Punk Rock Ethics- Selling Out and the Battle for Integrity

by | 4 Jul, 2021 | Punk Rock Philosophy | 0 comments

Selling out and cashing in.

What does selling out mean and why does anyone care?

 Discussing anything punk-related can be rife with pitfalls and potential for endless debate- conversational dead ends and potential landmines threatening to derail the whole discussion. From the merits of individual bands, disagreements on the true place and time of the genre’s inception through to the definition of the term ‘punk’ itself- you could unwittingly fall down a rabbit hole at so many junctures. Punk is obviously not the only topic that can throw up so many questions and strong feelings (er, politics, religion, the Line of Duty finale….) but in terms of musical subjects, it has to rate highly on the ‘is my take going to be embraced or shunned’ meter. Why is that?

Perhaps due to the integral role ethics and values plays in punk, a desertion or compromising of certain ideals can put an individual’s or band’s relationship with punk into question. If punk is more than just music- if it is also a way of  life, a set of standards and beliefs- surely consistency and demonstrating said values has to be a core part of the punk label? As in, you have to earn it? And if a band seem to demonstrate that they no longer hold those ideals, then is it reasonable to cast them asunder- exile them from the punk mainland to the mainstream credibility wilderness? The compromising of those ethics and ideals has a name- selling out.

But what exactly does ‘selling out’ mean? Why does it matter? What is at the core of people’s disappointment and anger when bands they admired seem to have changed their minds about mainstream success; changed their music; signed to a big corporate label; started playing huge venues? In this instalment of punk rock philosophy, we will look at what selling out (in the context of punk) means and whether there is a philosophical underpinning to the term that can potentially signal a death knell for a band’s place in the ‘authentically punk’ hall of fame.

Green Day. Jello Biafra. Offspring. Johnny Rotten. Iggy Pop…….what do all these have in common? All of them have been accused- at various points and for various reasons- of ‘selling out’. In fact, it would have been easier to make a list of punk musicians who have NOT been accused of selling out, such is the ubiquity of the term. Their crimes against credibility are numerous- advertising products, signing to major labels, having mainstream success, seemingly abandoning previous principles………the bar differs depending on who you talk to. My criteria for labelling a band a sell-out, will differ from the next person’s.

 This concept is not just a punk phenomenon. Selling out can refer to any general compromising of integrity and authenticity, normally in order to gain personally from money or favour. Within music, the phrase is most often heard when discussing a band who has either changed the core sound of their music in a way that is perceived by some as purely to increase their record sales; or who has engaged in activities (such as advertising or appearing on certain TV shows)  that seem a departure from their previously held ideals. This is also true in punk specifically- selling out can mean a musician who has gained mainstream/widespread acclaim/success/support (but have not necessarily exclusively courted this) or a band who make deliberate attempts to ingratiate themselves with the mainstream in order to gain popularity or make a lot of money.

Specifically, within punk, the term is most widely thrown at those who sign to major record labels or who licence their music for advertising- making money whilst compromising previously expressed (or assumed) values.

You can see why the aforementioned behaviours really jar with most people’s ideas of what punk should be about. From the very beginning, it was about shunning mainstream popularity and dilution and making decisions that were not commercially motivated. The big behemoths of the recording industry represented something- the establishment, crushing creativity, selling artists down the river for a quick buck, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Basically, the inauthentic and disloyal- the anti-punk. Signing to one of these major labels signalled some kind of collusion- a Faustian pact to trade morals and principles for fortune and fame.

Linked to the concept of selling out for bands and artists, is a similar purity test for fans. There is such a term for an individual whose authenticity should be questioned- a poseur. An insult aimed at those who are considered to be parroting what they see in a subculture without actually fully embracing the knowledge, values, or lifestyle of it. There’s plenty of accusations of that flying around in certain corners of punk discourse. And if you’re an alleged poseur listening to a sell out band- well, you can forget it.

The tricky part of the debate for those who care, is the subjective nature of where the line is drawn. Despite the strength of feeling amongst many fans, there is no codified, agreed upon definition of who and what can and cannot call themselves punk. Post a picture of Green Day on any Facebook ‘punk’ page and the accusations of ‘not being punk’ will be rife- but who gets to decide that? And if we can’t get to decide who decides then how can we judge who is selling out? Is the term even worth debating?

When confronted with the accusation of “selling out” in 2001, Mike Dirnt of Green Day said:

“If there’s a formula to selling out, I think every band in the world would be doing it. The fact that you write good songs, and you sell too many of them, if everybody in the world knew how to do that they’d do it. It’s not something we chose to do…The fact was we got to a point that we were so big that tons of people were showing up at punk-rock clubs, and some clubs were even getting shut down because too many were showing up. We had to make a decision: either break up or remove ourselves from that element. And I’ll be damned if I was going to flip fucking burgers. I do what I do best. Selling out is compromising your musical intention and I don’t even know how to do that.”

 Fair enough. But if you are a band that has spawned a Broadway musical with your music, had a member become a judge on The Voice and just generally are worth millions and millions of dollars- can your band still claim the punk label? Who knows?


So, what is some of the philosophy behind this concept? As mentioned before, it didn’t start with punk music- is there a structure of ideas behind the notion of ‘selling out’?

Well, the Situationist International (yes them again- see my article on them for an explanation of who they are and what they believed).  They formulated a concept of Recuperation which is the process by which politically radical ideas and images are altered, co-opted, or commodified by the media and aspects of bourgeois society. This process means they are neutralised and made more vague, unthreatening, or socially acceptable. This process was postulated as a negative thing- a way that revolutionary ideas are watered down, re-packaged and made fluffier for the masses.

