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Bob Marley: The Transformative Sound of Selling Out

Bob Marley comes across as the ultimate musical rebel, though everyone—from American frat boys to Malian army officers—loves his music. Wildly successful, Marley is an enigma: Someone who managed to put obscure local music on the world map; who turned a marginalized community (Rastafarians) into admired trendsetters; who remained a humble barefooted guy even when tooling around in a BMW; who sold a boatload of records by sticking to his guns and making his music, his way. How did he do it?

He didn’t. Marley sold out.

Before you protest, think about it. Imagine, for a second, that a major figure in a subcultural movement—Minor Threat/Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye of the U.S. hardcore punk scene, let’s say—joined forces with a mainstream hip hop producer like, and made a really great record that stayed on the charts for eons and moved units in the gazillions. Though some die-hard fans might scream that he’d sold out, he would have transformed the musical landscape.

And that’s exactly what happened with Bob Marley.

To create the Wailers’ breakout world hit, Catch a Fire, Marley compromised. He followed the lead of a producer from outside his scene and changed his music just enough to redefine reggae (including who listened to it). He did this with seemingly perfect and unrepeatable timing, but what he did has clear relevance for global musicians today. “Selling out” smartly can mean changing the game forever—and arguably for the better.

Truth be told, Marley and his fellow Wailers had been trying to sell out for a decade or more. They wanted to make money from their art. They had scored hit after hit in Jamaica, evidence that their work with an outside producer was not the only ingredient to their success. They had landed an international record deal and toured with a major pop name at the time (the reggae-inspired crooner Johnny Nash). But they were utterly broke and increasingly bitter, as producer after producer ripped them off or disappointed them.

Enter Chris Blackwell, a White Jamaican from a very wealthy family who used his resources to found Island Records. Blackwell wanted a reggae act for the mostly rock-oriented label, as Jimmy Cliff, flush with international stardom in the wake of the film The Harder They Come, bailed on Island. Blackwell signed the Wailers on the spur of the moment, and the band soon delivered the furiously recorded Catch a Fire.

Blackwell liked what he heard. But he also heard something else for the music. Marley, determined not to get screwed yet again, joined him at Island’s London studios, sitting with Blackwell in the booth as Blackwell sliced, diced, and expanded the Wailers’ reggae tracks. (Journalist and biographer Christopher John Farley tells the story well in Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.)

What Blackwell did was instructive.  He made a series of changes that were fairly subtle, but propelled the album from obscure Jamaican music into the realm of rock. And Marley approved.

Blackwell cut the number of tracks on the album to nine, which he felt made it more rock in feel. He added instrumental solos, calling on other Island artists to lay down rock guitar licks and keyboard parts. (Several of these White players were not credited on the album until reissues came decades later.)

Blackwell and Marley together fudged the framework of one genre—reggae—to make the music fit into another, more commercially viable genre, rock. They found the commonalities that would allow the Wailers’ songs to be heard as rock, without, thanks to Bob’s insistence, pushing it too far out of reggae (and Rasta) territory.

Thanks to Blackwell and Marley’s efforts, reggae became a kind of ”Black adjunct” to rock, a genre where the African diaspora could sound raw, rebellious, and raucous, without pushing racial buttons. (It is the sunny sound of Jamaica, after all, and it’s in English.) To get it there, Blackwell mixed in “White sounds,” but maintained the image of Marley and the Wailers as bold Black musicians. A complicated racial dance, to say the least.

Yet, even with all this gerrymandering of the Wailers’ music and identity, Marley won greater control of the final product, greater exposure, and greater compensation for his work than ever before. We don’t listen to Catch a Fire and think, wow, what a decent slice of 70s rock guitar playing or what a good bit of rock engineering. We think, wow, the Wailers are amazing and authentic and the epitome of reggae.

And isn’t this what happened with Ry Cooder and World Circuit’s Nick Gold on the Buena Vista Social Club?

What’s intriguing in this process for a global artist today is how musicians can pick up on fairly subtle cues in more mainstream music, and use them to break new ground. Musicians who want to take a cue from these crossover successes might think about:


  • changing track length, by expanding or paring down;
  • adding instrumental sections or solos where they traditionally do not feature in the music;
  • playing with arrangements, by moving traditional melodies to new instruments associated with another genre;
  • getting traditional instruments to play in different modes or explore different rhythms associated with another genre;
  • experimenting with bilingual approaches or using indigenous forms of English within a traditional format, to get your lyrics or message across without completely abandoning the original cultural and linguistic context;
  • jamming with musicians from other scenes or countries or regions, just to see what happens;
  • reaching out to producers, remixers, or audio engineers whose work you like but who don’t normally tackle your music.


