The term “selling out” has been in music since the first Band You’ve Never Heard Of played to a crowd of six people instead of four. We hear it all the time nowadays; “Muse sold out”, “Rage Against the Machine sold out”, “Metallica sold out”, “Arcade Fire sold out”, “Green Day sold out”. If Green Day sold out every time people said they have, shit, that band would be worth more than Apple.
Truth of the matter is that selling out is lot rarer and harder than most message border users would think. To sell out, you have to change your end goal from “make music for personal enjoyment and expression” to “make music in a matter fit for maximum profit”. This is why it’s almost impossible to accuse KISS of selling out; from the get-go, they were all about being as over the top as possible, and unafraid to make a brand out of their name.
By similar token, it’s hard to call Muse a bunch of sell outs. Pretentious? Possibly. Overdramatic? You bet. Ridiculous, even, but not sell outs. The first Muse album I ever listened to end to end was The Resistance, which turned a lot of fans off. A few months ago, I finally snagged a copy of Origins of Symmetry, which is generally said to be their “best” album, and give that a few listens. Maybe it’s hindsight, but both feel equally Muse; both have that mix of hard rock and classical music, the emphasis just shifted. As for the whole Twilight thing, I can understand “sell out” being sort of legitimate, but at the same time, the author of the books was kind of sort of obsessed with them, and Muse’s naturally over the top and melodramatic music fits the series perfectly already. Although that’s probably not something you want to tell Muse fans.
Other times, artists get called sell outs for the inexcusable crime of people noticing their talent, or for improving. Arcade Fire comitted two major “sins” with The Suburbs; it debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, and won the Grammy for Album of the year. Getting angry because a super popular indie band sold lots and lots of records in one week is just silly when you think about it (“Dammit, I knew I should have pirated it!”), as is getting mad when people acknowledge an album for being good (“How dare you be rewarded for you hard work!”).
The claim is often slapped on bands that join a major label, but the only constant change from an indie label to a major one is production values. Green Day’s first major label album Dookie sounds almost exactly like their earlier work, only mixed/produced with the idea that people actually want to hear the music, label status never affected Sonic Youth, who put out some of their best material while on a major label.
Experimenting with new sounds or ideas doesn’t equate selling out, either. It may shock some people, but musicians are actual people, and can’t keep carrying on when they hit middle age like they did when they were young adults (not without looking very sad). So Green Day want to write a rock opera about dissatisfaction in America instead of songs about jerking it off, or Metallica might not want to do 9 minute long progressive rock numbers, fine. As long as they make the music they want to make, and the quality stays high, good for them.
One of the more baffling accusations I’ve seen of selling out was leveled against political rock rap outfit Rage Against the Machine. An underground success, RATM’s fans accused the group of selling out by being on a major label. In a surprisingly poignant explanation for a guy in a group called Rage Against the Machine, guitarist Tom Morello explained the band’s choice by saying, “Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that’s where people buy their books. We’re not interested in preaching to just the converted. It’s great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it’s also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart.”
But possibly the most idiotic reason to call an artist a sellout (especially an up and coming one) is at the end of the day, you’ve got to pay bills. Someone comes along and tells you that they’ve heard your music, they like it, and they want to get you out there, no strings attached. Shit, who wouldn’t take that?
Sell-outs still exist; there are plenty of minions out there looking to use music as a get rich quick scheme, or who are all too eager to change their sound just to make a dollar (will.I.am comes to mind), but they are far fewer than you’d think.