May 24, 2024

Yesterday Vox published a piece by Rebecca Jennings entitled “Everyone’s a Sellout Now,” about the nature of the marketing and promotion creators are required to do these days to get their work out into the public sphere, in a world where creative work makes less for nearly everyone who makes things, and where nothing seems to last. In a time where every creator also has to be their own media personality, with a TikTok and Instagram presence, who even has time to be an actual creator anymore, the piece asks, and it is a fair question.

I felt a wave of nostalgia reading the piece; this same piece could have been written twenty years ago, during the heyday of the “blogosphere,” when the first wave of celebrity bloggers were getting their first books out there in the world, while still being chained to the daily grind of writing on their sites and hoping that their already-existing blog audiences would somehow convert into paying customers. It could also have been written any time between now and then, because Patreons and Kickstarters aren’t exactly new any more, and before TikTok, the current (and honestly a little long in the tooth now) arbiter of What The Kids Are Into, there was YouTube and Vine and Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook and MySpace and so on, all requiring constant attention and performative authenticity, and all being an exhausting grind to maintain. This is so not new, he said, on his blog where he’s written for 25 years, despite blogs being positively antediluvian at this point.

(Nor was it new even in blog times, but let’s leave stories of authors and musicians selling their self-published/pressed books and music out of the trunks of their cars, and having to be their own press agents calling newspapers and radio stations from gas station pay phones, in the dust of the 20th century for now.)

But! The fact that this story is not new does not minimize the endless wheel of online self-promotion creators have to do today, nor should it minimize the challenges creators have today getting their work seen in a system where it feels like putting your art out into the world is often like chucking it down a hole and hoping enough people see it flashing by before it settles forever into the darkness. Jennings’ piece is less about discovering a new and lamentable aspect of being a creator as it is This Year’s Model of the story — the contours are largely the same but the differences in details matter, and are worth knowing about.

We are also brought again to the consideration of what “selling out” means in an era where “artistic integrity” means you’re likely to make no money at all, instead of the very little money you might otherwise get. Jennings’ piece talks to artists today about what “that “selling out” means, and at least one of them comes to the conclusion that it is “an outdated, privileged, and intensely unrealistic attitude.”

And you know what? That creator is 100% not wrong. It is outdated and privileged, and in the US generally comes out of a very specific moment of post-war American prosperity when young people briefly set themselves in opposition to the capitalist system and shied away from anything that whiffed of its taint, before surrendering to it wholly under Reagan (yes, yes, hashtag NotAllBoomers). That ethos later got a boost via punk, which had offshoots well into the 00s (hello, emo!). It was a very durable shibboleth, manifesting mostly in music but also in writing and other fields.

It’s a nice idea if you can afford it, or, alternately, don’t mind being poor all your life. Most people can’t and wouldn’t choose to be, respectively. And even in its heyday it was only moderately adhered to; for every celebrity who could afford to be choosy about how they marketed themselves, there were others who could not, or, alternately, saw no contradiction between their artist selves and their moneymaking selves. These days, when the amount of money made from creative work is relentlessly squeezed by others in the chain, and there are more of them squeezing than ever before, that contradiction is less and less immediately apparent.

There is another to me more insidious aspect of “selling out” as an epithet, which is that for decades now it’s suggested that understanding the business of your creativity was somehow a bad thing, and something to be wary of. In my own field, this has meant decades of watching predatorial creeps lurk around every part of the publishing chain to take advantage of writers, who internalize this nonsense and end up saying things like “no one does this for the money” like that’s somehow a virtue, instead of evidence of a broken system. It’s no better in other creative fields. We all stand to die of exposure.

“Selling out” for me means a very specific thing: It means doing things for money (or power, influence, etc) that go against your own personal set of ethics and values. I have been offered — recently, even! — opportunities to make money that go against my ideals; I’ve turned them down. I also recognize that for most of my professional life I have been in a position where turning down stuff I find questionable is easier for me than for other people. If I say “no” to something, I don’t have to worry about whether my electricity is going to be cut off, or I’m going to be able to make rent. My line of accountability is higher than I would hold it for others (within reason: Don’t ever be a fascist for pay, y’all, or, in point of fact, be a fascist at all).

Actively marketing yourself and your work, and setting up creative camp where the money is: that’s doing business. It is not inherently “selling out.” Anyone who suggests otherwise can go fuck themselves. It already sucks for most creatives that they have to spend so much of their time doing everything around creativity rather than the creative stuff, the stuff that gives other people joy, and the stuff that they want and need to sell to keep on doing more of it. Saddling that aspect of their lives with a cultural judgement that is at this point decades out of date, and promulgated by generations who gleefully voted for decades to shred the social net, is some real bullshit. No one today deserves that added to their karmic load.

It’s never been easy to make money as a creative. Creatives have always had to hustle. Most of the work to make a name has always fallen to the creatives themselves; other help mostly comes in after the fact, if at all. Creatives deserve to have an opportunity to make a living from what they do, however they can manage to do it. There’s a lot about being a creative in this era that is terrible, in terms of being able to make that living. But if one aspect of it is that it finally kills dead the concept of “selling out” just for trying not to starve while you make your art, then that’s a silver lining, not to be discounted. It’s not selling out to live.

— JS


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