Indie band Hyukoh signed with Tablo‘s new label, HIGHGRND, near the end of July, inciting thoughts of the indie band “selling out” and joining a label that will likely have more publicity. Epik High was the subject of similar criticism when they joined YG Entertainment three years ago.
The idea of “selling out” is typically associated with a lesser known band or group joining a larger entertainment company and possibly having their personal style come under the influence of the new company and potentially change in exchange for greater exposure.
As the phrase “selling out” gets thrown around so easily during events such as these, this week, we asked our writers: what does it mean for an artist to “sell out?” Why can greater exposure be associated with a change in principles?
Andy:When I hear someone refer to an artist as a “sell out,” I roll my eyes and wonder who let the hipster talk. There’s this subtle insinuation that people are weak and greedy, and therefore will sell their souls to make a few more bucks. If an artist is no longer barely scraping by financially and have more than the a selective group of fans, then they are a sell out. Even without evidence of a change in their music, people call anybody a “sell out” who signs with an established, non-indie label. Heck, in k-music, just moving from one agency to another (bigger) agency gets you called a sell out. I saw that happen when Epik High joined YG Entertainment, and it continued when they released 99.
I think there’s an association with change in exposure and change in principles is due to the mostly true belief that music companies are more interested in money than actual music. Therefore, when an artist signs with such a company, the artist is pressured into make music that has mass appeal. However, all agencies and artists are not the same. While some will have their musical personalities squelched by the powerful companies, some will have more room to explore music and only improve, and the extra money will keep them fed. You can’t really fault someone wanting to live a better, more financially stable life while still doing what they love.
The problem with calling artists “sell outs” is it makes it seem that if more people like the music, then the music and the artist lose what makes them likable. I think this is a bit ridiculous; it seems to come from a place of selfish entitlement within fans. How are fans to say what an artist’s true sound is or what type of music the artist wants/can create? It’s up to the artists, and if you don’t like what they put out, don’t buy. Simple.
Hania: Like Andy, I find the term “sell out” ridiculous. It’s as if people don’t allow artists to make money from their craft, and that they are expected to continue to suffer and simply create art for the sake of art. This attitude is tied into a broader disrespect for artists, who are treated as people who don’t really deserve a living wage.
Sometimes, an artist really needs the exposure that a bigger label provides, but this does not mean that they are watering down their art, cashing in for 15 minutes of fame, or listening to the commands of the Big Brother. Artists simply go through change and expansion, and this is a natural part of the process. I would much rather listen to someone who has ‘sold out’ but been able to explore different sounds and looks than someone who has been stagnating in the same ‘authentic’ spot for 20 years.
I would argue that Tablo is the perfect example of someone who has not lost their unique edge upon joining a large label, and therefore, I trust him to be a positive influence on Hyukoh too, giving them a platform to broadcast their music whilst keeping their integrity intact. Fans seem to have an elitist side to them where only they are allowed to listen to a particular artist, but paradoxically, this kind of thinking is what negatively impacts the artist, so I’m happy for Hyukoh and everyone else like them.
Lindsay: While I agree that the term “sell out” is unneeded, it is a label that gets used in the Korean indie world.
Perhaps we should think about it more from the perspective of the other indie artist in Korea. Going from indie to under a large entertainment company does change many things. Even Tablo, who has made a fairly smooth transition, had to take on some more idol-like roles after becoming part of a company. Same with Hyukoh, suddenly there are variety show appearances! It is akin to leaving one community to join another, so it makes sense that there would be some animosity — no matter how misguided.
There is also the issue of negative repercussions when signing to a big label. There are artists that need the money, but then are also stuck in a situation where the company is going to own their personally created music for many years — the creators won’t necessarily have any rights to it. There are artists that withhold their best songs until they leave a company so they can have full rights and control, even if it means less money.
So although I think using “sell out” as a criticism isn’t productive whatsoever, I also understand that there are reasons that some animosity exists around the whole concept.
Leslie: I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a bit silly how easily applied the term is in the music business, and I think it comes from the general notion of the starving artist. Everyone likes to think that artists don’t care about making money since they “live for their art” — or some other highly romanticized, dramatic nonsense that we use to justify undervaluing creative careers. Art should be a viable career, and we shouldn’t disparage those who figure out a way to make it one.
And the idea of “selling out” really comes from that hipster/elitist judge of logic: “I’m better than the masses because I have taste unlike them, and I like this artist. But if the masses like this, it must be trash so this artist has changed because of the money from their record deal.” And maybe they have or maybe they’re finally making the music they’ve always wanted to make, but we don’t really know. There is no set law that the integrity of an artist is inversely proportional to the amount of money they make. The fact is that we don’t actually know if an artist has “sold out” or not unless if they say it themselves. I mean, we’re just the consumers.
We can’t decide if Hyukoh is making “their” music or not because we’re not Hyukoh.
Willis: I agree with Andy that the apprehension in joining a larger company likely stems from the fear that the company’s interests will not align with the artist’s. Signing to a major record label isn’t a sure-fire road to success, and these companies still want to get a return on their investment. When a greater number of shareholders gets involved, interests are bound to come into conflict and create complications in the art itself. The danger of not meeting the sales quota may lead to an artist getting pressured into changing their artistic inclinations in favor of something that is not ‘them.’
These artists face a decision that is bound to disappoint somebody. ‘Sell out’ in a sense of giving away a part of their artistic liberty for this opportunity to reach a bigger audience, gain more resources, and attain more financial stability or try to slog it out in a smaller company where they may have more independence but may also have a tougher time financially — potentially not being able to create music because of the lack of funds.
I do find the growth of these sublabels — HIGHGRND, Starship X, Baljunsoo — intriguing. They don’t fall directly under the jurisdiction of the parent company but still have access to the parent company’s resources and connections. I think larger entertainment companies are realizing that there is a growing demand for artist-controlled music, and a way for these companies to gain access to that market is to launch these off shoots from the main label.
(HIGHGRND, YG Entertainment)