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From Hell's Heart
"From Hell's Heart..." is an editorial column written by the Metal-Rules.com team. Every other month or so we
pick a metal-related topic and share our thoughts, feelings and ideas on it.
What Is Selling Out? (February 2002)
It seems quite often when a metal fan is disappointed in the output of his or her favorite band the criticism of "sellout" is leveled at the band. The term is used loosely as an insult, a slap in the face to bands who are deemed (correctly or not) to have sacrificed artistic integrity for personal advancement, usually monetary. However the "insult" of selling out is often unfair and I would argue the phrase is sometimes overused in the zeal of a wounded fan to describe his or her displeasure of that bands latest output.
I have a theory. It is probably unpopular but I would argue that based on a logical definition of "selling out" many bands (Metallica included) have not sold out and many other bands like Pantera and Sepultura have sold out.
I base my definition of selling out on a number of factors. Selling out is the act of significantly and rapidly changing a significant number of elements about a band in order to gain mainstream, commercial acceptance. Often a band will make public hypocritical statements in defense of their change.
One of the keys to this definition is "rapidly" or the speed of change. Was the change overnight or over a period of years? A band that changes over time, evolves as it were, is seldom accused of selling out. Is Rush accused of selling out? Hardly ever, and yet they significantly changed a number of factors about the band. Yet a band that changes musical style from one CD to the next is often criticized and often rightly so.
Let's use Sepultura and Pantera as a case study of bands that sold out and Metallica as a case study of a band that is accused of selling out but in reality has not.
I'm not opposed to artists growing and evolving. Many, many metal bands have grown and evolved, Fates Warning, Rush, Blind Guardian and many more. As for Sepultura anyone of those above mentioned factors alone would not be significant but all combined all together in a short period of time, it paints a powerful picture. Sepultura and Roadrunner had an ad campaign that claimed "Some music was meant to stay underground". A nice sentiment until you print it in every major metal magazine on the planet! Say one thing, do another. Hypocrisy (not the band) is a major factor in selling out!
They were once a powerful metal band with very talented players. Suddenly they changed their look from jeans and leather to flannel and baggy pants. They started wearing those trendy, goat beards! They went from long hair to short hair. Other things changed too, the logo, the sound, the lyrics and they started churning out MTV friendly songs and videos and writing and playing simplistic, slow songs with down-tuned riffs. They have an incredible talent. Phil can actually sing! But he wastes his power and range by screaming. Darrell can actually shred when he needs to but again is happy playing simple, easy-to-understand riffs for the kids who were raised on bubblegum pop but want a band to scare their parents. Vinnie can pound those skins yet he constantly underplays. One of their big hits "Walk" sounds like it was written by AC/DC in the 70's, with it's extremely simplistic marching, anthemic beat…sorry guys that ain't heavy. Like so many bands in the early 90's, Pantera made the classic mistake of down-tuning the guitars, slowing down, underplaying and screaming. And like so many bands like Coal Chamber, Korn, Fear Factory, Slipknot, etc…they confused their new sound with being "heavy". Most of the riffs and song structures on Pantera's POWER METAL CD are far more heavy! And yet they fell into the trap and forgot the heaviness of metal is derived from speed and complex, well-written riffs backed by a pummeling bass line and fast drumming. They dropped the foundation of metal songwriting, got a big name producer and suddenly Pantera are the darlings of the MTV generation.
I believe after struggling for 10 years they deliberately decided to change a number of factors overnight and in their case it worked. They sold out and made money. Good for them!! That was their choice and they cannot be faulted for that choice. Their popularity increased a thousand fold and they got a big record deal. They got to tour the world and hang with big rock stars! No longer content to hang out with Ron Keel or tour with Skid Row they dropped the trappings of the "metal" scene, which they had been a part of for 8-10 years and started dressing and acting like they were from the Seattle grunge scene. No longer "Proud to be Loud", or wanting to "Rock the World" Pantera attempted to bury their past and achieved stratospheric success in the mainstream by adopting a popular sound and image. To me that is selling out! If you still have doubts go re-read the autobiographical lyrics to, "The Underground in America" or "The Great Southern Trendkill". It obvious that what happened is that during the writing of TRENDKILL, Pantera realized the hypocrisy of what they had become. What happened next? They sobered up and delivered a semi-decent metal CD again with "Reinventing The Steel". It tanked in terms of sales but they regained a lot of credibility in the metal underground. At concerts Phil now rants about, "not forgetting your metal roots" and praises bands like Venom and Bathory! The band covers classic Kiss and Black Sabbath tunes, which only serves to further expose how far they went from their roots in their quest for success and acceptance. Now they are taking a long need break while Phil rediscovers his metal roots and is putting out some decent material, even if it is 10 years behind the times. Many people applaud his effort but if he really wanted to show his true metal roots to the fans instead of doing several black metal side projects he would have a) been in on the first wave of black metal in 1986-1990 or b) stayed with doing melodic power-metal with Pantera. I'm a little skeptical, Phil seems to have figured out (late) that Black Metal scene had some integrity and has jumped on that band-wagon. Is it a lame attempt at regaining the credibility in the metal underground he once had, by proving how "metal" he is? Or is it his true nature to explore new artistic outlets? You decide. Meanwhile the rest of his band mates continue to go back to their roots playing rock'n'roll with David Allen Coe!
