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Never Mind the Sell-Outs: Why We Stopped Shaming Creators for Taking Brand Deals

Alternative subcultures once took pride in being, well, alternative. The punk scenes that developed in hotspots around the world seemed to relish in being repugnant to the masses and sneering at the pop-culture ignoramus, becoming the first group to truly reject the idea of an artist sliding into the pockets of The Man. For alt culture in the ‘70s, there was nothing worse than for a punk’s favorite bands to compromise on their attitude, write music that skated alongside the norm, or worse still, appear on television. For many, the likes of the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper turning toward the mainstream would be a fate worse than death for an artist — and yet, here we are in a world where we can reflect in horror at Johnny Rotten himself advertising Country Life Butter and the Godfather of Shock Rock hawking car insurance. The sell-out is as real as punk warned us it was, and it seems as if nobody’s happy about it.
Though rooted in snotty anarchy, the concept of the sell-out permeates modern art in all of its many definitions. Though many will decry a metal band taking a softer approach in a new album or signing to an international label as posers, in the long run it seems to benefit them … mostly because these cries have calmed in the modern age. You can be upset that the band you grew up with as they spat out deathcore slams has morphed into a radio-friendly arena rock act, but are you really more inclined to call them out on social media for selling out than the basement-dwelling older brother who seethed with rage when The Damned showed up on Top of the Pops?
An interesting change has struck fan culture over the years, and while these accusations of kissing the feet of corporate drones have opened themselves across culture decades after their most vitriolic appearances, these same rules seemingly don’t apply to the TikTokers, beauty professionals and video essayists. So what exactly has changed? It’s not like we miss them, but where did the guardians of the moral high-ground go?
Blonde or bold? Iggy pitching whole bean.
It seems the slow fade into silence of sell-out cries stems from vast changes in the entertainment industry overall. Back in the day, bands would pin their dreams on the one record deal that would take them out of their hometown and basement clubs …  the hope that a big-time A&R scout, impressed by talents, would whisk them off into the rarefied rockstar Olympus where they could shred amid the fist-pumping exaltation of their fans. But the current system couldn’t be further from this old paradigm. As social media has taken off, it’s become more and more likely an algorithm will pick up an artist’s popularity and do the whisking before scouts and managers ever get a crack at it. And if they reach a point where they’re amassing millions of frequent views and plenty of online love, they’re guaranteed to sell plenty of whatever it is a corporate opportunist wants them to sell.
But the music industry is only part large and varied online entertainment landscape, and what’s true of it applies equally to that wider world.
Take for instance Brittany Broski, the accidental meme-turned-Instagram star who’s dipped her toes into YouTube production, presenting and podcasting her online hot takes with such punishingly consistent effectiveness, and relatable confessions of horniness, that fans will lap up anything she puts in front of them. She’s mastered the art of establishing an online persona, and her fans don’t seem to mind even when that persona is interrupted by ad reads on her Broski Report podcast.
Brittany Broski, internet star
The key to all this is the shifting digital landscape and changes in the very way creators are paid for their work. They don’t necessarily sell anything anymore, offering their hot takes and entertainment to fans free on YouTube and elsewhere, their presence on the platform ultimately a given whether or not they’re getting pay-per-click ad revenues. Advertisers have shown they’ll pull the plug at the drop of a hat when a popular YouTuber shouts racist slurs in gamer rage or a weird narcissist with deep pockets buys Twitter without knowing what to do with it. The next best thing for creators, then, is to turn to sponsorships–thevery same thing that would turn up the noses of the Mohawk-sporting two-stepper of the 80s–and fans know this. Many fans of online creators have heard horror stories about “Making it” online, but when they see someone like Broski reflecting back their own thoughts and opinions, they’ll allow them to do what they need to do (within limits, naturally) to keep creating. For them it’s an acceptable tradeoff.  
For a lot of us it’s become second nature to turn off ad-blockers when viewing our favorite creator’s work. Turning back to music, while album sales and iTunes downloads are a thing of the past for all but collectors, they’re more likely to buy merch at live shows or online in order to allow them to keep doing what they’re doing for free. Many fans experienced the adpocalypse on YouTube after PewDiePie fired out racial slurs on a livestream,  subsequently watching their favorite creators confess that YouTube became less financially viable as a result. Sponsorships are the only consistent income some creators get, so it makes more sense to be proud when a creator gets an ad deal with a brand like Tinder than to trash them for it. After all, you’re not paying them for the privilege of their work, and you have the brands they’re promoting to thank for it.
It’s been a long time since an artist could survive on actual sales. Unless you’re willing to buy some t-shirts or prints from them online, you’re left without a rational soapbox on which to rant about creators using advertisers in their content. Some fans will continue to choose the purist’s hill to die on, but the new digital landscape has folded society to a point where we have no reason to complain about rockstars appearing in ads — not only because the “rockstar” moniker less valuable by the day, but because the young people complaining don’t actually watch linear TV anymore. We have more access than ever to speakers, artists and critics that echo our thoughts and feelings almost identically. As a result, we have to suffer the fact that advertising’s also becoming more specific in its targeting, appearing in the podcasts and videos we fill every moment with.
For advertisers and creators alike, the pushback has diminished, the volume of the sell-out cries fallen off to odd grumbles and groans. Grudgingly or otherwise, we recognize that most creators have no other option but to show their audience the latest update for World of Tanks or the many benefits of a Hello Fresh subscription. If our choices are that, or no Broski Report, we’ll gladly take the former.

Joseph Kime is a journalist, author and podcaster from Devon, UK. He is the Senior Trending News Writer for gaming site GGRecon, writer of the self-published essay collection Building A Universe, and co-creator of The Big Screen Book Club podcast. After graduating from Plymouth’s MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he’s written for the likes of The Digital Fix, Zavvi and FANDOM. He’s Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s biggest fan, and will talk your ear off about the significance of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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