Beer and Pavement

On Selling Out

Posted in Beer, Intersections by SM on March 30, 2011

All over the beer blogosphere Monday morning was the story that Anheuser Busch-InBev purchased Chicago’s Goose Island, a fairly popular craft brewery. The words “sell” and “out” were thrown around more than once. Such conversations reminded me of the early nineties when selling out was a bad thing for musicians. Of course, most of them did it anyway. I even wrote a pretty terrible paper on the subject for an English course I was taking[1]. Every indie band who jumped ship for a major label (and there were a lot of them back then) was scrutinized for their decision. Were they sell-outs? Why did it matter?

It was a pretty big deal to an idealistic and naive me. Of course, I had little idea of what it selling-out actually meant. I vehemently defended bands I liked as not selling-out despite huge contracts with corporate recording companies. I felt at the time that subverting the mainstream from the inside was a way to counteract taking a huge payout from corporate overlords. Then, I started to see how some indie bands were doing the same thing without compromising indie-ness by refusing to sign to major labels and sticking with the indies that gave them their first shot[2].

As I grew older, I came to realize that idealism is cool, but we’ve got to get paid eventually. For example, I wanted to make a difference in the world by working with kids, but getting paid to do that surely didn’t hurt[3]. I saw the same opportunities for bands. Some were signing major label deals, careful not no run up huge amounts of debt the way their predecessors had[4]. Other bands sold songs to movies and advertisers. At first, this turned me off, but I soon realized that between the additional exposure and guaranteed paycheck, these bands were able to extend careers, making the music I love[5].

Still, it’s not as simple as saying selling-out is bad or getting paid is good. There’s a ton of gray. Getting a huge paycheck from a faceless corporation can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. It all depends on how one handles it.

To demonstrate what I mean, the following examples show how selling out ruins or even imporves an indie band or musician[6]:

  • Sonic Youth’s reputation took a huge hit when they signed to a major in 1990. After years of indie bands mostly floundering either on their own or because they had foolishly signed with a major, Sonic Youth gambled with an offer from Geffen. This moment marked the beginning of the 90’s bum-rush of the underground for the next big thing[7]. Luckily, Sonic Youth never compromised their sound and used their new platform to expose better music to more people. Even though SY had signed with a major label, they somehow maintained their indie spirit through the bands they with which chose to tour and by making some rather non-mainstream music. Today, they release records on their own label and/or indie Matador Records.
  • Speaking of Matador, they, like their brothers in Seattle (Sub Pop), signed distribution deals with some majors[8]. One of those deals was with Capitol Records. One musician on Matador’s roster, Liz Phair, had built a pretty promising run of two nineties, lo-fi classics in Exile in Guyville and Whipsmart. Phair’s somewhat mediocre Whitechocolatespaceegg was co-released by the two labels[9]. Eventually, Phair made the leap to that very major…and promptly released the shittiest material of her career, pointing out that her new goal was to make some cheddar while she could[10]. Phair compromising her art to write pop tunes was certainly a bad long-term decision.
  • Built to Spill developed a pretty solid following during the mid-nineties with their catchy ditties about adolescent disillusionment. Warner Bros. saw an opportunity to grab hold of a hit machine a la Weezer or Green Day or whatever one-hit wonder was topping the charts at the time[11]. Because of the band’s growing popularity and potential, the label agreed to sign them while allowing a lot of creative control. What resulted is a pretty uncompromising album in Perfect From Now On, filled with anything but three-minute insta-hits[12]. The band has continued to make music the way they want to and WB lets them.
  • The story of Modest Mouse is somewhat mixed. I wouldn’t say that they’ve compromised their music for mainstream success, but their breakout hit “Float On” suggests otherwise. Still, even with their Billboard success, they found a way to make it work.
  • Nirvana was basically talked into signing with Geffen because Sonic Youth sold them on the idea. Yes, Nirvana sold a shit-ton o’ records, but at what cost? Although Kurt Cobain was destined to go out the way he did, I sometimes wonder if his discomfort with the industry contributed to his ultimate demise. If you listen to Bleach and Nevermind back-to-back, it’s easy to tell that it’s the same band, but a lot of oomph was lost in the production of that second album. They got some of it back with In Utero, but the damage was done. It would have been interesting to see what Nirvana could have done had they not signed with the devil a major label.

There are plenty more examples than these, but the point still remains that selling-out has mixed results. The Goose Island deal does not have to be a bad one. We’ll have to wait and see.

Another related topic that I’ve been mulling over for while is the fact that many indie bands and craft brewers don’t need corporate money, promotion, or distribution to be successful. So, selling-out might be unnecessary, but that’s another topic for another post[13].

The key to this deal is that Goose Island was plenty successful before they sold out to ABI. They enjoyed more success when ABI took over their distribution, adding a ton of Belgian-inspired beers and expanding the Bourbon County Stout line. My suspicion is that Goose Island will be more like Sonic Youth than Liz Phair, but we’ll see.