Big stars like Pantera often are insecure and seek mainstream support and commercial acceptance although they vigorously deny it. The failure in self-confidence translates into compromising artistic integrity for increased popularity, a.k.a. selling out. If they truly had self-confidence in their original artistic vision they would not have changed overnight. Don't get me wrong, I still like Pantera to a degree. The above paragraph or two may read like Pantera bashing but it is just the harsh reality. My assessment of Pantera may seem a bit heavy handed to fans but they are truly a classic example of selling out. Sometimes you need to constructively criticize the ones you love! Their next CD will make or break the band. After 20 years in the business will they continue on the path to redemption and put out a heavy metal CD? Or will they miss the glamour, fame and money and in an attempt to regain status and sales be "Driven" to produce "Vulgar Trendfollow Part II"? Only time will tell.
Did Metallica sell out? I don't believe so. They have evolved over time. They generally dress, act and talk the same way as they did years ago. There is not enough proof of "significantly and rapidly changing a number of elements about a band in order to gain mainstream, commercial acceptance." Metallica said they would never make a video and eventually 8 years into their career they did. Is that selling out or changing their minds over time? Sure they have money now but Metallica was never truly about the fans. They have often stated in interviews that they write songs to please themselves not others. Their attitude always was, "If the fans like it…great! If not…too bad". Metallica has been a band that has evolved, each and every CD is different from the last. I myself don't like the direction they have chosen, and I no longer support the band. But who cares? Did they sell out to gain acceptance? I don't think so, they just kept writing music that got simpler, easier to digest for mainstream North America and were rewarded with a large measure of success from 13 year old girls who like simplistic music. If Metallica jumped from "Ride" to "Load" I'd be freaking out and yelling sell-outs at the top of my lungs! However, "Ride" was many years ago and "Load" adopted the modern influences of bands they enjoy. I would argue Metallica did not sell out, they just drifted away continuing to do their own thing, oblivious to what the true, original fans wanted. Each CD shows progression away from metal.
For what it's worth (and I know this is off-topic) I remember with razor sharp clarity the exact moment I knew it was over for Metallica. This memory will haunt me forever as the detailed are permanently scarred into my brain as one of the greatest disappointments of my life. In 1991, I was driving late at night in the pouring rain in Southwest Vancouver and I heard "Nothing Else Matters" on the radio. I remember it because I never listen to the radio. 99% of the time radio doesn't play music I like so I don't support it. It was always tapes, not radio in the car going places. However, I was with my girlfriend (she was "not-metal") so we had the popular rock station on in the car. The song came on and I didn't know who it was at the time but it sounded like Hetfield and it was so familiar. When the ballad was over the DJ announced it as the new song from Metallica and I almost cried. It was like I'd been stabbed in the heart and betrayed by a true friend. I knew at that moment Metallica was gone forever. JUSTICE didn't excite me, and BLACK was the final nail in the coffin. I haven't bought a Metallica CD since. With the CD that could have redeemed themselves from the lack-lustre Justice they choose to turn their back on the fans. Over the next few years I watched surprisingly unmoved and emotionally detached by Metallica's continued evolution away from metal. I avoided the Metallica "sell-out" debate that raged for years across the internet. People got so worked up about it and I just didn't care anymore. I gave up, accepted the fact that they were gone and moved on. For what it is worth, my two cents is that they were not sell outs…just constant change for the worse…
Every artist has the right to create and produce music for the sake of artistic expression and/or personal development. That cannot and must not be disputed. However when an artist publicly proclaims to do one thing and then rapidly does the opposite when it suits their personal advantage (eg. Money, Fame) that is truly selling out. I don't want to pick on Pantera and Sepultura alone. The metal world is littered with dozens of such examples of selling out from all genres. Warrant, Slaughter and Firehouse all rapidly switched to grunge in the early 90's and all have pretty much dropped off the map! So next time your favorite band puts out a crappy CD be sure to examine how and why that happened before you post on your local internet chat-room/ fan site that they are sell outs! Remember selling out in not necessarily a bad thing. It is a personal choice of the artist and therefore people don't have any right to judge. However, editorials are opinion pieces so I'm going to sit on my high (war) horse and use this space to judge.
