Camped out in the Herald office during the Super Bowl, my head jerked up when the familiar strains of Avicii’s “Levels” filled the room. By then I was used to hearing it in unexpected places, with the song being played to death by opening DJs and frat boys (and my theory that Flo Rida’s decision to sample it is actually what killed Etta James), but even I had to let out a small gasp when I saw the Swedish DJ smiling in a Bud Light Platinum commercial.
The word “sellout” is horribly seductive in moments like these. It is the most hateful insult a fan can throw at a now-disgraced musician, a death knell hurled to signal the end of any sort of listenership. But when is it fair to use?
Ironically, when turning to Merriam Webster’s definition of “sellout” (one who sells out, in case you were wondering), an example of the term they list is “Angry fans called him a sellout when he started appearing in television commercials.” You could say, well then, case closed, Avicii is a sellout. But what that dictionary example did not say was that the angry fans were accurate; it merely said that they used the term. That is where the labeling of a sellout gets sticky.
The dictionary was more telling in its listing of synonyms for the word, with “betrayal” and “treachery” among them. Indeed, the word is often used by self-described “true fans” that view the artist as having abandoned their roots and disregarded those that loved them before they were famous (For popular reference, see Green Day). Or, fans use the term to describe any artist that does something to make money (See 7 Up spokesperson Cee-Lo Green. But it’s OK: He needed the money for the fur coat he wore while butchering John Lennon’s “Imagine”).
If we go with the latter definition, Avicii definitely sold out, and did so in a semi-atrocious manner. He not only sold his most popular song to a company using it to sell their own product, but he sold it to Bud Light, a beer I’m convinced people only drink because it’s cheap. Oh, excuse me, Bud Light Platinum.
But the brand of beer may not even be the point. If you strongly believe in the power of advertising, this act would be made even more distasteful when you factor in that a large percentage of Avicii’s fans are not of drinking age (though in my personal experience, that fan base is already drinking Bud Light).
But judging by the little smile on Avicii’s face, the 22-year-old DJ is not sorry for promoting the other great American pastime. Nor is he sorry for touring to raise $1 million for House For Hunger, a charity that helps feed the hungry in the U.S. But we’re focused on the commercial, right?
So if your definition of selling out is making money off of music in a non-concert or MP3 manner, go ahead and throw Avicii in the category. But don’t forget to add Skrillex.
The newly-Grammied DJ also had a spot in the Super Bowl, with “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” attempting to sell a GoPro camera in a Best Buy commercial. Besides Best Buy’s questionable thought that the track went nicely to Ben Brown kayaking down a rapid, at first glance Skrillex’s choice to be featured in a camera commercial at all could raise some eyebrows.
Unless of course you’ve seen the video from last year’s Australian Creamfields, in which Skrillex straps Deadmau5’s GoPro camera to his head and does a stage dive into the crowd. Then you might think Skrillex’s commercial was a kind of cool shout out to a kind of cool camera. But all those “true fans” might have been too busy crying “sellout” to catch the video.
The problem with the “artists who make money are sellouts” line of thinking is that artists actually need to make money, and traditional ways of making that money are becoming obsolete.
CD sales have plummeted, and while they haven’t yet met their death, they are slowly bleeding on the rocks below the cliff MP3s flung them off of. While artists can sell tracks through iTunes and Beatport, for every fan that’s willing to pay $1.29 for a song there’s another that feels no qualms pirating it illegally.
With electronic artists in particular, the main way to make money is through live shows. The trouble then is getting people to shell out for a ticket — if no one has heard your music, it’s unlikely you’re selling enough tickets to be able to produce music full time. For smaller DJs that haven’t achieved sold-out show status, doing a commercial or getting on the radio aren’t just moneymakers, but ways to gain exposure as well.
If you’re Avicii or Skrillex, however, you clearly aren’t crying into your vodka Red Bull over the fact that you’re playing to small crowds or that no one knows who you are. But maybe there’s more to their decision to do a commercial than the dollar sign.
Case in point? British trip hop band Massive Attack, whose song “Paradise Circus” first graced a Lincoln commercial in 2010 and is still swimming around the airwaves, announced they would donate all of the proceeds of the deal to Save Our Gulf, a group dedicated to cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill.
With the current state of the music industry, it seems that the number of artists doing commercials will only increase. While it’s incredibly easy to throw the term “sellout” at any artist who sells their song to rep Pepsi or a new car, caution must be taken before writing them off: It’s entirely possible the artist is using the commercial for good and not evil.