For Artists, Does 'Brand-Building' Equal Selling Out?

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I was at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle last weekend, and during a free associative panel discussion on pop and the 2000s, conversation gradually shape-shifted toward the notion of "selling out." Artists, no longer drawing checks from record sales (if they ever were...), now look toward new platforms to sustain their careers, resulting in uneasy marriages of art and commerce's blunter forces, etc. etc.

It sounds like a previous era's concern, and in many ways, it is naive to think there was ever a time before music was a commodity. But there does seem to be something qualitatively different about how music and money converge nowadays, if only because the possibilities multiply daily, infinitely. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal described the Black Eyed Peas as "the most corporate band" around, and some of the ways in which they align themselves with their sponsors are both brilliant and unprecedented. They've taken the logic of the arena call-and-response to its very literal end.

"I consider us a brand," Peas brain will.i.am explained to the writer. "A brand always has stylized decks, from colors to fonts. Here's our demographic. Here's the reach. Here's the potential. Here's how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration." On one hand, their ingenuity is breathtaking—their career refutes the commonsense that the recording industry is in irreparable decline. For many artists, the only way to advance a career will be to figure out creative partnerships with neighboring industries. But, on the other hand, this inevitability forecloses upon the possibility of having that conversation about "selling out," for whatever it's worth.

Back to Seattle. Elliott Wilson, the panel's designated informant from the land of hip-hop, remarked that it had always been hip-hop's ambition to make money, conquer the world and cross-over toward pop audiences. While we can wonder whether this has indeed always been the case—one could make many mixtapes of back-in-the-day, props-over-riches raps, but then maybe they just lacked imagination or sought to moralize their own career arcs—Elliott does deliver us to the logic of the present: the merger of art and commerce isn't merely something that happens a lot nowadays, it's become a celebrated part of the culture, top to bottom. There's nothing wrong with hailing this merger, beyond its compromise of some (possibly) old-fashioned spontaneity-originality-authenticity understanding of art. But it's an ever forward-looking logic, and in embracing it too tightly and ignoring bygone battlegrounds, we forget about those who existed before such alliances were possible, let alone imaginable (save for the occasional Nike commercial).

He who controls the future controls the past. Hip-hop is one of these spheres that has vigilantly guarded against this view that history is only useful to us insofar as it anticipates the present. The trajectory has been revised and edited over and over, but there has always been a romance of those who didn't make it. There were two such interruptions last week, the first being KRS-One's rant against the National Museum of Hip-Hop:


 
KRS—he of "It's not about a salary it's all about reality" fame—is ostensibly raging against the Museum, but it's only a version of a longer-standing target of his: the failure of a hip-hop industry to care after its own. (Maybe it's a version, too, of what's going on in the NFL.) This KRS clip is absorbing, righteous and crazy, all at once. He expresses a bitterness toward an industry that has left its pioneers behind; yet he is also too proud to admit bitterness, and too deeply scorned to confess what he wants.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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