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"Selling out" is a common expression for the compromising of a person's integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money. In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience. For example, a musician who alters his material to encompass a wider audience, and in turn generates greater revenue, may be labeled by fans who pre-date the change as a "sellout." A sellout also refers to someone who gives up, or disregards, hence the term 'sells' – someone or something – for some other thing or person. The term could also be used as 'sold out' depending on the context.

In political movements a "sellout" is a person or group claiming to adhere to one ideology, only to follow these claims up with actions contradicting them, such as a revolutionary group claiming to fight for a particular cause, but failing to continue this upon obtaining power.

An example of political "selling out" is a political party who has formed a coalition with another party it had historically opposed, such as the Liberal Democrats' leader Nick Clegg's coalition with the Conservative Party after the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, during which he reneged on his pledge to oppose any increase in student tuition fees.

An artist may also be accused of "selling out" after changes in artistic direction. This conclusion is often due to the perception that the reason for the artist changing artistic style or direction was simply potential material gain. This ignores other causes of artistic development, which may lead an artist in new directions from those that attracted their original fans. Artists' improvements in musical skill or change in taste may also account for the change.

Other times, artists (including those with politically oriented messages) resent the term on the grounds that the perceived desire for material gain is simply a result of the band seeking to expand its message. To such artists, not going mainstream or signing to a bigger label to avoid "selling out" prevents them from addressing a wider audience, regardless of whether or not there is any real artistic change, and arbitrarily hampers the artists' course of mainstream success. Such an accusation, then, assumes that mainstream success must be against the artists' original intentions. For example, when questioned about signing to a major label, Rage Against the Machine answered "We're not interested in preaching to just the converted. It's great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it's also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart".

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