Wednesday, January 07, 2009

How Much Do You Have to Give Back Before It's Not Selling Out?

Canadians tend to have a bit of the tall poppy syndrome to begin with and it's much worse for musicians. The whole 'indie' thing says, essentially, that anyone who is even modestly successful is a sellout and therefore should no longer be taken seriously. Never mind the fact that no one could ever properly define indie (there is a whole movie devoted to the question and it doesn't provide answers.) Also never mind that pretty much every musician in the world is 'independent' now except for Madonna and Bono. The accusations keep coming.

After years of paying her dues in music and waiting tables to pay the rent things finally turned. In the last few years she won nearly every award available except NHL Rookie of the Year (she came in second in that one) appeared on Sesame Street and yes even did some commercials. Predictably the daggers-came-out.

It's a rough world, to retain your 'indie credibility' you're not allowed to let your music be used for ads, but when you release an album that is also supposed to be free. In my humble opinion there is no such thing as 'selling out' anymore. If you manage to make a living in music good for you, it's not easy.

Anyway all of this has been a long, long lead up to pointing out that while Feist could easily have just laughed at it all, cashed the cheques and ignored the 'indie kids.' Instead she cashed the cheques and gave all of the money from merchandise sales on tour or on her website back to the community:
"We've tallied the numbers, connected the dots, and are delighted to report that over $200,000 has been donated to various excellent organizations.

These organizations include MSF Canada, CARE Canada, War Child Canada and The Salvation Army (for Dr. Paul Thistle, Howard Hospital, Zimbabwe). All of these
agencies will continue to do immeasurably positive things, like: build
schools, dig wells, educate communities and—in general—do piles of good
well beyond the reach of rock and roll. We also undertook an incredible
food drive! Near $20,000 was donated to food banks across Canada, not
including the incredible 17,000 pounds of food that was delivered to
tables across Canada during the November tour. 

As much as we're tallying last year's efforts, this is only the
beginning. It's January, again. Please continue to think of the food
bank through these next cold months and beyond, and if you make a
donation, let us know below. Let the giving continueth and floweth and
giveth back. If you'd like to volunteer at a food bank near you, click here. Let's all enjoy 2009 on a full stomach."

If you ask me, Canada could use a few more 'sellouts' like that. Personally I'll looking forward to the next album.


Nikki Commatose said...

The term "sellout" sold out so long ago I can't even understand how people can still use it without having to pay a nominal fee. Good for her. She deserves it.

Nikki Commatose said...

...Deserves success. Not to be called a sellout.

Justin Beach said...

I know, don't worry .. at least that's the way I took what you said.

Nuotio said...

Hey, the success of FEIST makes us realize just how hard it is to draw a line in the sand about "indie credibility" , and yes, the tall poppy syndrome is something that we have all jealously resorted to from time to time.

I still wait tables for chrissakes and would LOVE to support myself and be recognized just as a songwriter and performer. All I know is that UNTIL I can make some "product" ( i.e. an album) to go on tour with to help promote my music, I'm stil looking for extra shifts to get by. Curse the demands of capitalism!

Am I "selling out" by even taking a day job and not being poor and devoting myself to my art? I'm still helping some outside corporate entity make profits from my talent and my time.

What about all those musicians and indie hipsters out there who work in advertising or in CALL CENTRES during the day?

Should they be allowed to wash their hands of it all as the sun goes down only to transform identities to distinguish themselves from their co-workers and then walk onto a stage with their heads held high - all rock and roll indie credibility intact? Isn't that the basis of Hannah Montana ?

If we play in bars, we're there with logos all around us and we're there to help sell beer. Not every show is in an artist-run centre.

Anyway, who with any love of childhood would criticize someone's opportunity to appear on "Sesame Street" ??!? Curse their luck! Curse the work it takes to achieve such "luck".

If it wasn't for Sesame Street, I KNOW I wouldn't have loved music as quickly or as much as I do know.

As for the merch sales gooing to charity, Leslie Feist didn't have to do that at all, and she did, and it's amazing.