I don't like selling out myself, but it's not my choice to make. However, MY choice is not to support bands like Pantera and Sepultura that sell out or Metallica that drift away and do something else. Artistic integrity in metal is more important then commercial success and some of the defining characteristics of metal are rebellion and individuality. The strength of the music, image and lyrics comes from fighting the trends not joining them. Some bands don't have that strength of character. The lure of fame and money are too much. Some bands choose a slow, lingering, painful death like Metallica and other commit suicide like Sepultura and Pantera. Either way, the true fans loose. Life is too short to listen to bad music. Support true metal.
What is Selling Out?
"Selling out" is a term used in the metal world probably more lightly than it should be. It is, however, about the strongest indictment that can be made about a band or a person. I believe to "sell out" means to change yourself, into someone or something you would not normally be, solely or mainly for the prospect of monetary gain. It is offensive because it goes against the basic philosophy of metal, which is individualism and self-determination. To sell out you must suppress who you really are, and become someone or something you are not. The key element is that of dishonesty, a betrayal of some value that was once central, and allowing someone else to dictate who you will be in exchange for money.
There's really not an objective standard; whether a person or a band has sold out has to be determined case-by-case. I don't think you can apply steadfast rules, such as, if a band cuts their hair and sells X number of albums, or whatever. It's different in each instance.
As I'm sure others will mention, Metallica is the paradigm example of selling out. Opinions differ hotly on when the deed occurred or with exactly which album, but everybody seems to agree that by 1996 at the latest, Metallica had changed themselves into a pop/alternative band, and they did it solely because of the lure of mainstream profit. Similarly, to me there appears to be no argument that Megadeth sold out as well -- again opinions will differ on when, but "Risk" was certainly an example of a watered down, commercialized product that the band made ONLY to sell in a larger market. In both cases, these bands changed themselves into something they were not, or would not have otherwise become, only because of money.
The definition becomes harder to apply in less clear-cut cases. Did Entombed, for example, sell out with their dreadful "Same Difference" album? What about Mayhem and their bizarre "Grand Declaration of War"? Queensryche and "Promised Land" and "Hear in the Now Frontier"? I personally believe all of these are examples of selling out, but arriving at that conclusion necessarily means making subjective guesses at things that would have happened or not happened in other circumstances. Was it really the lure of the dollar sign that caused Geoff Tate to cut his hair, write a bunch of lame alternative songs and perform shows in a tuxedo? Or would he have done that anyway even if money was not a factor? We can state our opinions but no one will ever really know, possibly not even the bands themselves, since in most cases bands who have sold out are usually not aware they've done it -- or pretend they are not aware.
Not just bands, but people can sell out too, and based on the same definition -- changing who you are solely for money. There are many metalheads out there who, often because of employment requirements or some other factor, have short hair and refrain from wearing Cannibal Corpse T-shirts to work, but clearly they have not sold out. Everyone knows a few metalheads who don't appear to be metalheads at first glance. Yet, a person who stops listening to metal, gets rid of all his or her metal items, and pretends to be someone they're not, solely in the hopes that they will gain acceptance into a particular group, is a sell out. Again it's difficult to draw a bright line where selling out truly begins.
Harder still is the question of who WILL sell out but has not yet done so, or who is likely to sell out, or when they reach a "point of no return." Any metal band that encounters commercial success while sounding different than their debut album is likely to encounter the charge of "sell out" at one time or another. In Flames has been changing to a more "commercial" sound and recently toured with Slipknot. Are they selling out? In the case of people, did your brother cut his hair, sell his albums and start acting like a Preppy just so he could run with the "right" crowd, or did he genuinely lose his interest in metal? Who is to say? How do you know? These are questions without easy answers. The best we can do is call them like we see them.
Just about every day I read something about a certain band being a sell out. When someone says a band who writes music to sell are sell outs, I disagree! If the band commercializes their sound and image to copy what is "in" just to sell albums, they are then sell outs. But the desire that a band has for selling albums does not mean they are sell outs...it's the way they achieve their goals that count in the integrity department. If a band doesn't want to sell any albums then why don't they just record it in their garage and never play a live gig or sign to a record label? Of course bands want to SELL albums and keep their fans happy. That's a big part of it in my mind...keeping their FANS happy. There is of course no problem with gaining new fans but if the band in question turns their back on who they are or who got them where they are by embracing a popular style of music and image that is nothing like what they were about...then that is selling out. There is nothing wrong with a band evolving and changing (for example: bands like Amorphis and Sentenced sound nothing like they did at the beginning but they are not sell-outs!) but when you can point to evolution and image change as an attempt to copy what the flavor of the month is, that is selling out. Here are some bands that I think have sold out, or at least have questionable motives.
SLAYER: Mallcore Intervention?
METALLICA: The Thing That Should Not Be