Marley’s “sell out” points to the potential commercial and cultural benefits of working with producers outside one’s generic comfort zone, folks with an intuitive sense of where to find the mainstream touchstones in unfamiliar music. When a relationship like this really works, the artist shines through.

This article by Dmitri Vietze was originally published on, which is sponsored by rock paper scissors, inc., a “world music publicity firm.”

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (26)

"Selling out" is loaded language with definite meaning, and it's got nothing to do with compromising with a producer during the recording of an album.

Perhaps I am more of a Marley fan than I realized? I suspect it's more about a defense of the English language, though -- words like "Gerrymandering" have actual, existing definitions. Thanks to the Internet, you can even look them up.

The process you're describing here is making a hit record. Selling out is licensing your rebel anthems for a car commercial, or spending your entire tour doing interviews and playing sets in front of a Sprite banner.

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

A balanced and well argued piece. It is worth emphasising that the strategy was a subtle one, to move Marley towards the mainstream market whilst retaining the loyalty and endorsement of the Jamaican community.

Our UK touring schedule in the early 70s comprised a mix of Jamaican clubs playing to relatively small audiences (in Brixton, Bristol, etc) with a healthy push into the thriving college circuit which recruited exactly the right demographic, in decent numbers, to spread the word through the student grapevine. (BTW, I was the Wailers roadie / sound man at the time - then known as "Albert".)

The pairing with Springsteen for a residency at Max's Kansas City (NYC) was a match made in heaven. Both bands rooted in very different working-class communities, both, in their ways, on missions to fight injustices as well as to break through as musicians and this happening in NYC where the word spread within 24 hours, guaranteeing that 'Upstairs" would be packed with influencers for the rest of the week.

Life went back to normal for a the end of the week and Mike Batlin (Springsteen roadie) came with us to play Paul's Mall in Boston.

Neither band had any idea, of how quickly their worlds would be transformed by their massive commercial success. It is a tribute to Marley, Springsteen and their respective managements that despite the success they largely kept their traditional fan-base on-side. Indeed, their burgeoning reputations could be seen to have inspired even greater loyalty among fans and renewed their evangelical efforts to spread the word about their favoured "underground" band.

So is that selling out? No, I don't think so either. A band that sets out to achieve success and works damned hard, may just achieve it ... or not. A band that sets out to reject commercial success (AKA "Selling out") is unlikely to have to deal with the situation simply because their foot will not be in the right place - hard down on the throttle.

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Clitheroe

Marley may have "sold out" in one sense of the term, but he is not a "sell out" in the popular sense. To take his band to the next level, the changes you've mentioned did not change the message in the music, it's overall style, cultural identity (Marley releases pre-catch a fire were in English too), or alienate fans and members of the band. It was a progression of a musical genre from it's roots (mento music, ska, etc.) into a widely accepted form. In this instance of selling out EVERY artist that wants to make a living from, or progress their art into something loved by all and live off of it is a sell out. The term needs to be more well defined than it is in the popular culture lexicon, and some people may take the article the wrong way (especially after you essentially suggest ways to "sell out" at the end. Just my .02c i don't wanna analyze it too far cause it's a constructive article.

"One good thing about music, when it hit's you feel no pain"

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterMe

I enjoyed the read, up until the list at the end which seemed to be there as a kind of marketing justification, when there was no need.

As for 'selling out' - it depends on context.

In the most used way it's a phrase that echoes the serious rock journalists of the 70s who, in turn, copped it from radical lefties, Yippies and Zippies, none of whom could quite get over the fact that the music that was meant to be powering a revolution was being financed by big companies, often with links to the arms industry etc

Why anyone expects/expected musicians, of all people, to be leading the rush over the barricades flummoxes me: most of the musos I've known are pretty much wrapped up in their music and lifestyle and no less selfish than anyone else.

The legacy of Bob Marley risks being tainted by a dubious sainthood imposed latterly on a brilliant musician (check his rhythm guitar!), singer and songwriter.

December 13 | Registered CommenterTim London

Does it make you a "sellout" to capitalize on ways to bring your music to the masses?
If your worried about crossing genre's because you will look like a sell out to your core base-
Also remember you may be bringing a slew of NEW fans by partnering with a artist in another genre.

If you re-package something to make it appealing to another audience, is it good business or selling out? In today's market, I challenge artists to look at completely different ways to make their music accessible. Whether using musicians or producers from different genres,
If you are not making a comfortable living wage with your music, then you
you need to consistently be looking at ways to identify and grow your fan base and break new ground. Fans are looking for the next cool new thing Let's bring it!

