Music

"If you're off the grid, I'll listen to you"

|

Via Brooklyn Vegan, I see that post-punk heroes Sonic Youth have announced the track listing for Hits Are for Squares, a new "best of" compilation that will be available exclusively at Starbucks stores. The album's other gimmick is that each song has been selected by one or more of the band's famous fans (Beastie Boy Mike D, Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, etc.). But what about the dread charge of selling out? And to Starbucks, no less?

Here's bandleader Thurston Moore talking sense to the Boston Globe:

There's no difference between working with Starbucks and working with record labels like Universal and Geffen. It's a knee-jerk reaction from PC watchdogs. I mean, really, which long-distance company do you use for your cellphone? Are you on the grid? If you're off the grid, I'll listen to you.

Whole interview here. Back in 2002, Senior Editor Brian Doherty took a stage dive into "the strange politics of millionaire rock stars." Read that here.

Advertisement

NEXT: This Is What Happens When No One Actually Reads the Bill

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Think they get any grief for still calling themselves “Sonic Youth?” They’ve gotta be pushing 50.

    Great band, though.

  2. Way back in the day, RATM front-guy Zach de la Rocha addressed this issue. Basically he said that when you live in a capitalist economy, you must use that system to deliver your product, even if that product’s message is putatively anti-capitalist. It isn’t selling out; it’s just working with what you’ve got.

  3. Which is bullshit.

  4. The only musician I know of who never “sold out” was Woody Guthurie. He refused to take out copyrights on his music. All the rest of them are strictly speaking sellouts in that they make music and sell it and keep the rights to it as a way to make a living. They are not doing it only for the art sake but also to make a living. Selling out in the context of the typical hipster dufus music snob means someone off of the approved cool list buying your record.

    And Joe “Sonic Middle Age” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  5. Even though he’s technically “sold out” in the past, Trent Reznor is pretty much his own record label these days – giving away his music online and selling the CDs himself.

    I saw SY live once, even though their records were getting repetitive and boring by that time, they were really entertaining to watch.

    They’re almost old enough to pull of the name “Sonic Boom[er].”

  6. Sonic Boomers. Heh.

    The only definition of “selling out” that ever made much sense to me was to change your music to make it more commercially-appealing. Not because the changes are what the artist wants to do from an artistic point of view, but because it will sell more records.

    I can see how an underground band signing to a major label can make it easier for this to happen, but the music is the music. I’m pretty sure that reissuing already-recorded music through a new vendor isn’t going to degrade the quality of that music.

  7. Old Bull Lee – NIN’s latest record was released (for free!) under a creative commons license that explicitly encourages others to sample and remix it.

  8. Here’s bandleader Thurston Moore talking sense to the Boston Globe:

    There’s no difference between working with Starbucks and working with record labels like Universal and Geffen. It’s a knee-jerk reaction from PC watchdogs. I mean, really, which long-distance company do you use for your cellphone? Are you on the grid? If you’re off the grid, I’ll listen to you.

    Well said. The man recognizes hypocrisy when he encounters it.

  9. “The only definition of “selling out” that ever made much sense to me was to change your music to make it more commercially-appealing. Not because the changes are what the artist wants to do from an artistic point of view, but because it will sell more records.”

    Of course that often ironicly results in you selling less records not more. Take Peter Frampton for example. In the early to mid 70s, he was a serious musician; Humble Pie, the wah wah pedel that sounded like a voice, Do You Feel Like I Feel, and all of that. Then after Frampton Comes Alive made him one of the biggest acts on the planet the record companies started managing his music. He sold out in ever sense of what you are talking about. He ended up doing Sergeant Pepper with the Bee Gees and “I am In YOu” and destoying his career in short order.

  10. “Sonic Middle Age” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    On the other hand, I kinda like “Sonic Geezers.” In another decade or two…

  11. Jesse,

    If I had the time to start a band, “Sonic Geezers” would be the name. I like that, although “Sonic Boomers” is pretty good to.

  12. What joe said.

    If Sonic Youth started to sound like Coldplay, I’d say they sold out.

  13. The only definition of “selling out” that ever made much sense to me was to change your music to make it more commercially-appealing. Not because the changes are what the artist wants to do from an artistic point of view, but because it will sell more records.

