“Selling out” is as real as entropy


“Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost famously wrote, referring to the tendency of all things in life to break down and become eroded versions of themselves. In addition to the obvious tendency of aging and death, we moderns have become familiar with the term “entropy” for the proliferation of possible options that then then renders choice almost impossible. Underneath all of this a more virulent tendency lurks, which is the human habit of destroying everything we encounter, including — especially — our own best creations.

In heavy metal we think of this through the decline of bands from excellent and striking to a version of what we already know is popular, like the steady unraveling of Metallica from the band that made Ride the Lightning to a country-fried version of Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin. We see it other places as well. For the last two decades, I have relied on a certain British company that makes teapots as a source of reliable gifts. People friggin’ love a quality teapot. But a few weeks ago, the company was sold, and the MBAs moved in and quickly figured out how to add a stylish handle to the teapots and make them of cheaper material and less of it, translating into fragile and less-effective teapots.

This parallels what happens to interesting movies from Highlander to The Bourne Identity which is that after an interesting premiere, the sequels emerge and they are of not only lower quality, but outright stupidity. The decision-making and leadership choices behind these movies are just of a radically lowered degree, such that if the first movie was a genius the followups have the abilities of a moron who works as a bureaucrat. For example, The Bourne Identity gave us a fast-paced and intricate but interesting script which maintained the emotion of a character lost in a world where he has no roots, but the sequel managed to not only hit every Hollywood cliche but present them in a series of improbable scenes which were clearly derived from better versions in the earlier film, all while creating the emotional flatline that is the result of cardboard characters and nonsensical motivations. We might even target Star Wars which, after an initial foray which mixed humor, sci-fi, religion and a classic quest narrative, dove into the edgy but pointless followup and then threw in the towel and headed for the gift shop and standard Hollywood dreck with the third.

It would be nice to be able to blame Hollywood, whether of the movie or music industry variety, but the grim truth is that this pattern shows up in more than teapots and speed metal. It appears anywhere humans attempt to organize themselves. The large tech companies who were visionaries and rebels a generation ago are now stodgy corporates, albeit with the appearance of being insightful and life-positive, whose products are designed to manipulate us to buy more of their high-margin offerings. Even the most necrotic of underground metal bands fall prey to this syndrome, but for miniscule amounts of money and fame, suggesting that the classic narrative of “selling out” — changing your sound to be more like Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin, both rock/metal hybrids that allow people to purchase edginess of metal within the familiar and non-threatening music of the herd, like jeans or Jack Daniels or other “extreme” products that in fact reflect extreme conformity — is incorrect and money and fame in itself do not explain the motivation for this choice.

Considering the nature of this problem as universal or nearly so, it makes sense to analyze it at a level lower than the reward itself, and instead to look at motivations. People are fundamentally social creatures; we are pack animals, allegedly at a higher level of evolution than the apes but retaining their most fundamental behaviors (and if you disagree, I’ll hurl a turd at you while beating on my chest and howling). We motivate each other with social guilt and shame, but that is only the stick; the carrot is that we offer inclusion to others who do things that please us, and create “heroes” out of those who do what many of us find appealing. This is the underlying mechanism of the sell-out, which is not so much profitable — since it exists as attempt without certainty of reward — as it is sociable.

When Metallica switch from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to “Nothing Else Matters,” they are offering a simplified version of their edgy sound that more people can understand. This gives everyone the warm fuzzies, since it offers peace through pacification of others, and makes Metallica appear more altruistic and friendly. It also retains the surface appearance of extremity, which lets ordinary conformists play the charade of extraordinary (and possibly visionary) non-conformist without any risk to themselves, since what they are actually doing is buying a product which is just another flavor of the same ordinary rock everyone else litens to. Selling out is offering a product that is designed to please more people by giving to them what they already think they want, and by not challenging them, allows them to confirm their status as having valuable lives without raising the bar and forcing them to exceed their normal, self-interested and self-referential or narcissistic behavior. When you see something good go bad, it is almost always the result of this phenomenon, which consists of self-interested producers expanding their market by lowering the different-ness of their product, and in turn allowing the social group to feel pleasant illusions about its togetherness.

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16 thoughts on ““Selling out” is as real as entropy”

  1. Johannes Climaxus says:


    question: does this mean that you don’t listen to ANY music that doesnt ‘challenge’ you or could be considered “sell-out” or possibly even commercial music? I’m interested to know of your guilty pleasures in music and how you ‘justify’ them to yourself.

    1. Typical black and white reply. Don’t be surprised if you are ignored.

      1. Greg Muscles Bartolo says:

        So when are you going back to Encyclopedia Metallum David?

    2. Cortez says:

      For those of us who have any amount of participation in modern society, we are all unwillingly exposed to substandard products/people/art, but we often stratify them into a sort of caste system according to their use for us. Because of this idea even substandard music can be enjoyed in the right setting without automatically compromising core values, because we don’t expect it to be enjoyed on the same level. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to enjoy say, “…and justice for all” at a pub where you have no control of the music, and are just happy they aren’t playing Ke$ha, even though you know you would rather them be playing Burzum or Bach. It’s the music that we choose when we have control over it, that matters in terms of quality, IMO.

  2. ODB says:

    Selling out has stopped registering as much of an impact on me as it used to many years ago. The key is dissociating music from maker, at least in the mind, and although the music is only a natural outcropping of the musician, once it is out, it occupies an indestructible segment of time, its links to its makers as good as non existent. It hurts initially when Morbid Angel do what they do but when you think on it, its a petty, childish sort of hurt. People aren’t infallible and will continue fucking up, all the more important then that we kill the messenger and exalt the message.

