Capitalism Sells. But Your Music is Suffering
by Cullen James

I am a capitalist. In the grand scheme of things I believe that capitalism, tempered with some minor regulation, is best for a country’s economy and, ultimately, society and its political systems.

henry_rollins_sell_out.jpgThat said, there are some pitfalls to capitalism. One of the areas that suffer greatly under a capitalist system is the arts. When everything is a commodity, people are more interested in marketing what sells than what may be the newest or most innovative. And one area where this is very evident is in music.

A lot of people complain when an underground band they like goes mainstream. Some people may scoff at this, but there is some legitimate concern. Just take a look at the history of bands like The Offspring, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and (and I REALLY hate to say this) Henry Fucking Rollins.

It’s insidious, this commercialism.

It starts with better production quality. Think back to Ride the Lightning or Freaky Styley. Then compare those to later releases like … And Justice For All and Mother’s Milk. And then compare those to later releases The Black Album and Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Hear the edge slipping away? Hear the raw power give away to that slick noise gate and compression?

On the earlier work, even though they were studio albums, you knew that under the best of conditions you could expect to hear something similar live as to what you were hearing on these albums. Then you have the transition albums (or albums, in some cases). These albums have better production but still maintain a sense of that raw energy from the earlier studio albums.

Finally, the “Fuck it, lets over-produce the shit outta this” albums come out. It’s the Bob Rock syndrome. Is that album a little too heavy? Lets just smooth it out with some extra chorus and mix it down a little. Let’s over-effect those vocals -- put the singer through some more vocal training first -- and overdub like our lives depend on it. Gotta watch that subject matter also. You have to sound like you’re being controversial without actually being controversial or offending anyone.

While all this is going on, the record label’s marketing team is aggressively pushing the band making them seem like the best thing ever. In the case of Metallica, to your die-hard fans, you’re being sold as “the greatest Metallica album ever,” but to pull in that elusive top-40 audience, you’re being marketed as “a new, edgy voice in this troubled world.” And then everybody and their mother buys the album. And then you hear Johnny McPopCollar singing Nothing Else Matters. And then nothing else matters ‘cept dumping your Metallica collection and forgetting that you ever liked them.

It has nothing to do with them becoming popular. It has everything to do with them trying so hard to get there.

Cullen has a copy of "Load", but uses it as a coaster.



Its hard to begrudge a band for becoming popular. I don't thing popular = suck.

No matter how 'bad' something is, the fact that people were able to get together, (a task in itself,) come up with a song or songs and actually record them is pretty impressive (to me anyway).


Well, like I said, the problem isn't with them being popular. I agree that popular doesn't equal suck. But when a band sacrifices their musical integrity for the sake of becoming popular, then it sucks.

I hear your argument, but once a band has made a career of music, then you might as well be saying that a crew of contractors who get together and build a house is impressive. Which it is, from the perspective of a non-construction guy like myself.

But there's a huge difference between building a house the general public can afford versus building a mansion.


I wonder if a perceived downturn in a band's music correlates with the potential upswing in their fortunes.

When you go from living out of a van to flying in a personal jet, the outlook and thoughts that you use to write your songs is totally different from where you started. You lose your edge because you are no longer living on the edge. Or something like that.


hm. That's a tough one. Specially when you are talking about bands that play fast. There comes a time when the songwriters do get bored of the same four chords and same tempo and want to do something else.

It may have been the way they started 10 years before, but after 10 years of writing the same types of songs, they do get kinda bored. So slowing down to get more in is just a natural progression.

I think it sucks cause I still want to hear those original types of songs that drew me to them in the first place, but by the time they do become major, playing those old songs or even types of those songs is mundane and boring and to someone who always wants to expand, boredom is death.

Keep in mind I am only talking abut certain types of music.

I don't even know if I am on subject anymore. sigh.


There are a couple of bands I use as measuring sticks on the different sides of my hypothesis.

On the, "never sold out to popularity" front (speaking about metal) I use Megadeth and Slayer. Both bands have written a lot of different music over time. Their speeds have slowed and sped back up and incorporated all kinds of different ideas. But they never went the Bob Rock route. However, they are certainly successful and popular, as metal bands go. They just never share the commercial success of a band like Metallica. Pantera is another band that never sold out, but enjoyed some commerical success.