    And even then only if you ever claimed, or had an image that implied, being too morally superior to do such a thing. For instance, it would be hard to imagine saying that ABBA, or for that matter, Jack Jones, “sold out.” Music was their vocation, so what?

    BTW, I once heard one of the New Riders of the Purple Sage quote Jerry Garcia as saying, “Sell out? Where do I sign??” And then he elaborated that all it means is that you’re getting paid more.

    That said, signing with Starbucks somehow seems a little gauche, just on abstract aesthetic principles, but beyond that, eh.

  14. Matt Moore – I almost mentioned that, but wasn’t sure how it related to the concept of selling out or not. It is something his label had resisted, but now he’s free to do it.

    I would also add that somebody established and financially secure like Reznor is more able to do this kind of thing than your typical indie band, or even someone like Sonic Youth who don’t have the big numbers like Coldplay. That might explain why Kim Gordon has her own overpriced trendy clothing line.

  15. Of course that often ironicly results in you selling less records not more. Take Peter Frampton for example. In the early to mid 70s, he was a serious musician; Humble Pie, the wah wah pedel that sounded like a voice, Do You Feel Like I Feel, and all of that. Then after Frampton Comes Alive made him one of the biggest acts on the planet the record companies started managing his music. He sold out in ever sense of what you are talking about. He ended up doing Sergeant Pepper with the Bee Gees and “I am In YOu” and destoying his career in short order.

    I dunno, are you sure he didn’t make a lot more money during that period than he did as “a serious musician”? I would guess he did (that I personally think he sucked then is another matter). That he didn’t last much longer doesn’t mean much as he probably wouldn’t have maintained the commercial success of Frampton Comes Alive regardless. That said, it does seem that the industry has a spotty record of improving record sales by telling artists what to do. Devo blamed their demise on listening to their manager too much, from what I’ve heard, and I guess there are other like stories….

  16. Way back in the day, RATM front-guy Zach de la Rocha addressed this issue. Basically he said that when you live in a capitalist economy, you must use that system to deliver your product, even if that product’s message is putatively anti-capitalist. It isn’t selling out; it’s just working with what you’ve got.

    I remember way back in the early to mid 90’s I heard on the radio that RATM was supposed to be on SNL. At the last minute they demanded more more money and refused to play unless they received said money.

    De La Rocha is a hypocritical douchebag, sorry.

  17. “And even then only if you ever claimed, or had an image that implied, being too morally superior to do such a thing. For instance, it would be hard to imagine saying that ABBA, or for that matter, Jack Jones, “sold out.” Music was their vocation, so what?”

    I object to the whole concept of “sellout” because it mistakes attitude for aptitude. It is really hard to write listenable music that millions of people like. The music press and some sections of serious fans wind up being so obsessed with who is geniune and not a sellout that they lose sight of the value of popular music.

    Go back some time and read the critics “ten best” albums list from twenty or thirty years ago. You find them filled with records that were fogotten before the vinyl had dried on the press. There are a few bands like The Police or U2 that achieved both commercial and critical success but those are rare. Meanwhile bands like Abba and Led Zepplin and Cheap Trick sold millions of records and still have fans today but never made one “ten best list” in their entire careers.

  18. I remember way back in the early to mid 90’s I heard on the radio that RATM was supposed to be on SNL. At the last minute they demanded more more money and refused to play unless they received said money.

    De La Rocha is a hypocritical douchebag, sorry.

    He probably thought of it as “going on strike.” A working class hero!

  19. Hey, a working class hero is something to be. If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me.

  20. In a more civilized time we called it, “biting the hand that feeds you.”

  21. “Off the Grid?” Like John Connor in Terminator 3?

  22. I remember way back in the early to mid 90’s I heard on the radio that RATM was supposed to be on SNL.

    Ummm, they were on SNL. The reason I remember it was because they hung an American flag upside down during one of their songs (People of the Sun, IIRC) and got the broadcast clipped because of it. It was a big deal, made the news for the few days following.

    Perhaps you are remembering some other vaguely lefty anti-corporatist early ’90s artist? There are so many they sometimes just sort of run together…

  23. The only definition of “selling out” that ever made much sense to me was to change your music to make it more commercially-appealing. Not because the changes are what the artist wants to do from an artistic point of view, but because it will sell more records.

