In order to properly discuss what “selling out” is we must make a few distinctions. First, a group must have some contain skill or style that it might be able to sell in exchange for fame, wealth, or both. While groups with neither talent nor flair auction themselves off with regularity, nothing of value is lost in the transaction from the consumer’s standpoint and these groups shall be excluded from this discussion. Also, engaging in activism, of any nature, cannot be considered selling out unless there are financial incentives for doing so. While Madonna may extol the United Nations to help starving children in Africa, she remains untainted until she produces a song to benefit the starving children. If she has done this, I remain unaware. Furthermore, supposing the benefits from such work are donated, the publicity from such an action may be viewed as selling out instead. Finally, a group cannot “sell out” by being popular if no change has occur aside from an increase in exposure. While many hipsters may claim that a group has “sold out” because everyone likes them now, this is a fallacy. Mere popularity is not a qualification to be considered “sold out.” Supposing this were the case the product Hannah Montana would have sold out quite some time ago, but this is not possible because the Hannah Montana brand has always been a commercial enterprise and no significant change in derivative products can be observed. This is excluding the literal meaning of “sold out” which implies an absence of available concert tickets for purchase, in which case the above example is quite true.
With the proper exclusions in place, we may define “selling out” as an intellectual compromise in which the artist, for those to whom the label can be properly applied, alters future endeavors, in comparison with past productions, in order to secure greater fiscal rewards. Special focus must be applied to role in which financial incentives affect artistic development. Often times a musician will change style naturally as a part of musical development without consideration paid to monetary incentives. An example of this could be seen in Miles Davis, whose style changed dramatically from bebop to cool to avant-garde throughout his career but never strived (or achieved) great financial success with these transitions. Some degree of commercial success must also be obtained to properly sell out. A group such as The Aquabats has changed radically since their conception; although starting as a ska band they no longer contain a single wind instrument, but cannot be considered sell-outs because they have not reached an adequate level of success, although some would certainly disagree with me on this matter. With popularity so often intertwined with financial success, it is easy to see how hipsters would confuse becoming popular with selling out. Hipsters are also by popular definition forbidden to enjoy things that are popular, and proclaiming something a sell-out allows the hipster to maintain a sort of moral high ground.
Unfortunately, this moral high ground is imaginary. In one of the most competitive industries possible, any musician who achieves success is to be lauded. The musician, unlike the politician, owes no debt to those who endorse him. Although his success is dependent upon them, they are free to discontinue their patronage at any time and he is not obligated to only appeal to their interests. Although some may feel betrayed when the musician decides to increase his exposure by signing a contract with a major distributor such as MTV, it is the musicians’ choice and it’s his product, mostly*.
* According to whatever stimulations are entailed in the musicians contract with said distributor.