out"? If you can make money for creating your art and doing something you love then more power to you!

  2. Rya- First of all, thanks for posting! I agree that this can definitely be related to a bunch of other fields. Unfortunately I do think that many composers who write music for movies are considered "sell outs," especially by classical composers. I love many film composers, but I was really sad when I learned that a lot of them (especially the more famous ones) don't actually write a lot of the music we hear in a movie. They'll compose ideas and themes, and maybe jot down some notes about what instrument should play something particular, but they don't actually write it. Maybe that doesn't make them sell outs, but to me it's not really admirable either...

    But I do completely agree with you about making money doing something you love. I've always been envious that you do that! :)

    - Sarah

  3. Great post. As an artist I can't tell you the number of times I have been asked to provide my services for free, because I lost count years ago. While I will do things once in a while as a volunteer, it does get on my nerves that some people just expect it when it's something I've trained for professionally for much of my life, unlike some other professions which only need minimal training. There are luckily a lot of additional perks to the job as a music player, teacher writer, etc., luckily, but compensation with money is definitely normal and appreciated.