As with bands who sign with majors, this move for GI can go well or bomb. Either way, craft beer drinkers should judge GI on their beer and not the company who purchased them. If the beer’s good, continue to drink it. If ABI wants to cut costs and the quality drops, don’t drink it. I still listen to bands who make the leap to the majors if the music is good. Interpol tried it and failed. The result is that I don’t buy Interpol records anymore. Conversely, I think the Flaming Lips’ best work (which is now most of their catalog) is on a major. Selling-out doesn’t necessarily equate failure or success. It all depends on the individual entities involved.

I for one will give Goose Island the benefit of the doubt and wait to see whether their beer stays the same, deteriorates, or even improves before I make my final assessment. However, knowing the company who bought them out, I will watch this developing situation closely.

1Upon discovering and rereading the paper again, I found that my real thesis was more along the lines of “you’re a sell-out if you suck.” I ripped lame hair metal bands for appealing to the lowest common denominator and called them sell-outs. Meanwhile, a band like Pearl Jam was not a sell-out because…well…I liked them a lot at the time. I have no idea how I got an ‘A’ on that paper. I even think I ripped on a few of the instructor’s favorite bands along the way.
2Favorites like Pavement and Archers of Loaf come to mind. I don’t actually think Pavement received that much attention (especially after Wowee Zowee), but it’s well-documented that AoL turned down offers.
3To be honest, I was always paid to work with kids. However, at some point, I had to make the choice of public school teacher over YMCA camp staff. The pay and benefits for the former were much better than the latter.
4There are way more stories of bands who signed with majors, were forced to rent studio space and tour buses, and were left with thousands in debt that was left unpaid when the hits stopped coming. The smart bands refused using expensive studios, producers, and tour busses. Major labels are really just good for distribution and maybe promotion, but that’s it.
5It’s pretty easy to see the lasting effect of this practice. Indie bands of the eighties often fizzled out due to an inability to make a living playing tiny clubs and selling a couple hundred 7″ singles. Conversely, a lot of my heroes from the nineties have extended their careers well into the next century. I envision a day when all the bands of my college years are doing huge world tours like the Rolling Stones. It will either be amazing or totally suck.
6At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with beer. The examples of craft brewers being bought out by corporate beer makers/promoters is a short list of mostly failures. One doesn’t have to look far to find the examples of Leinenkugel, Rolling Rock, or Red Hook to show that selling-out to corporate beer producers is a bad idea. However, I think this Goose Island deal might be different. That and I like to connect craft beer to indie rock whenever possible.
7Some like to point to Nirvana’s signing as this moment, but Nirvana was signed as a result of Sonic Youth signing. Sonic Youth was the gateway band. Nirvana blew the whole thing wide-open, but Sonic Youth’s signing was the beginning.
8In reality, indie labels signing deals with major labels better correlates with the Goose Island deal, but I didn’t have the time to research all the labels who signed deals with major labels. Basically, the ones that I know of, put out the same kind of music they always had. Some survived, but most were dropped when profits tanked. Matador and Sub Pop were able to sign deals that allowed them to continue to do what they were doing long after the majors faltered. They made it work by simply using corporate resources without adopting the corporate homogeneity.
9As was Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, easily the closest the band ever came to a cross-over album. The difference is that Pavement’s newfound willingness to appeal came off as a coincidence. The reason I say this is because the album they jointly released with Matador and Warner Bros. was Wowee Zowee, a decidedly un-mainstream-appealing record. The band never made overtures to go mainstream the way Liz Phair has.
10I don’t blame Liz Phair for selling out. She had a kid to take care of. Ironically, she had better career options as an indie rocker than she did as a pop songstress. Check Pavement’s reissue and reunion tour sales figures. Indie rock worked out for them.
11Writing a lot of catchy, three-minute punk/pop songs is usually a sure way to get signed. The only part that wouldn’t have worked out for BtS is that they have never looked the part of angst-y adolescent heartthrobs. No thirteen-year-old was going to fall for that.
12To put this into perspective, the band’s previous release contained thirteen tracks clocking in at around 46 minutes with only two over the five minute mark and the rest in the 2-4 minute range – ideal for major label releases. Perfect From Now On was 54 minutes long spread over eight tracks. The shortest tracks were 4:52 and 5:33, respectively. The other six tracks were all over six minutes.
13I am considering proposing craft beer and indie rock as models of business success that could be copied in helping our economy recover. There has to be a reason these sectors are doing well despite the failures of their respective industries. Craft beer continues to grow while overall beer sales shrink. Indie labels and bands flourish (or at least make a living) despite all the major labels crumbling around them. There’s something about small, independent businesses that are sustainable and productive for communities in ways that corporations just can’t match. This topic has legs.