  3. LostInTheANUS says:

    Thank you Satan for this Vijay Prozak we’ve been receiving.

  4. Kingdom_Gone says:

    Fuckin’ great article. Damn, I love Ride the Lightning, or at least loved it to death as a teenager. Then it was a steady slide towards the bottom. Master of Puppets still had a couple of good songs, …and Justice for all had a pair and the final climax, The Black Album, had only one or maximum two good songs.

  5. hypocrite says:

    It seems to me that rather than trying to expand an audience by making bullshit that is relatable to the average moron, the above phenomenon is more of an artist ‘resting on their laurels’. After exhausting themselves making quality art, they make something that ‘no one’ could object to, rather than going through the monumental process that results in putting forth something amazing. For individuals (bands, etc) with an established fanbase, the result is the same, but whether or not it is intentional on the part of the artist seems debatable.

  6. Nathan Metric says:

    Disagree with Pozak completely. By the time Metallica were finished with their 4th album, they essentially made the same album 3 times. RTL, MOP, and AJFA are the same style of music and they have the same song organization.

    They could of done two things.
    A) Keep trying to play the same style of music. Stagnate like Slayer.
    B)Start playing a different style of music to inject some energy back into their creative writing process.

    I think the latter was the right decision. Made 1 metal/rock album. 2 avant-garde rock albums that allowed James to write about his past better. One cover album. An intentionally cheesy nu metal album. And then we have Death Magnetic. THAT was the album Metallica actually sold out on. The motivation for that album wasn’t musical, but commercial. Death Magnetic was about Metallica trying to prove they were still metal. Rather than writing songs for their own sake they chose to write songs for their “hardcore” fanbase (those that only liked the first 4 albums) As a result, the music was half-assed and the recording quality sucked dog.

    The problem I have with this article is it is assuming Metallica “sold out” on the black album, when it would make more sense to say Metallica sold out on Death Magnetic. Call me blasphemous if you want, but just because a band chooses to go back to playing metal doesn’t automatically make it immune to selling out. Even the act of going back to metal can itself be a form of selling out.

    1. Slayer “stagnated” only after they sold out with Seasons in the Abyss. Previously they only improved.
      In the same way, Metallica actually stagnated as they sold out.

  7. Phil says:

    So Metallica sold out you say?

    Not everyone is going to be able to keep jumping the same bar they set for themselves. When this happens, go find someone else doing something new and better. I’m sure there’s a company willing to exploit the gap in the luxury teapot market.

  8. canadaspaceman says:

    Good article,
    when bands wimp out, then some fans look for others.
    I remember a new wave friend of mine in high-school in the mid-80s said I only liked bands like Slayer and Megadeth was cuz I was an elitist. Maybe.
    Maybe I still am!
    The Black Album, had only 4 good songs.
    Jim Bean is better than Jack Daniels.
    Kesha loves satan or so her videos make it seem.

  9. in the void says:

    metallica didn’t stay true to there integrity as metallers, to me that’s why they sold out, a lot of the fans felt they were being betrayed, by musicians that they felt could have been called brothers/family, and the path way to more mainstream music reflected this.

  10. I like mocks says:

    I have a question:
    Are Vijay and Devamitra the same guy?

    1. Deaf says:

      Insofar as everyone is a manifestation of the Oversoul.

  11. Nate says:

    Managing greater wealth and lifestyle could also be a major culprit. I’d have to ponder this (which I’ve been doing for years). It could spread one thin creatively, managing great work and a business on a practical level could become just too much. As a survival instinct one may become a product of themselves in order to maintain the paycheck.

    Alas, few points I’ve always pondered regarding “Sell Out.”

    1. Resisting fortune is silly. Modeling yourself, your ethics and abstract concept of self, in order to scoop up a windfall of cash directed at you could create a spiritual crisis but definitely not a financial one. “Sell out” concept could very well be a visualization of a spiritual crisis.

    2. There is a much larger game of profits at hand. All things are brands. Burzum is a brand. All concepts of what it sells pop into mind when just seeing its name. People depend on a lower fi sound, a political statement, black metal mythology tales, etc. Megadeth, Slayer to Bob Marley, Arby’s, Death Metal.org. You come to these things to expect things. If any of these things move from their expected spectrum a crisis occurs in the customer’s mind. The hypnotic effect of their beloved product is challenged.

    Money is the measure of survival we have chosen. at the end of every month, when you pay a bill or rent you have chosen to agree with money as survival. A person has almost infinite choice as to how he would like to spend his money. If Slayer is raking in money, they have directed people to spend in their direction. This should be celebrated. I’m not sure if it is a liberal trait but instead we punish by creating the term sell out.

    Changing of expected form can be embarrassing and disappointing (Metallica) and maybe this is what sell out is. When one changes forum in order to make money. Burzum and Slayer get less criticism but make plenty of money.

    3. It’s not always the case. Some products remain vital. if you’re into wargaming there’s a ton of solid products. Strategy & Tactics has remained as pure as it was when it began in the 1970.

    You should want the band you enjoy to make all the money they can. If they morph into garbage due to that then fine, move on. Money is property and territory. It’s not just dollar bills. The Vandals, Huns, Goths and other barbarian tribes crushed Rome. It’s a fucking war. Take the wealth and land from the Romans! You’re not going to secure your survival otherwise. If the current world must be gentle to assure “not to sell out”, Then starve as the coward you all are. It’s a war. If people become idiotic with their wealth it is on them, but we should absolutely be aiming to direct power toward us!

    Sell Out is the disgust at the morphing of ideals to make money. NOT the disgust at making money itself.

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