It’s some time in the very early ’00s. I’m in a punk band and live in rural Devon, where friends’ fathers greet me and my friends with the announcement that we are ‘a sight to see with a shotgun’. Our band don’t have a particularly memorable name. It’s so unmemorable, in fact, that I can’t remember it – the only band I’ve ever been in. Never mind. Tonight, it’s a big night for the band. We’re in a friend’s sheep trailer, still strewn with straw from bales of hay, popping Pro Plus pills on the way to our first gig. We’re the warm-up act. Other friends’ better bands, such as the esteemed STDs and Brian Smellhorn and the Bleepatrons, are playing. I am starting to think I might’ve eaten too many Pro Plus: no one needs to be this alert. The village hall is rammed. It’s as busy in here as when the ferret racing is on. Are there A&R reps out there? Maybe. But I won’t be selling our covers of CKY and whatever else I’ve struggled to learn how to play (struggled to such an extent that I’m not allowed my guitar; I’m instructed that I’m just to sing) to any major record label. Fuck The System! Fuck The Man! Or this is what we tell ourselves, because no scene thinks it hates a sellout more than the millennial punk scene. And anyway, I faint on stage before the first song is over.
All I really knew back then about the term ‘sellout’ – shorthand for compromising your morals and/or artistic integrity, typically for money and success – is you didn’t want to be one. It was ‘doing business with the Devil’, whatever that meant. ‘Sellout’ was an ever-present spectre on the punk scene, as it was in many other scenes during the ’90s and the early 2000s before social media culture accelerated the change in attitude regarding brand allegiance. This meant many of us who grew up during that era came into employment with a lot of the hang-ups that came with anti-sellout culture. Admittedly, I wasn’t worried about selling out in every job. I wasn’t worried about my artistic integrity when I was working as a waitress or a cleaner. But strangely, I wasn’t worried about it when I blagged a job producing adverts either – I suppose I was with a different, more media-minded crowd by then and I was just too worried about other things, like being found out. It was only after producing sucked the life out of me, after I left the crowd and decided to graduate from writing blogs to try and make writing a career, that the sellout hang-up reappeared.
When I started out writing, I wanted to be cool, I wanted to be gonzo. Experimental. Subversive. I was sure the whole punk DIY, lo-fi approach was transferable to writing: if you want to start a band or write a song, just pick up a guitar and start singing loudly, attitude will carry you the rest of the way. If I wanted to become a writer, all I had to do was type some words. It was pure inspiration: unfiltered, spectacular, confusing! Very long. Struggling to write an esoteric book, I questioned what someone like Hunter S. Thompson would do if they were stuck on a chapter. They’d light a cigarette, do a line of something and pour a bourbon. I bought a miniature bottle of Chambord and took a swig. This was fucking gonzo! But it made me sleepy so I had to have a coffee and gave up after one afternoon.
Unsurprisingly, the punk attitude towards writing waned as I grew increasingly hungry. I read, I wrote, I practiced, I learned, I studied, but the sellout hang-up remained. I made compromises and worried about it, or, rather, other people made me worry about it: someone I knew who had always been very supportive of my work and wrote for the London Review of Books (and didn’t have the same financial pressures I did) got a little snooty about me writing a personal essay for a lifestyle magazine. I hadn’t thought that compromising on what I wanted to write was selling out (who gets to write what they want all the time?). It was simply the reality of writing for a living. Like if my band had made it past our first gig, we couldn’t have expected to only play the gigs we wanted to play, we’d be lucky to get paid to play any gigs. I was just happy to be getting paid to write; I’d thought this was an achievement.
But I was naive. I hadn’t realised that not only is there a condescension towards fashion and lifestyle magazines – even the good ones – in certain literary circles but personal essays – even the good ones – are also often deemed a little… déclassé.
Was I selling out?
The question remained because there is some truth to the notion. I did, and still do, believe you can compromise your artistic integrity, your integrity, for cash and success. I still believe what William Burroughs told Patti Smith: ‘Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful.’ But if you’re not worried about ‘making a bunch of money or being successful’, if you simply want to survive, where’s the line?
