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Off Key: Selling Out and Buying In

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, April 6, 2006



The first time I saw the folk-punk (yes, it exists) band Against Me! headline a concert was on a brutally humid and scorching summer day three and a half years ago in our mutual home state of Florida. They played a small venue that also functioned as a pizza parlor. The show doubled as a rally for the Green Party.

We waited through a never-ending parade of acoustic acts in the sweltering heat, trying not to seem impatient. The anticipation increased when Against Me! showed up and unloaded their stuff, hanging out in the crowd and cracking jokes with strangers.

When their turn on stage rolled around, the tiny room seemed to fill wall-to-wall with impatient youths. If punk rock and poetry ever intersected, it was in that next hour, as the bodies in that room gyrated in weird little dances; the crowd singing along with the band was at times so loud that I could barely hear the music over the resounding chorus.

Fast forward to last Sunday, and Against Me! was somehow scheduled to play to an even greater number of excited kids at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, on the complete opposite end of the country. This time they were the openers for seminal pop-punk act Alkaline Trio. I dutifully bought my ticket in advance, wondering how the experience would differ.

Against Me! has been constantly on tour since my high-school days. Two years ago, they signed to a slightly larger label than the one that released their first full-length album. Recently, they signed to major label imprint Sire Records. The backlash within the punk rock community was intense. People slashed the band's van's tires; people showed up to their shows for the sole purpose of doing their best to ruin the experience for everyone else.

The reasoning, of course, was that the band had sold out. Against Me! was always a vocal critic of corporate America, and now they were becoming part of it. Ostensibly, it was to give their music (and the politics inherently related to it) as large an audience as possible. Were they liars or hypocrites, or were their intentions for submitting to the so-called corporate machinery pure?

I arrived at the theatre with a good friend, and we were promptly charged $5 for parking. It took us 15 minutes to find a spot in the convoluted lot, and another five to get back the door. When I walked up to the venue, I had to take off my shoes and let a guard frisk me. The people at the door made me throw away the karabiner on my key chain, and the pen in my pocket.

We walked in as Against Me! was starting their third song. The stage they occupied was about the size of the room I'd seen them in all those years ago; the number of kids was multiplied many times over.

I was afraid that the masses of sweaty teenagers would somehow interfere with my connection to the band's music; that the security guards keeping people from getting on the stage would also keep people from participating in the artistic perfection that is the shared rush of adrenaline between band and audience.

I was wrong. Bodies were flailing and voices were being lost all around; the band seemed just as intense as ever.

Critics of bands that get big seem to think that once a band appeals to a certain number of people, that band's artistic intent or integrity is somehow lost in the fray. It seems to me, now, that nothing can ever do that.

The only person who will ever truly know whether an artist has sold out is that artist himself or herself, and judging people on arbitrary values like that is ultimately silly.

After Sunday, I'm even more confused about the issue of selling out. As Against Me! played their last chord, a sweaty teenaged stranger put his arm around my shoulder and smiled at me after a night of dancing, and I realized that being in a huge crowd of people who appreciate the same beauty in music isn't a bad thing at all.

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