On Selling Out

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

This week’s podcast from The Cut asks a question for our times: What Counts as Selling Out?

The answer is one I’ve been contemplating a lot recently, mostly in relation to an essay I'm writing on the problematic aspects of the ‘personal brand’ for my friend Naomi’s forthcoming book. In the past, I’ve written extensively - and often, enthusiastically - on personal branding, through this platform and others. But as I work more, think more, and make ever more frequent half-jokes about starting a retirement home for aging influencers, I've become increasingly concerned about the effects this commodification of the self is having on our professional (and emotional) lives.

Whether you’re a pro beauty blogger with a six-figure cosmetics sponsorship, or a 9-to-5er with a private Instagram account, engaging with social media is an act of commercial exchange. You might not personally be posting #ads, but your attention, data, and ‘original content’ are being sold to people who do. Or perhaps, you are posting #ads featuring your work; your face; your body - maybe even all three - in which case you’ve probably had some conflicted thoughts about 'selling out' of your own.

If you’re anything like me, these thoughts might span a spectrum that stretches broadly from: Googling ’How To Disappear from the Internet Completely’ all the way through to: Show! Me! The Money!’ 🤑🤑🤑 Because even if you’ve transcended an egoistic desire for corporate endorsement (and the nuanced social validation that comes with it), it’s hard to ignore the financial possibilities that getting really good at selling out now presents to us all. After all, the online world is rife with examples of people whose most lucrative creative project has proved to be... themselves.

The struggle between making art and making a living from your art is nothing new, of course –- artists have survived with the help of wealthy patrons since the time of the Italian Renaissance. What is new is the addition of a 21st Century clause in the contract; that sneaky footnote which requires that we now seal the deal with a slice of ourselves. I'm pretty sure Da Vinci's agreement with the Medicis didn't entail signing away the rights to his 'personal likeness', or welcoming a five-person production team into his home for a filmed closet tour.

While we're zooming out on the history of selling out, it's worth noting the curious truth that the current wave of SponCon Success Stories was directly preceded by its exact antithesis. From punk, to grunge, to indie rock, many of the leading subcultural movements of Generation X were about putting a middle finger up to ‘the man’ in whatever style worked for you.

In the UK, punk and the spirit of DIY creativity it engendered were bolstered by a state infrastructure that offered a way of living within 'the system' while still rejecting certain aspects that might not appeal. To give a personal example: My parents - both corporate refuseniks, albeit the gainfully-employed kind - moved to London, separately, from other parts of the UK in their late teens, and were able to find affordable, well-located public housing (including the apartment I grew up in) straightaway. This enabled them to pursue self-employment in the worlds of independent media and fashion for many years, despite neither operating with a safety net of familial wealth.

Nowadays, this type of story evokes pained nostalgia for my friends paying extortionate rents to live in London, while sounding like the stuff of fairytale fantasy to my peers here in the US. But if the late 20th Century United States lacked a parallel framework for alternative living, there was at least some cultural space afforded to those hoping to pursue an anti-sell out way of life. In the late 80s and early 90s, the grunge movement sprang from an anti-capitalist 'Slacker Culture', which actively celebrated the 'Loser', and kept its aspirations accordingly low: In a 1991 interview, grunge posterboy Kurt Cobain stated that his greatest ambition was “to at least sell enough records to be able to eat macaroni and cheese, so I didn’t have to get a job.”

Not even three decades later, this ideological stance has become so alien - and more crucially, so inaccessible - to our 'burnout generation' that a wave of literature has emerged to tell us how we might even relearn to think about opting out. It's a microgenre that writer Jia Tolentino explores with characteristic brilliance in a recent piece for The New Yorker, where her review of Cal Newport's 'Digital Minimalism' protocol and Jenny Odell's 'How To Do Nothing' (which I also wrote about two weeks ago) cuts straight to the dystopian chase:

"Many people still earn their livelihoods offline, but an online presence is often a requirement not only for jobs in the gig economy but in order to piece together a financial safety net… More and more of us cannot afford to step away.”

For creative professionals working now, it’s not so much a question of what 'counts' as selling out, but of how we might ever afford not to.


Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport Calnewport.com

What Counts as Selling Out? The Cut

What It Takes To Put Your Phone Away, Jia Tolentino The New Yorker