I spent a lot of time and energy as a young punk and activist talking about and trying to decide who was or was not a “sell out.”
The basic premise was that any activist or political band who attained any modicum of popularity or financial sustainability was a traitor. If your band got a lucky interview on MTV, you were a sellout. If you expected anything more than gas money at a show, you were a sellout. At the time, it seemed like the ultimate expression of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian ideals. By attacking “sellouts” we defended punk. We defended our ideals.
Over time I’ve realized this subcultural practice of hating on those who gain small success is actually deeply rooted in capitalist ideology. First, by expecting artists to live in constant poverty and offer their music (labor) for free at all times, we created extreme exclusion. If the only bands that can afford to go on tour are the ones whose mom lets them borrow the minivan—or the ones who have no responsibilities, kids, or family to support in other countries, or bills to pay—then you end up with what a lot of the DIY punk scene looks like now: white, upper-middle-class cisgender hetero boys who can only keep playing until they “make it big” or need to get a “real job.”
So much of my animosity toward bands in my scene getting bigger followings or playing bigger shows was about my own jealousy and insecurity. Capitalism teaches artists to see each other as competition, and that the success of one political artist is the cause for another’s failure. The reality is that the more people who get excited about music with political content, the better it is for all radical artists. The popularity of bands like Rage Against the Machine and Sleater-Kinney has helped carve out space for artists like me, Taina Asili, and Bonfire Madigan, to name a few.
It’s worth noting that the shouts of “sellout” are loudest when the artists who “make it” are people of color and women. It’s also worth noting that “making it” for mid-level artists often still means making less money a year than many people with “normal” jobs. I know lots of bands and artists who can consistently fill 500-1,000 person venues and who still struggle financially the same way I do. Artists are workers and deserve to make a living wage like the rest of us. Artists deserve to be able to support their families.
What I’ve come to realize over time is that there IS such a thing as “selling out,” but it’s not what I thought it was when I was a teenager. “Selling out” is not just about how much money you make or how big your shows are or whether your band is featured in Rolling Stone. Selling out is when you lose sight of your goals as artists and activists and use your new power to gain more power rather than support others. Selling out is when you change who you are, step on those below you, or whitewash your message in order to gain access to more power and money. Selling out is when you give up on the idea that music can change the world, and stop trying to use your craft to inspire and incite action.
Some of the most famous artists I know are also some of the most compassionate. They use the power they’ve gained to help others. On the other hand, I know plenty of bands that gained a tiny bit of fame and became assholes, thirsty for more patriarchal and capitalist power.
One of the most amazing things about art and music is that—no matter how hard they try—corporations will never be able to own and control all of it. When bands do things that benefit corporations and harm our communities, that is a form of betrayal. But it’s important to remember in the end who pulls the strings. We can and should critique bands and artists that sell their music to commercials for evil corporations or whitewash their message to get more radio play.
But perhaps more importantly we need to directly challenge the corporate, patriarchal, and white supremacist structures that have so much power and influence over artist communities. We need to build alternatives that make it viable for marginalized people to create and share art without support or meddling from corporate sponsors or major labels.
Now that I’m in my “old age” as a queer punk parent, I often wonder whether 17 year old me would think 32 year old me is a “sellout.” After all, I’ve toured the world, sometimes selling out venues that hold DOZENS of people, and I make enough money to pay most of my bills. I’ve gotten that interview in Rolling Stone and toured with some of the very bands that I used to condemn as traitors and sellouts. I’ve changed a lot in the past 15 years. I think it’s very possible that teenage me would think I’m a sellout. But I think teenage me is wrong. Because in the end, my core values and concrete goals with both my music and activism have stayed exactly the same.
I wake up every day trying to figure out the most effective way to use my music and my voice as a tool and a weapon for justice and liberation. I do my best to support other artists, and build bonds of solidarity and mutual aid that lead to our collective empowerment. I also show myself more respect as a worker, have joined a union, and am explicit that I need to be paid fair wages for my artistic labor.
My kid, who is 6 years old, is starting to get really into punk rock now, and asks me a lot of questions about different bands and shows. It’s exciting to me to think that there is going to be a whole new generation of anti-authoritarian activists and musicians growing up now. Marginalized artists have been fighting for space and winning. More queer, POC, and femme-of-center artists are gaining respect and exposure. I’m glad my kid has seen me go after my dreams of playing music and doing activism for a living even if it’s meant we’ve struggled sometimes. I want to teach them to support artists and activists, especially marginalized ones, and respect their labor. I want them to create their own.
My hope is that in the future we will focus more on the mission: How can we use our voices and our art and our fists and our guitars to fight? If some of us have gained popularity, great. How can we work together to use that to grow the movement, and make more space for more voices? There will always be those who abandon the cause, or who step on others in pursuit of power. I vow to spend less energy caring about them. And instead spend my energy supporting marginalized artists who are using their art to make a difference and fight systems of oppression. Teenage me would probably think that the fact that 32 year old me thinks 17 year old me was wrong is the ultimate proof that I’m a sellout. I’ll keep doing what I can to use what I’ve got strategically to fight the man. I guess I can live with teenage me thinking I’m a “sell out.”
Evan Greer is a transgender activist, touring songwriter, and the Campaign Director of Fight for the Future. This op-ed originally appeared as a series of tweets. Follow her at @evan_greer. Evan organizes Boston’s monthly all gender queer dance party Break the Chains, the next event is June 3rd at Make Shift Boston featuring The Shondes.