My sell-out examples are illustrated in the article.

But there are certainly good bands that have a good degree of popularity from the get-go. I consider Rush to be a great band, but they've always been pretty popular. Less so the last 10 years or so, but I guess that's because of their age more than anything.


Well, I think the only thing that bothers me is when a band will make a "sell out song" on their album. One song that is different than the rest of the tracks. Something that is totally different than what they do or did.

Usually, that track ends up as the first video. That to me, is the easiest way to tell when a band is selling out.

RHCP did it with "knock me down". The hell was that about? Metallica did it with their first video. Whatever the hell that was. Slayer tried it to, but that didn't work out so well so they went back to saying fuck it and doing cool videos like that new one with the eyeball.

It just bugs me when it is so obvious.

A lot of bands try to make their first shot radio friendly and if it works out, people who were too scared to listen to them before start listening to them. Then the question is do they want to go with the success of that song and keep writing along those lines or do they want to go back to what they were writing before, alienating their new fans who, in the end, have all the moiney.

you make me think way too early, cullen


So I guess it has to do with staying true to what you are or perceived to be or changing to do something else.

Megadeth did stay true to their style of metal all along while Metallica definetly has toned it down and changed their sound over the years. Did they maybe just get sick or bored of doing what they were doing?

How much does personalities come into play? IF we never found out how much of a dickhead Lars is would people think of Metallica differently than they do?

I am not saying this is you Cullen but I think too many people ascribe acheiving success and popularity to selling out. I remember an early interview with Hetfield, I think it was around the time of Ride The Lightning, where even back then, he was saying that people were calling them sellouts just because they were now on a major label.

Was Nirvana a sell out? They were certainly successful, but I don't think they ever became sell-outs.

Good arguments and questions all around.


Metallica's easy. They hired Bob Rock to produce an album.

But I'm sure that some of this is perception. However, there was a well-documented, concerted effort on the part of Metallica to put out an album that was more consumer friendly. Sure, they said they wanted to do something different, but they also said they wanted the Black Album to be more radio friendly.


Well, I think if they said they wanted to make it more radio friendly that pretty much is a sure sign of something. What that "something" means is up for you to decipher.

If it means that they enjoy their music getting out to more people so they want it to be more listenable or if it means that they want to make it more listenable to new audiences to make more money.

You can really go anywhere with "radio friendly" cause you can change the definition to whatever suits you at the time.

I am not saying what they did was this or that cause I really don't care about them as a band but using that term could mean anything. It is too grey.


Metallica totally pissed me off as a fan for two reasons.

One: They totally went back on all the things that they stood for with their older albums; things that made me so proud to be a Metallica fan at the time.

How can you sing "Disposable Heroes" in 1987 and then all of a sudden, in 1992, write "Don't Tread On Me"?

That's the definition of selling out.

Two: They went from playing really great music to putting out such boring crap and then told all of us fans that we weren't being supportive because we weren't happy about it.

They had such great composition to their original work - like classical music (totally from Cliff Burton's contribution, I'm certain). It really made them stand out from the rest of the bands out there. Then all of a sudden we were listening to Hetfield crooning on a cheeseball ballad that friggin' Vince Neil could have done better. No thank you.

Funny how both RHCP and Metallica got noticeably worse when someone had the boneheaded idea to tell the lead singers to try and sing when neither one of them could do it very well.

Of course the general population ate it up in both cases and I just sit back and think that I'm glad I have better taste than most people.

But it's been years and I'm still really pissed off at Metallica.


Great discussion. Lest we forget that "selling out" to achieve commercial success may be harder that you think; look what happened when the Bad Brains tried to breakthrough as the Soul Brains. (I suppose you could argue that they had punched their ticket to Suxville years before.)

Anyway, I find it fascinating that after a band breaks, suddenly station managers find their back catalogue to be acceptable for airplay. I never heard “Blackend,” “For whom the Bell Tolls,” or “Sanitarium” on the radio until Metallica put out a couple of shitty albums and those songs were already 15 years old.

Finally, how come a two-bit outfit like Korn gets constant airplay when a band like the Misfits never did in their heyday.


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