It’s 2001. Holidays in the Sun is a punk festival held at a Pontins in Morecambe that comprises aggressive, shouty anarcho-punk with mosh pits that, once entered, have such centrifugal force that entire DNA sequences are rearranged. I don’t really like the shouty stuff, though I pretend I do. I do like the UK Subs, a band we’re friendly with having been to a few of these things. I’m also looking forward to seeing Marky Ramone play with the Speedkings, though we make an effort not to be impressed when they play, because we’re aficionados now and The Ramones are… not so cool. They sold out. Later, I flit in and out of more mosh pits that could crack walnuts and realise that I’ve lost my friends.
I wander around the resort, which is grey, cold and wintry despite it being the month of June. My phone is dead. I want to go home. The drummer from the UK Subs spots me and says, ‘Come back to our chalet, Marky Ramone’s there.’
I’ve only just professed that I don’t think much of The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop is for children. But then, I am a child. I’m 15, and maybe I don’t want to pretend to be like the angry 30-year-old dude with a mohawk who’s turned the portaloo over. So I say, ‘Oh, cool,’ and head back to the chalet.
There, in the Pontins chalet, is Marky Ramone, who behaves just as you might hope someone would behave to a lost 15-year-old. He gives me his hat to wear and for reasons unbeknown to me now, we end up playing bongos together until I’m able to locate of my friends, who are eating custard slices in the nearby Morrisons. He asks if I want a photo with him. Of course I do. But I don’t make a big deal out of it, not even when the photos are developed. And this was always the problem with punk: being worried it looked like you were impressed by someone, that you might behave in an uncool fashion; that, god forbid, you might have enthusiasm for something, that you might act like a fan rather than a bitchy little sideliner. Because a lot of the time, rather than being concerned with artistic integrity, ‘sellout’ was used to mask possessive tendencies of either wanting to keep a cool and little-known band, brand, writer or artist to yourself, being afraid of being associated with something that is no longer ‘cool’ and that affecting your image, or being jealous because you’re still broke and unsuccessful. And that attitude is applicable to many scenes, including the publishing industry.
Those who hated on any artist doing anything outwardly commercial for being the reason ‘the masses’ discovered a certain scene gave credit to the fact that was often how they discovered it themselves. Patti Smith ‘sold out’ when she was in a Rimowa suitcase advert, and maybe that’s how you’ve heard of William Burroughs. You may have read Eve Babitz because you read Joan Didion, and maybe you read Didion because you wondered who that elderly lady in the Céline ad was.
Where’s the line? The line blurs. We all have a line of our own, and whether we’re willing to tread over it or not is whether you are willing to sell yourself out. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to worry about whether we should do a Céline ad or not. When I was starting out, I lived in the middle of nowhere, without a car. I couldn’t work anywhere but at home and I was writing for money (it’s usually only the people with money who have hang-ups about that). I treated writing as a job as opposed to something that displayed mental prowess, while hoping the former didn’t necessarily negate the latter. I would have to write what editors wanted and try my best to keep it authentic: as long as I was trying, that’s what mattered.
As may be obvious, I still have my anti-sellout hang-ups. They have helped me navigate (pull) some morally dubious rewriting of my work by big publications, but those hang-ups have, at times, also hampered my career. After years of writing in obscurity, I questioned whether my experimental and impenetrable creations were, in fact, not highbrow and subversive but lazy and immature. Like me with my lifestyle magazine and writing personal essays like this one, you’re probably going to have to ignore Burroughs and make some compromises along the way – and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
I realised that the focus should be on what I wrote being good, rather than worrying whether it was too ‘commercial’ because, if we’re honest, we’re all sellouts. It’s just only some of us who get the opportunity. It’s how we navigate selling out: it’s how we navigate making money, how we navigate what to say ‘yes’ to and what to decline. Even those of us who don’t get the opportunity in the traditional sense are selling out, as long as we promote and perform and post on a platform, or work with a company that can also profit from our output, while – if we’re lucky – they help us profit from it. Is it a bad thing? Not necessarily. Is it a fair tradeoff? Very rarely. As the greatest living sellout Bob Dylan once sang, ‘Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ Better make the most of it.