    I heard this quite a bit about many punk bands that survived more than a 1 or 2 albums. It rarely occurred to the “sell out” heckler that the band members were just becoming better musicians.

  24. “He probably thought of it as “going on strike.” A working class hero!”

    He is one of a million douche bags. Billy Bragg is another. Committed comunist who lives in wonderful house in a very exclusive and fashionable area of London. When the revolution some day comes, he can live in a party flat like everyone else, but until then, I guess a guy has to live somewhere.

  25. That said, it does seem that the industry has a spotty record of improving record sales by telling artists what to do.

    In one unusual case, I’d heard Peter Gabriel’s label wanted him to keep his music experimental (like on his first couple solo album), where he wanted to make his music more accessible. Of course, in that case, it probably wasn’t that hard to convince them.

  26. I take a free market approach to the whole thing.

    If a band presents themselves as anti-selling-out to their customers (fans in this case), you must stay consistent or risk losing your customers.

    But someone like, say… Clay Aiken, who sold out before he started, should not be chastised for selling out, because his fans expect that sell-out music. It boils down to what type of audience you’re shooting for.

    You want the anti-establishment crowd? Don’t play rib festivals.

    You want a bunch of grannys picking up the latest album from Wal*Mart? Don’t take a dump on stage.

  27. re RATM. I recall Reason doing a piece on “millionare marxists” a while back.

    Too lazy to search….

  28. I heard an interview one time with Eddie Vetter. So Vetter is talking about how he supported Ralph Nader for the Presidency and how all his ideas are great and the like. I would have given anything to ask Vetter what he planned to do if Nader were elected President and put a 100% tax on all income above $200,000 a year (something that Nader really does support). Would Eddie pay the tax and live like an ordinary upper middle class guy or move to another country and continue to be a millionaire leftist? I would love to have seen the look on his face when asked that question.

  29. …If you’re off the grid, I’ll listen to you.

    Then when he started pitching Verizon’s new Off the Grid? plan with bonus minutes for every hour of long-distance calling, he really lost all credibility.

  30. I was never under the impression that Sonic Youth were concerned about being accused of “selling out” – are they very political at all? – or needed to defend themselves from such a charge. But hey, if it helps avoid any confusion with the likes of RATM, more power to ’em.

  31. put a 100% tax on all income above $200,000 a year (something that Nader really does support)

    Link, please.

  32. pretty similar situation involving Of Montreal a few months ago when Outback Steakhouse covered a song of theirs in a commercial. Long letter by lead singer Kevin Barnes about how its impossible to sell out here:

    http://stereogum.com/archives/commercial-appeal/of-montreal-art-brut-do-tmobile_007208.html

  33. Too lazy to search….

    Or to read either. It’s the last link in the post. D’oh.

  34. i’m so glad i’m older now and don’t have to pay attention to music much anymore. sonic youth is cacophanous noise. RATM was a front man w/ a whiny voice and cheesy wicky-wicky guitar licks that would’ve gotten them thrown into the gulag in any worker’s paradise worth its salt.

  35. Ummm, they were on SNL. The reason I remember it was because they hung an American flag upside down during one of their songs (People of the Sun, IIRC) and got the broadcast clipped because of it. It was a big deal, made the news for the few days following.

    This was a different time, IIRC. It was many years ago. I just remember the radio jocks mocking them for being anti-capitalist and then demanding more money.

  36. sonic youth is cacophanous noise

    Some of it. “Daydream Nation” is sheer brilliance but I’m not too aware of anything other than the “hits” that came later.

  37. I heard an interview one time with Eddie Vetter…

    Every story that starts like this ends in assholery. Here’s one.

    I heard an interview one time with Eddie Vedder where he was bemoaning the corporate-systemic evil that made it so it was second-raters like himself who made all the millions off the “grunge” fad, while the real pioneers like Mark Arm were still stuck in crummy day jobs.

    Write him a check, cunt. You know the guy.

  38. You want a bunch of grannys picking up the latest album from Wal*Mart? Don’t take a dump on stage.

    Heh heh. GG!

