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The Black Keys Reveal True Nature of “Selling Out” on NPR

February 2, 2011

“Selling out” has long been a term of taboo in the music business. These words are so powerful, they can alienate even the strongest fans of an artist,  without any supporting facts or evidence. This epidemic is perhaps most active in indie and alternative music genres.

Which brings us to our latest victim; or should I say victims.

The Black Keys aren't corporate whores, they're corporate mores...as in they want to see more of that hard-earned money from this badass music they're cranking out. Don't lie. You're probably listening to a downloaded copy right now as you scan links on Facebook.

Dan Auerbach (vocals/guitar) and Patrick Carney (percussion), better known as the powerful blues-rock duo The Black Keys, are hard at work supporting their sixth studio effort, “Brothers,” which was widely hailed as one of 2010’s greatest albums. Formed in 2001, the group has developed a sturdy stake in today’s blues and hard rock scene with consistently impressive albums and an ever-growing live music resume.

The pair were recently invited on the Fresh Air Interview, a segment of National Public Radio music coverage. Host Terry Gross invited the pair to discuss their appearance on the highly popular comedic news show the Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert accused the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend vocalist/guitarist Ezra Koenig of ‘equally whoring-out their music’ to commercials.

The Keys’ list of commercial endeavors is somewhat lengthy and somewhat surprising for a band hardly a decade old. Their music has appeared in commercials for corporate giants such as Zales, Hewlett-Packard and Victoria’s Secret.

Information like this is potential poison for an indie fan base that vows anti-corporatism, over-consumption or zealous enterprise. However, in today’s age, where records no longer sell, licensing has become the new paycheck for the average musician…and according to the Keys, it’s NOT selling out.

“A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that’s the face of the band,” said Carney says. “What they don’t see is that we made [Brothers] in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn’t spend a lot of money making this record, and it’s an honest way of approaching making music. And once the music is out there, when you’re selling a record and selling music and people are going to do whatever they want with it, it’s kind of hard to resist certain opportunities, especially in the record market now.”

Truer words might not have been spoken. Perhaps it’s time for this  stuck-up indie crowd that litters our country to reevaluate themselves before their playlists. At least respect that the Key’s initially avoided tempting commercial offers for fear of this very same backlash.

“The first offer we ever had to have a song in a commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money — crazy money,” Carney said. “Especially at the time, it was insane.”

“We’re hearing this, seriously, as we’re driving around in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager that smells like pee, and going home to our modest apartments, and we were scared. We were 23 years old. So we passed on it.”

There’s no longer any denying television’s importance in promoting music. In 2009, French alt-rock group Phoenix had their most popular hit to date, “1901,” feature on a commercial for the Cadillac SRX. The ad spot drove their catchy tune straight into the speakers of millions of televisions across the country, simultaneously cropping up popular Google searches for “song in Cadillac commercial.”

We all know the music industry is changing with the eruption of new technologies. Perhaps our definition of ‘selling out’ is changing too.

Do artists even have a choice anymore?

I guess the best way to answer that question is with another one.

“What would you do?”

Come on. Really.

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