Punk music has been one of those phenomena that have been identified as being recuperated- elements of the look and ethos being commercialised and repackaged to keep the edge off the message. Punk seems to have been caught in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game- punk scenes flourish and embed, they gain attention from media or corporate interests, the scene is co-opted and altered (often for the worse), true core punk has to regroup and start from the DIY scratch again.

For punk bands there seems to be an ideological paradox they find themselves trapped in- caught between conforming with the wishes and dictates of two opposing groups- the mainstream music industry and hardcore, demanding fans. If, as a band, you were keen to progress and get your music out to more people and secure yourself a financial future, but you did not pursue that for fear of upsetting gatekeepers within the punk scene- surely that is also selling out?

In one 1989 edition of Musician magazine, Paul Westerberg of The Replacements summed up what some of the antipathy may be about:

“People get panicky when you’re not their little pocket group anymore—their favourite little group that only they know about”.

It is probably fair to say that part of the culture within punk is trying to ‘out-obscure’ the next person- trying to prove you know more about the genre by  showcasing your knowledge on lesser-known bands and deep cuts. A band becoming popular takes that ability away.

The concept goes back far- the original sell out perhaps being Judas. Betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Denying his belief for material gain. There are accusations akin to ‘selling out’ (although that specific phrase may not be used) all over history- Shakespeare plays such as Henry V have the Duke of Exeter aghast at one of the king’s friends for committing treason for money. The American Revolutionary War general Benedict Arnold was considered a traitor for making a deal with the British that forfeited his troops but would enrich him personally by £10,000. Dona Marina betrayed her fellow Mexican people to the Spanish conquistadors, her nickname (La Malinche) is now synonymous with betrayal.

In all of the above examples, the concept of betrayal is at the heart of the distaste- it is not just the actions but that actins were committed for self interest and seemed a departure from the loyalty and values you would expect.

In terms of philosophy, the concept looked at for this instalment is that of integrity. To my mind, accusing someone of being a sell out is to accuse them of lacking integrity.

Integrity is considered a virtue- often interlinked with the concept of morality. Therefore, if you have integrity, you will act with morals and vice versa. However, integrity is a concept that stands by itself and usually refers to someone’s character and the idea that they will act in compliance with what they think is right, impervious to any positive or negative consequences. It can also be applied to objects and spaces and in that context would usually refer to something intact and pure- same as with people. Many philosophers consider that integrity is about your relationship with yourself, more than it is about the perception of your actions to others. To use a famous quote- integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.

 This take is not shared by Professor of Philosophy Cheshire Calhoun who argues that integrity is a social virtue- given some sense of meaning by the fact we have to make our decisions on what is right and wrong and how we will act whilst living in a society. It is part of standing up for what you believe in within a community and respecting the judgement of others.

 Also in Calhoun’s view, there is a difference between maintaining integrity and becoming a fanatical zealot. Fanatics are rigid and wholeheartedly committed to what they think is right but as they lack respect for opposing opinions, their views lack integrity and instead become dogma. That is not to say that we must capitulate to outside pressure, but rather that we must respect others may have different views on how they express their integrity. Some, like Hugh Breakey argue that integrity is a potentially dangerous trait in that possession of it can lead strong-minded people to act without proper regard for the needs and perspectives of others.

In the punk world, we can look at the ideological conflicts in the American hardcore scene to see where a steadfast passion for a certain set of values can lead to intolerance of those who may not share the same feeling. Publications like Maximum RockNRoll stoked a lot of debate since its beginnings in 1982 by gatekeeping the concept of punk- some labels boycotted advertising in the zine due to it being perceived as unnecessarily elitist and confrontational. The founder of Maximum RockNRoll Tim Yohannan and many of its readers would argue that they were upholding the integrity of the punk scene and calling out slipping standards and striving for authenticity to protect the scene. For others, they had strayed into fanaticism- appointing themselves the arbiters and setting impossible or insignificant standards.

But other than supposedly protecting a beloved scene or genre from losing its core identity, why do people care so much if a band release an album through Warner rather than Lookout, or play Wembley rather than Gilman Street? Is it because there is an individual psychological experience of betrayal- what we once idolised a band for, now seems to be in question? It’s like when people are cheated on and then find themselves questioning the validity of the entire relationship- not just the infidelity. Trust is fundamental to all of our human relations. Losing trust can mean losing that relationship you have with someone. If you thought Ian Mackaye was the absolute epitome of punk rock ethics and integrity and then he turned up on Dancing With The Stars- it is reasonable to feel personally impacted by this turnaround?

So many bands have had to weather the storm of the ‘sell out’ finger pointing at them, particularly during the 1990s when pop punk went global and signalled a real threat to the survival of independent scenes and labels. Green Day went stratospheric in 1994 with their Reprise-released Dookie (selling 20 million copies); Bad Religion signed to Atlantic Records in 1994 as did Jawbox. Jawbox was one of only 2 bands to go from hardcore indie label Dischord to a major label- they split before Atlantic dropped them after a short-lived time on the label.

Fans of Jawbreaker were supposedly so disgusted with the band’s move to DGC Records in 1995 that they were said to sit on the floor with their backs to the band when they played songs from their DGC album Dear You.

Selling out is still a term that you will hear from time to time now, but even without hearing discussions on that exact phrase, the continuous (and often acrimonious, at least online) debates on who can call themselves punk are frequent (and often tiresome). But, the legacy of punk is so powerful, and the concept so meaningful for so many people, it does stand to reason that we would all want to be a little protective over the term.



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