  39. “I heard an interview one time with Eddie Vedder where he was bemoaning the corporate-systemic evil that made it so it was second-raters like himself who made all the millions off the “grunge” fad, while the real pioneers like Mark Arm were still stuck in crummy day jobs.

    Write him a check, cunt. You know the guy.”

    No kidding. When I saw Pearl Jam, there were about 17,000 people there who paid at least $100 a ticket. That is $1,7 million take for one night. Even if you knock off 700K for expenses, I am guessing old Mike could quit his day job if you gave him a cool million. Come on Eddie, a one night stand for justice!!

  40. cacophanous noise

    this is a bad thing?

    anyway, i don’t like of montreal but that guy’s essay (in the link above) was fairly spot on, if far too long. if you like an indie band, and you hear them on tv, you should be all “hey, good for them!”

    it means they can maybe make up for 50% of their fanbase not paying them for their albums. 🙂

  41. Most importantly, the track listing is pretty good.

    It could use a few tracks from Sister imo, but it gets pretty close to getting it right

  42. Didn’t RTFA.

    If it’s simply a “best-of”, doesn’t it make MORE sense for a band like Sonic Youth to try a different marketing/distribution channel? If you use the same channels as before, you’ll merely aim for the same customers.

    Billy Bragg is another. Committed comunist who lives in wonderful house in a very exclusive and fashionable area of London.

    With the British tax rates, I’d say Bragg still residing in Britain means he’s putting his tax payments where his mouth is.

  43. SNL Info

    I was a huge fan in the day, and I never heard of any other time they were supposed to be on SNL.

  44. Steve Forbes was the host? No wonder they freaked. (“They” being NBC corporate, not RATM).

  45. What I’ve learned today is not to take music suggestions from people who like Ayn Rand.

  46. Sorry for the above. Just cranky and don’t mean to turn into a troll.

  47. Right, ’cause Rand liked crappy artists like Rachmaninov and Brahms.

  48. Right, ’cause Rand liked crappy artists like Rachmaninov and Brahms.

    You don’t like Beethoven. You don’t know what you’re missing. Overtures like that get my… juices flowing. So powerful. But after his openings, to be honest, he does tend to get a little fucking boring. That’s why I stopped!

    You’re a Mozart fan. I love him too. I looooove Mozart! He was Austrian, you know. But for this kind of work….he’s a little bit light. So I tend to go for the, ah, heavier guys. Check out Brahms. He’s good too.

  49. This was a different time, IIRC. It was many years ago. I just remember the radio jocks mocking them for being anti-capitalist and then demanding more money.

    I don’t see any conflict between being anti-capitalist and demanding more money for the fruit of your own labor.

  50. One mild defense of Vetter:

    Pearl Jam delibarately changed their ‘business plan’ after 10 (or maybe it was vs); stuff like not doing MTV videos anymore.

    This decision cost them money.

    However, I concur that De La Rocha is an indefensible hypocritical douchebag.

  51. I would also add that somebody established and financially secure like Reznor is more able to do this kind of thing than your typical indie band, or even someone like Sonic Youth who don’t have the big numbers like Coldplay.

    This is totally OT, but I remember reading an article in some music mag around 1990 about Sonic Youth, and how they’d reached the absolute peak of fame and fortune that any alternative band could dream of. Sonic Youth in 1990 were the Big Boys on the Block, and everyone else was trying to reach their Olympian heights of success.

  52. What do you suppose they invest in?
    Sonic the Hedgefund?

  53. They’re almost old enough to pull of the name “Sonic Boom[er].”

    Heh. I like that one too — perfect! And they are old enough!

  54. “This is totally OT, but I remember reading an article in some music mag around 1990 about Sonic Youth, and how they’d reached the absolute peak of fame and fortune that any alternative band could dream of. Sonic Youth in 1990 were the Big Boys on the Block, and everyone else was trying to reach their Olympian heights of success.”

    Before grunge broke, that was absolutely true. In 1990 or so it was Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction and Replacements and that was about as popular as you could get if you were an indie band.

  55. Rachmoninov and Brahms?

    I think I take back my take back.

  56. Elemenope,

    Most of Mozart is boring as hell. I’ll take Vivaldi concerti (or most Baroque music, for that matter) over Mozart sonatas any day.