Maybe it's just more "indie" to sit around and make fun of "sell-outs" until the Pabst Blue Ribbon spills over our American Apparel hoodies,
and soaks the earbuds of our iPods.

I wish music was my job.

Justin Beach said...

Hi Nuotio,

Love the comment. I'm having a harder and harder time understanding why anyone even wants 'Indie Cred'

The rules, as I understand them are

1) You're not allowed to let your music be used in any advertising or to push any product: Never mind that iPods are iPods and would have sold with or without Feist's music also never mind that the people who complain about Feist's music being used in iPod commercials all have an iPod.

2) You're not allowed to charge for recorded music, it should all be given away for free and will be whether you like it or not.

3) Your live shows should be under $5 - preferably pay what you can or free. Never mind that $5 won't cover the gas for the touring van (much less food and lodging).

These rules are made, for the most part, by very young people - most of whom will be doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, ad reps, accountants and junior managers in ten years, pulling down 6 figures or more and living in a house in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and an SUV and still talking about whether or not you sold out.

Darren said...

She deserves full marks for making such a sizable charitable donation. I also have no objection is Ms. Feist wants to write advertising jingles, film scores or any other direct for-hire work.

However, re-selling her music to advertisers who wish to associate their brand with her is a shame.

Here's the basic thesis:

1. Feist makes a great album.

2. Feist sells songs to commercials.

3. For the next album, Feist remembers how she cashed in, and (instead of being true to herself, her muse, her art, etc) writes music that advertising executives will want to buy.

4. As a result, Feist makes bad art.

It's unfortunate that the landscape has shifted, and it's harder for musicians to make a living these days. Harder times make people compromise their values.

Neil Young said it best:

"I ain’t singing for Pepsi
I ain’t singing for Coke
I ain’t singing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke"

Justin Beach said...

I understand the argument but haven't seen any evidence to support it in this case. The song and album in question were popular (ok not as popular but ... ) before the iPod ad.

She hasn't come up with another album since (and no pending release has been announced) so it would appear, at the very least, that she's taking her time with the song writing.

Ron Sexsmith and Bob Wiseman (amoung many others) have expressed respect for her integrity so aren't you simply assuming that she's going to sell out?

What if she writes good songs (the kind she wants to write) and then companies want to use them for ads? I think your argument and logic on this is based on the old economy where if you singed to a big label you were already selling out because you were agreeing to write music that would sound good on a company executives calculator but the big record labels are dead or dying and while there's less money in music artists also have alot more freedom and control over their art than they did 10-20 years ago.

Darren said...

I was just using Feist as an abstract example. In practical terms the ads may have no impact, or no impact that she (or maybe even we) can discern.

To my mind, one doesn't commercialize one's art to avoid the possibility of compromise.

And just to reiterate, I think she's welcome to do work-for-hire or appearances (though this is a bit, uh, undignified) for brands. I'd just rather she didn't re-sell her existing artwork.

Justin Beach said...

But if you can make money by allowing your existing, uncompromised work to be used in ads (or films, television etc) it may do exactly that - 'avoid the possibility of compromise' - since recorded music is basically free now getting money from ads allow you to 'do your thing' without having to do work for hire.

Justin Beach said...

On a related side note I do find some advertisers choices in advertising a bit strange. Like Chrysler (just bailed out) using a version of the David Bowie song Major Tom about an astronaut who is lost in space after something goes horribly wrong with his spaceship. I notice they only use the first few verses but it ends with

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows!)
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear....

“ am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.?

Darren said...

This will be my final word on it, but don't forget that there are plenty of other ways for musicians to make money besides album sales: touring, merchandise, appearances, for-hire work, collaboration (film and TV soundtracks), etc.

To put my point another way, artists shouldn't waste their art on commercials. It lessens them and those who support their work.

Justin Beach said...

I don't feel that it lessens me, or the artists I like. I'd suggest, if you're a musician and someone offers you a big wad of cash to use one of your songs in an ad, that you take the money and run.

It doesn't mean you have to compromise your work. You either compromise or you don't - it's up to you. But the temptation to make mediocre, cheesy pop songs will be greater if you can't pay the rent.