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  1. thebeerhound said, on March 30, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Might as well my two cents 🙂 – there is an parallel view on selling out in that one can be a beer or a band, stay craft/mega or indie/mega and still sell out – all you need to do is decide that the dollar/loonie/whatever is a better goal than what you do best (does Metallica come to mind?). The hard part is continuing to do what you do best when the dollars of pop-stardom or wide area distribution begins to rear its ugly head. Goose Island or any other craft brewer could sell out without changing anything but their approach to making beer – no need for an AB to come in – Goose could have just said, hey let’s use a few less hops or cheaper malt or whatever and trade off our name.

    I am hoping that this buyout is merely AB-IB acknowledging the growing popularity of well made, non-mass-produced beers. In the best of all worlds, the only thing AB-IB changes about GI is how much cash GI has to play with, after all, there is no doubt that AB-IB has deeper pockets and a better distribution network.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on March 30, 2011 at 8:44 am

      Nice. Rarely do my commenters address both the music and beer angles in one comment. They usually read me for one or the other.

      That said, I agree completely. The best plan of action for craft beer drinkers is to wait and see. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Steve said, on March 30, 2011 at 9:56 am

    I generally really struggle with the concept of ‘selling out’.

    Whether indie/craft or major, the ultimate goal is to get a product (ugly word, I know) out there, and get people to pay for it, so you have enough money to push out further products. Whatever the profit levels it is all business.

    While there is no clear definition/threshold between small and large, independent and major, selling out seems like a bit of a moot argument for people to put forward. Is there any real defining parameter for selling out? If not, calls of “Sell out!” sound more like inverted snobbery at play.

    While some indies/craft brewers may have more ethical business practices, that is by no means a given, and larger companies, if run well, can still encourage creativity and innovation, but benefit from greater business experience and economies of scale etc. Painting either side as “good” or “evil” (as the concept of selling out implies) seems pretty reductive.

    Plus, in the ‘real world’ how many of us would really turn down a huge payrise and greater recognition just because it involved a switch to a larger company? Why should brewers or musicians have to live up to some sort of higher ethical standard than we do?

    Obviously, large companies can stifle good beer and good music, but I do suspect they are sometimes a scapegoat for individuals folding under internal pressures. Plus, maybe this is a healthy progression for both industries, as it frees up space at the grassroots for new ventures?

    • builderofcoalitions said, on March 30, 2011 at 10:03 am

      All valid points, but I think the issue of selling-out is one of giving up one’s principles and ethics in the name of making a buck. I don’t mind people getting paid. I just mind the practice of dumping quality to make more money. That’s the worry with this Goose Island thing. History has shown us that large beer corporations (can’t call them breweries) tend to ruin good craft brewers. The results are mixed when it comes to music.

      What’s missing is that craft breweries and indie labels appear to be more sustainable business models than their corporate counterparts. Additionally, these smaller ventures are better able to stick to good ethical practices.

      • Steve said, on March 30, 2011 at 10:15 am

        An entirely fair reply!

        “I think the issue of selling-out is one of giving up one’s principles and ethics in the name of making a buck.”

        I think that is a good, concise definition of the concept of selling out. However, to accuse a band or a brewery of selling out works on the assumption that said band/brewery had principles/ethics to start with!

        I completely understand the quality issue – but think it is probably more pertinent for beer, where mass-production and cost-cutting is more of an issue (a major label band still write their own songs, and generally have more money to play with). However, as craft beer becomes more mainstream, it is increasingly in the business interests of beer-corps to keep quality high. Maybe. Hopefully.

      • builderofcoalitions said, on March 30, 2011 at 10:20 am

        I fully admit that determining a sell-out is a subjective practice. It’s certainly not an exact science. I’m not even sure it’s a worthwhile thing about which to worry.

        It’s hard to determine the ethics and principles involved. I think we all assume that our favorite breweries and bands hold quality in high regards, but as the quality falters, so do their values. Or something like that.

        You bring up an interesting point about beer and music. Beer goes down in quality when costs are cut. Music often (not always) goes down when more money is spent on production and promotion instead of the song craft.

  3. Greg said, on March 30, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I always get nervous when we talk about “selling out” because I tend to believe it’s up to anyone who does something for a living how they want to do it. I mostly want bands, breweries, actors or whoever to be honest about what they’re doing. Whether you’re trying to invent new artisanal flavors, or make something palatable to large masses, then go to it. Incidentally, correctly identifying your market will also help you be successful.

    It’s even tough to do with bands, in part because we’re looking at a moving target. There’s no way to know what Nirvana would have sounded like without Geffen; maybe Nevermind would have been the same, just with worse production value, since musical tastes might have evolved as the guys got older. I think all great musical artists change over time, and certainly fame and fortune can affect those changes, but it’s impossible to know in what way.

    Back to beer: Goose Island was in it to make money from day one (a totally fine aim). They had an investment from ABI already, so this was totally in line with their goals and character. They made good beer, they built a good business, then they sold a good business. This can’t be selling out, since this was the point.

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