    But hold on, Beethoven overtures? Mozart’s overtures were at least 10x better. Is there something wrong with your sound system, or do you just have a poor taste?

  57. John,

    Before grunge broke, that was absolutely true. In 1990 or so it was Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction and Replacements and that was about as popular as you could get if you were an indie band.

    Tell me about it. When I was a college freshman, my roommates started out making fun of my music. By second semester, they were borrowing my cassettes and rockin’ the plaid.

  58. “I was never under the impression that Sonic Youth were concerned about being accused of “selling out” – are they very political at all?”
    Their lame attempts at “political” lyrics have aged as well as a Judge Ito joke(“I believe in Anita Hill/stupid judge is gonna burn in hell”…oy vey.) so they’ve wisely backed away from that arena.
    I was a fan in the 80s, but what sounds “groundbreaking” when you’re 19 sounds like a 1-trick-pony when you’re 41. The only thing from that era that I still listen to is The Jesus & Mary Chain’s PSYCHOCANDY: just as noisy as SY, but with actual songs underneath the racket.
    I believe the “youth” in their name was Thurston’s nod to reagae siner BIG YOUTH. I doubt thay knew they would become the No-Wave Greatful Dead.

  59. Joe, please tell us how you got to be so fucking cool and ahead of your time!

  60. For the record I was never cool at any time in my life. I just once had friends who knew people who were cool.

  61. Damn you fuckers are old.

  62. It’s always better when they’re starving and removed from outside input, all of it.

    Unless they stink, of course.

  63. “It’s always better when they’re starving and removed from outside input, all of it.”

    Or unless it is prog we’re talking about, in which case they’re probably better off a little chunky.

  64. Elemenope,

    Most of Mozart is boring as hell. I’ll take Vivaldi concerti (or most Baroque music, for that matter) over Mozart sonatas any day.

    But hold on, Beethoven overtures? Mozart’s overtures were at least 10x better. Is there something wrong with your sound system, or do you just have a poor taste?

    Dude, you need to bone up on your films. It’s a movie quote (quite a famous one, I might add).

    Personally, I prefer Beethoven to both Brahms and Mozart. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is one of my favorite pieces of classical music from the romantic period. I also really, really like Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. Berlioz is also good. As far as modern stuff goes I can occasionally do Philip Glass (really liked the Metamorphosis). Mostly, though, when it comes to modern I just stick with Tool or System of a Down, maybe a little Live, and some Sage Francis thrown in for spice.

  65. I was a fan in the 80s, but what sounds “groundbreaking” when you’re 19 sounds like a 1-trick-pony when you’re 41.

    Sonic Youth were groundbreaking. When you hear their music now, it’s easy to think of bands that did it better – 8 years later.

    For the record I was never cool at any time in my life. I just once had friends who knew people who were cool. Ditto. In theory, there has to have been a period in between my style being gay and everybody else doing it better, when I was actually cool, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out when it was. I think the mathematical definition of a point applies.

  66. Elemenope,

    I thought you were actually approving what’s in the quote, but guess I was wrong. My bad.

    And I prefer Beethoven to Mozart and Brahms myself, but my critique still stands: Mozart beats Beethoven in overtures. Of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies only the Sixth has done much for me (yet). And no one really cares much for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique except for its last movement, but Les Troyens is a magnificent work, like pretty much all his monster creations. Finally I think I’ll refrain from commenting on Philip Glass ’cause my feeling towards him is prolly the opposite of yours.

  67. Finally I think I’ll refrain from commenting on Philip Glass ’cause my feeling towards him is prolly the opposite of yours.

    Hey, I’m not sensitive! A little disagreement never hurt anyone (much).

  68. D00d, Sonic Youth is an awesome, awesome band. People focus on their “noise” stuff, but where’s the love for more mellow albums like A Thousand Leaves and their latest, Rather Ripped?

    ’80s alternative, underground, indie — whatever you want to call it — is some great stuff. Thurston is right on calling out their critics as being hypocrites. I know people who think they’re really cool for listening to unheard of bands and once they become popular, they completely disown them. It’s obnoxious and about as lame as the people who suddenly started liking Sonic Youth because Nirvana broke into the mainstream.

    Anyway, Sonic Youth’s great and it’s rad to see that they’re standing up to the idiot critics.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.