"Providing business solutions for creative minds"

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterTamra Engle

@Tamra - advert! If you're going to contribute, try doing it without the plug... so much easier on the eye.

December 14 | Registered CommenterTim London

'Minor Threat/Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye of the U.S. hardcore punk scene, let’s say—joined forces with a mainstream hip hop producer like'

now that would be selling out, because Ian probably thinks and the BEP's are whack and his guts would hurt for years for having done so.

Catch a fire was not a 'sell out' at was just a little more fuel for the fire

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterLucifers Attorney

I hope to be successful enough to sell out one day. On that day I will do it soullessly and unabashedly for the money. Until then, my music is my music.

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterRVLouie

Thx Justin, Peter, "Me," Tim, and Tamra... for piping in here.

The truth is that we overstated the case using the term "sell out." I don't think Marley sold his soul for a dime. So yes by using the phrase we are grabbign some low-hanging hype fruit, but to make a point...

The point is that we work with a lot of artists (and in our case artists from across cultures) and many are so caught up in their vision of their music, that they forget the part about connecting with an audience or growing an audience. They might complain that they struggle to make a living off of their craft... but part of the craft is adapting the art to meet the audience halfway. Yes, social media and email lists and signign CDs and all of that is part of connecting with the audience. But there is also an aesthetic element of connecting with an audience. There are musical and other entertainment or performance-related signifiers for certain audiences/fans... if you don't include them, you miss the chance ot connect wit that audience or potential fan group.

Thanks again for jumping into the fray!

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterDmitri Vietze

Selling out? Because Marley incorporated other influences into his music? BS. It's clear that from the beginning, Jamaican reggae music was heavily influenced by American soul and popular music. This is a GOOD thing, not a bad thing. Marley was a genius and knew how to meld influences into his reggae style. I do agree that this took what was a little known subgenre, reggae, mainstream. And I also agree that doing that exponentially expanded the audience for reggae and the message of the music. Calling it "selling out" has such negative connotations that it's inappropriate for describing the proselytizing Marley did for the music. And your emphasis on the contributions of white musicians in the context of "selling out" makes me uncomfortable- and it would have made Bob Marley uncomfortable too because, as I'm sure you know, he was 1/2 white. A better advocate for the unity of humanity one could not ask for than Bob Marley. You are unfair to the man's memory and his music when you call what he did "selling out". Bob Marley and his collaborators and colleagues deserved to get very very rich from the brilliance of their music.

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterJP

The author of this article is clearly a white, racist, outsider to reggae, who probably hates Bob and reggae music. His very thought processes are chilling....and it's clear that he never knew the one who is now considered a world prophet!! Love is the key. His love prevailed, even as he moved in what was, and ultimately proved itself to be, enemy turf. I would like to point out that it was Chris Blackwell (Well-White!!!) who ultimately led Bob to his death, by convincing him to submit to treatment at a NAZI medical facility!!! Many artists, Jimi Hendrix included, are considered to be worth more dead, to their managers. See book by Alex Constantine, based on the Freedom of Information Act Info, "The Covert War Against Rock" for more...........Go Indie, if you want to live!!!

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterMaka Fireblaze

Some of you are missing the point.I don't consider this "selling out". What Bob Marley was trying to do and successfully I might add, was to bring Rastafari to the masses. Most of you are talking about the music, but it was the message behind the music that he wanted to get out. Rastafarians are all over the world in every country and color. Yes, it takes a certain amount of compromise to do this. Bob never considered himself a superstar, he stated in numerous interviews he only wanted people to hear the message.

Why the comments about race i.e. white producer... What's your point? This article turned me off.

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterKeith A Bond

“White sounds,”
”Black adjunct to rock"

huh?? didn't blacks give birth to rock & roll??? what's a white sound anyway?

Is there a consensus here... Nobodylikes the phrase "selling out?" OK, cool. Now... what do YOU think other artists can learn from Bob Marley's collaboration with a producer outside of his immediate genre? And thank you for makinafyuh. Yes, love is the key.

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterDmitri Vietze

interesting, what you call selling out many people call being a prophet and changing the world. It seems you almost get the point, with "transformative" but I suspect in reality the spiritual aspect of music eludes you. The great musicians play because they cannot do otherwise, and we are blessed to have them lift us up, and that is what it is about.

