The topic of “selling out” has always been a controversial one in the music industry, but it’s never been clearly defined. What does selling out really mean?
At its root, “selling out” is so loathed because it incurs a feeling of betrayal in the fans. In every case I can think of, an artist that’s accused of selling out is changing their sound from something more obscure to a sound that is more widely accepted, which leaves the original fans feeling unappreciated. Fans will accuse the artist of only caring about money, and not the music or integrity.
So is that selling out? Going over to pop music in order to sell more CDs? What if Katy Perry released an alternative folk album tomorrow — would she be a sell-out because she ditched her original genre? Fans certainly accused Liz Phair of selling out when she switched genres in the opposite direction.
And what if Muse, a rock band known for its instrumental experimentation, released an acoustic album with a folksy feel? Would they be sell-outs in the same way that the public said Bob Dylan was in the 1960s for picking up an electric guitar?
Although fans will claim that selling out is something that is wrong with the artist, I think that it’s actually something wrong in the fans. The problem is a sort of “hipster effect,” which makes the fans of a relatively unknown artist feel special to be part of the exclusive fandom. So when the artist becomes more well-known, the fans will feel less special.
I’m not saying that the fans of a “sell-out” artist should just deal with it. Of course it sucks when you can’t rely on getting the music you love from your favorite musician, but any feelings of betrayal are totally unwarranted. The artist has no obligation to be making the same style of music for the rest of their careers, and even if a genre switch is motivated by money, it’s their decision. The good news is that, almost always, an artist will return to his or her roots and put out some music in or influenced by the genre he or she is drawn to.