I started writing this after talking with my friend Ron as he drove through Nebraska. I quoted him a James McMurtry song: “Out here in the middle where the buffalo roam/we’re putting up towers for your cell phones.” If you don’t know how that sounds and you can’t place it in the context of its commentary about cultural politics in “flyover country,” now is the time to listen.
I wanted Ron to hear this, and also to hear more McMurtry since you don’t get the full benefit without knowing other facets of his work. Then I wanted a mixtape for my own upcoming car trip through flyover country. But Ron didn’t know my reference—which nearly made me spiral into rage against a machine that can account him not having heard it. Meanwhile, half of my McMurtry library is not in a form that I can get into a mixtape for my car, period, and the other half is not in a form that allows me to do it easily.
Capitalism Versus Musical Quality of Life
So let’s pause for a minute as I rant about some evils that capitalism has given us, manifested in the music industry.
So many brilliant musicians cannot make a living, or have unconscionable struggles to gain a foothold, or can’t launch a career in the first place, because of the streaming business model—this is deeply enraging, depressing, and corrosive to our quality of life. No doubt there have always been enormous problems in this vein—decades of absurd and unjust double standards between the overhyped and the supposedly unmarketable, the hacks who are paid and the worthy who are forgotten and/or robbed. But today’s business model, in our current context, creates a hyperdrive version of the problems.
There is just as much superb music being made as ever—probably more given an emergent technoscape that enables anyone with a laptop to produce and disseminate recordings. Sadly this also implies that more mediocre music is coming out, making it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, and also that this is a mixed dynamic in which innovations co-exist with a downtrend in the synergies that come from collaborating on live music. Still, for anyone with internet access, it is easier than ever to access the wheat via Apple Music, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and the like. If we could bracket the problem of musicians not being paid, this could be a golden era, with instant access to nearly unlimited archives of brilliance.
Why does it so often feel unsatisfying? Why, for me, has music been evolving from the joy and obsession of my life, my omnipresent soundtrack accounting for huge proportions of my life’s richness, to something with far higher proportions of boredom and frustration?
I learned to listen and to separate musical wheat from chaff—the overhyped vs. underhyped and then, for artists I followed, their life-shaping gems vs. their missteps and filler—by curating mixtapes and listening to them largely in my car. I’m enough of a dinosaur that I began with cassettes, then later burned CDs. I can remember a world before the internet and social media, structuring listening that was less fragmented and distracted.
However much my dinosaur qualities are to blame, such listening practices are hard to sustain today. Partly the problem is the exploding growth of wheat and chaff—so much new music is available when I already have a lifetime of songs to revisit, and everything is just one click away from everything else. Making this worse is a general trend of people approaching music (its production and its hearing) one individual song at a time in algorithm-driven playlists like Spotify (the antithesis of how I want to listen) as opposed to approaching within the arcs of full albums or careers.
Let’s bracket that selection problem and return to something I already know I want to focus on: “Out Here in the Middle” and other McMurtry songs to deepen its resonance. I can’t search my I-Tunes library elegantly in my car—nor indeed on my laptop, since I-Tunes has evolved from the kryptonite fueling Apple’s rise to world dominance to a thoroughly despicable piece of marketing technology. And I-Tunes streaming doesn’t consistently work in my car, even if I manage to find what I want without endangering all the passengers. I can curate mixtapes for a thumb drive that my car will play, but only if I exclusively use songs I purchased. I-Tunes seems engineered to make this as frustrating as possible, with special emphasis on driving me crazy if I dare to preview a song on a (paid!) streaming source before purchasing it. Everything is structured to make me swim against a current that flows by collecting tolls for blanket subscriptions that I can’t curate in ways that make sense. That’s before blighting the lives of the musicians and degrading the sound quality of their work to enable streaming.
The golden age of streaming, for me, is killing a golden goose. I spend less on music, despite paying quite a bit for internet connections and an Apple music subscription, and I care less about what I do buy. True, since my spending and caring remain non-trivial. Still, on balance, I’m less happy with the scene while fewer resources are getting to the musicians—although let’s give credit where it’s due, Bandcamp is good for supporting artists directly.
The Case of McMurtry
It’s the case of McMurtry triggering me today. (Tomorrow it will be a rapper, or jazzer, or a different songwriter who is not an aging white male.) Here we have one of the truly brilliant songwriters of our generation—more deserving of fame and a comfortable income than anyone among the top hundred thousand bankers and music industry executives in the country, plus at least two-thirds of the musicians on award shows. But he has been sidelined by the industry as someone whose music, considered as a commodity to market, has marginal value. I recall him claiming in an interview that he can barely break even when touring—something to that effect—and that was before COVID. Many of my friends draw a blank when I quote him about the roaming buffalo, lyrics that strike me like name-checking classic lines from Shakespeare or Bob Dylan that should naturally be part of our vernacular.
So I am aggrieved about our economic/musical complex that, due to such problems, barely allow people like McMurtry to be heard. And of course thousands of others are more screwed.
Silver Linings of Neoliberal Streaming: McMurtry in Four Clicks
However, since we live in the semi-golden-era noted above, I can go to YouTube and pick some of songs quite easily. First up is “Out Here in the Middle,” with the cell towers and roaming buffalo, “where the center’s on the right/and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night.” It captures the ambivalence of loving things about the midwest without failing to notice how it is ravaged by “justifications for wealth and greed” and many other problems. Here’s the link again.
Then the best of his best, “Ruby and Carlos”—among the greatest lyrics ever in his genre and a centerpiece of his resume as a songwriter’s songwriter.
Now we turn to a fan favorite in the circuits where he plays live (I heard him in a beer tent at a Harley Davidson dealership) “Choctaw Bingo.” Think of Succession—a portrait of a dysfunctional family that you can’t stop watching—but much further down-scale and behaving badly at a reunion in Oklahoma.
Finally, we come to his most famous song, “Can’t Make it Here”— the closest thing he’s had to a hit, but not the sort of song that music executives will market widely. It is interesting to consider how it relates to up-and-coming folks in the leftward parts of country/alt-country/Americana who still have a shot at a market niche. They are standing on his shoulders.
This song is a fitting place to end. We can extrapolate from its takedown, written during the Reagan era, of neoliberal deindustrialization destroying jobs and quality of life, while politicians alternately cheer or claim they can’t do anything about it. This remains our world, whether writ small as trends that destroy musicians’ livelihoods, or writ large in Washington as insurrectionists run free, Congress refuses to address a broken health care system and climate change, and Republicans prepare for one-party minority rule. But then, as McMurtry says, out here in the middle “we’ve got justifications for wealth and greed…nobody steals, nobody cheats…now we’ve even got Starbucks, what else you need?” Few artists can teach us as much about this “middle” as incisively as he does.
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