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Wolfmother’s been accused of doing it, U2 and Radiohead haven’t and the jury is still out on Midnight Oil front man Peter Garrett. Selling out is the ultimate cardinal sin committed by musicians and artists and now thanks to Deakin University research, fans have told them what it is and how to avoid it.
“Consumers send artists of all sorts to their creative graves based on the perception that they have given up their artistic integrity for commercial gain and ‘sold out’," explained Honours student Sean McDonald whose groundbreaking final thesis (648kb) was supervised by the University’s retailing expert Dr Kerrie Bridson.
“The structure of the music industry is changing and evolving, so much so, that it is harder to make a living and musicians have to find new ways to do this, yet still be seen as ‘real’ artists to their fans. There are also a lot more artists who are ‘manufactured’ in effect creating a different industry of real artists vs commercial people.
“I was intrigued as to how people distinguished between the ‘real artists’ and those who have ‘sold out’.”
Sean’s research showed that fans ‘judged’ artists based on their perceived motives and integrity, the uniqueness of their sound, their live performance, whether they were natural or manufactured, their ability to connect with fans and their history. The term ‘selling out’ also varied across the generations.
Artists, Sean found, could ‘sell out’ by changing their sound, by changing their behaviour in some way or becoming too popular. ‘Selling out’ could also be acceptable. “Fans are more willing to accept small forms of selling out in order for an artist to make a living and continue what they are doing,” he said.
“Ultimately it boils down to the fan’s perception of the motives and the integrity behind the actions the band is taking,” he explained. “The fans and consumers make a judgement about whether they think they are being honest and true to themselves or whether the motives they are seeing are purely to make money.”
Sean said manufactured bands or artists created by shows like IDOL added a new dimension to his interviews on the subject. “There was quite a bit of debate about manufactured acts eg IDOL,” he said. “The respondents felt that they had gone on the show in order to make money, so they were not selling out as they were not necessarily authentic to begin with.”
Sean said every act had a tipping point in the eyes of its fans. “There is a sort of a scale if you like in regards to selling out – is it acceptable selling out or is it offensive - and fans have a limit.”
So had Peter Garrett ‘sold out’? “Midnight Oil used to be considered one of the more genuine bands,” he said. “Peter has built his political career around that. A lot of people would say he has sold out as his politics clashes with the lyrics of their songs, yet a lot of the songs were written 20 years ago and things have obviously changed.”
Sean said word of mouth was a key factor in deciding a band or artist’s fate. “It is a very viral industry. What your friends say is the most important influence on what you listen to. They don’t care about critics and what they say. Friends whose opinions fans trust, along with blogs and forums are the biggest danger bands face, if they have done something people don’t like the consequences can be quite severe.”
Artists could make a comeback, even if fans had branded them a sell out. “The perception of selling out is open to change within the context of the artists’ future behaviour,” Sean said.
Dr Bridson said Sean’s research had implications for all creative industries.
“Whether they are a musician or not, how artists craft their identity and their connection to their fans ultimately influences whether consumers buy their product or not,” she said. “If artists want to change and go down a new road, they need to be careful not to alienate their core base, even though there is a financial imperative to be successful. Sean’s research has given us a handle on the complex elements involved in what has until now been an instinct or feeling fans have got from an artist.”