December 14 | Unregistered Commenterkendraro




December 14 | Unregistered CommenterJaMello


I believe bob was a prophet he was here to teach us all about equality love and peace but he was taken too soon love him better than any singer jah Rastafari

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterAnti racist action


December 14 | Unregistered Commenterras

I am glad that previous contributors have debunked the "selling out", which was probably just an attention-grabbing headline for this strange article. Also pleased that people have brought up the fact that Jamaican music was not obscure; I remember the power of first hearing the song "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker (1968).

Bob was a brilliant musician, poet and songwriter, but he had a little help from above in the luck of the draw of his timing on the scene, perhaps even and including the timing of meeting Chris Blackwell. But Bob was of his time, above his time, and absolutely timeless. Bob was an artist and a prophet, a genius for taking a traditional sayings from the street and the country, putting them to music and making it sound transcendent. Maybe he had a great producer, but he was the artist, he had the VOICE, he was the rasta. One Love.

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

The author implies that Bob achieved success with Catch A Fire, which is not at all true. At the time most music critics hated the fact that it had been 'Westernised' and lacked the authenticity of Toots and the Maytals, who also released an album at the same time. The public reacted with indifference. It took 3 albums and a lot of hard work from the company for Bob to become popular. I was the press officer at Island and I can tell you it was not easy to get coverage for Bob. What made Bob happen in the UK was the brilliance of Catch A Fire and the incredible press that came from the Lyceum gigs, followed by 'No Woman No Cry' becoming a hit. The entire staff of Island deserves credit for achieving that.

December 15 | Unregistered CommenterJonh Ingham

I view compromise as a meeting place. Like the overlap of a Venn diagram, it could be viewed as the win-win space. I'm very interested in that space!

Thank you for your well explained and insightful post.

December 15 | Unregistered CommenterGeoffrey Williams

Yeah, Selling out is the wrong term, and just used to get our attention. (Congratulations! It worked!)

Bob Marley and the Wailers sought out producer Blackwell because they wanted to reach a wider audience. Blackwell's subtle changes and expansions of the Wailers' sound helped them do just that without compromising their sound or their message. If you listen to earlier Wailers tracks, you'll hear that Blackwell's contribution was to simply make it cleaner, and to add a couple of elements (the rock guitar, most notably) that made it more palatable to a wider audience.

But the substance is still the same. It would have been selling out if the band had been asked to delete references to their Rasta heritage or their Afrocentric perspective.

Blackwell asked them to do neither. He helped them improve their sound while allowing them to stay themselves. That is the essence of what a great producer does.

Now the fact that he ripped them off for royalties, and pitted Bob against Bunny and Peter demonstrates a manipulating record label owner, but that's a different conversation.

The Wailers went looking for Blackwell at a time when he needed just such an act to take his label to the next level. Why would they go looking for Blackwell, and then not follow his advice, unless it would have changed them fundamentally? It did not. It made their music more accessible. Bob understood this.

This just demonstrates that when a talented artist is paired with a talented producer, the results can be very positive, or in the case of Marley and Blackwell, it can change the course of music history.

December 18 | Registered CommenterNadir Omowale


have you extensively listened to Marley's pre Blackwell albums?

have you listened tothe album "Catch Fire, both Jamaican AND UK versions, carefully, many times, one after the other, in a row?

Also, have you seen the documentary "Catch a Fire", about the making of the album, with all these "white musicians"(?) talking about it, with Chris Blackwell's view on it, etc..?

If you haven't, I recommend you to. If you have, you should know that those "white guys" were the ones actually selling out to Bob... The two songs which were changed the most were Stir it Up and Concrete Jungle (as you said, longer solos performed by white musicians). But when compared to the original ones and put into perspective, once again, I'm 100% sure he was not selling out in any sense of the term.


December 19 | Unregistered CommenterGilberto BR

That's why I only like the early Wailers R&B/rocksteady ska sounds...

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterSocialSoundSystem

Neither band had any idea, of how quickly their worlds would be transformed by their massive commercial success. It is a tribute to Marley, Springsteen and their respective managements that despite the success they largely kept their traditional fan-base on-side. Indeed, their burgeoning reputations could be seen to have inspired even greater loyalty among fans and renewed their evangelical efforts to spread the word about their favoured "underground" band.

So is that selling out? No, I don't think so either. A band that sets out to achieve success and works damned hard, may just achieve it ... or not. A band that sets out to reject commercial success (AKA "Selling out") is unlikely to have to deal with the situation simply because their foot will not be in the right place - hard down on the throttle.

~Ali Raza
Bob Marley

May 1 | Unregistered CommenterAli Raza

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