For music fans who came of age in the late 20th century, the term “sellout” may still carry a few lingering negative connotations. In the ’80s and ’90s, the charge was most often leveled at artists who accepted money from corporations in the form of tour sponsorships or ad placements. But it was also applied to outsiders who dared to put themselves in a position to be heard by a mainstream audience. R.E.M., The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Nirvana — all were tarred by underground detractors as “sellouts” after they signed with major labels, hired big-time producers, and agreed to appear in music videos.
Of course, as recently outlined by musician and writer Franz Nicolay in an insightful piece for Slate, calling an artist a sellout for merely pursuing a living “has come to seem obsolete and naive.” The collapse of the record industry at the start of the 21st century is usually credited with removing the stigma of accepting financial support from brands. As for the matter of an archetypical indie band chucking gritty underground art in order to go pop, the question now isn’t whether to stay pure but rather if anyone is even buying. Contrary to the dire warnings of purist record-store clerks back when record-store clerks were a significant music-geek constituency, selling out is actually pretty hard to do, particularly in a commercial climate in which rock bands from the fringes have minimal cachet.
In the last ten years, I can think of only two examples of bands that established careers in the indie-rock world and then successfully crossed-over via a calculated shift to a pop-friendly sound and image. The first is Kings Of Leon, who started out as a backwoods version of The Strokes on on their first three albums, and then traded up to become a backwoods version of U2 on 2008’s Only By The Night, which included the absurd (and absurdly catchy) hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire.” The second is the Black Keys, who finally escaped the shadow of the White Stripes with 2010’s platinum-selling Brothers, which sold on the strength of the Danger Mouse-assisted single “Tighten Up.” The following year, the Black Keys released an even poppier LP, El Camino, collaborating with Danger Mouse as a co-producer and co-writer on every track.