While 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 can’t place it within his larger critique of politics in “flyover country,” stop whatever you are doing and listen.
I wanted to talk with Ron about it, and about other McMurtry songs since you don’t get the full benefit without bringing in more facets of his work. But he didn’t know the reference—which nearly made me spiral into rage against a culture that can allow for that.
Then I wanted my own mixtape for an upcoming car trip in flyover country. But I discovered that half my McMurtry library is not in a form that works for mixtapes in my car, period. The other half is not in a form that allows me to do it easily. So here I am, venting.
Capitalism Vs. Quality of Life
First the problem writ large. One of the many evils of capitalism is manifested in the music industry–so many brilliant musicians cannot make a living, or have unconscionable struggles to gain a foothold, or cannot launch careers in the first place, because of the streaming business model. This is deeply distressing and corrosive to our quality of life.
No doubt in the past there were also enormous problems in a related vein—decades of absurd and unjust double standards between the overhyped and the supposedly unmarketable, the hacks who got paid and the worthy who were robbed and/or forgotten.
But today’s business model, in our current cultural context, creates an extreme version of this problem.
It is not that we lack for superb new music—there is more than ever, given technologies that enable anyone with a laptop to produce and disseminate records. Sadly it comes with a mixed dynamic in which innovations co-exist with a downtrend in synergies from collaborating on live music. And sadly the technologies enable mediocre music to circulate, making it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Shouldn’t I calm down? Isn’t it easier than ever to access the good parts via Apple Music, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and the like? Yes, indeed, and if we could bracket the problem of musicians not being paid, it could almost translate to a golden era, with instant access to unlimited archives of brilliance.
Why does feel it unsatisfying? Why, at least for me, is music devolving from the joy and obsession of my life–the omnipresent soundtrack accounting for huge proportions of my life’s richness–toward something with far higher proportions of boredom and frustration?
The Dinosaur Recalls Changes
I learned to listen and separate musical wheat from chaff—the overhyped vs. underhyped and then, for artists I loved, 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 to have begun with cassettes then later burned CDs. I remember a world before the internet and social media, structuring listening that was less fragmented and distracted.
Such practices are hard for me to sustain today. Part of the problem is the exploding growth of both wheat and chaff—so much new music is available, plus I already have a lifetime of songs to revisit, with everything just one click away from everything else.
Making it worse is the wide trend of people approaching music (both its production and listening) one individual song at a time, as opposed to approaching within the arcs of full albums or careers. Algorithm-driven playlists like Spotify, even if they didn’t create other problems, would still be the antithesis of how I want to listen.
Problems persist even if we can bracket all this, since we know where we want to focus today. I can’t search my I-Tunes library elegantly in my car—nor barely even on my laptop, since I-Tunes has devolved from the kryptonite fueling Apple’s rise to world dominance to a despicable piece of marketing technology. Then, even if I manage to find my McMurtry without endangering all the passengers, I-Tunes streaming doesn’t work consistently in my car.
Yes, I can curate mixtapes for thumb drives that play (awkwardly) in my car, 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 insane if I dare to preview a song on a streaming source (paid!) before I purchase 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.
All this is before blighting the lives of the musicians and degrading their work’s sound quality to enable streaming. (Let’s give credit where it’s due, Bandcamp is great for supporting artists directly, but that’s if you first know where to look and it doesn’t solve my car challenges.)
In short, the golden age of streaming is killing a golden goose. I spend less on music, despite paying quite a bit for internet connections and an Apple music subscription. Then I care less about what I buy. True, my spending and caring remain far from trivial–yet, on balance, I’m unhappy with the scene while fewer resources are getting to the musicians.
The Case of McMurtry
It’s the case of McMurtry triggering me today. (Tomorrow it will be a rapper, jazzer, or some other songwriter who is not an old white male.) Here is one of the truly brilliant songwriters of our generation—more deserving of fame and wealth than almost anyone among the top hundred thousand bankers and music industry executives in our country, plus a large majority of musicians playing on award shows.
Yet he has been sidelined as someone whose music, considered as a commodity to market, has marginal value. I recall him claiming in an interview that he struggles to break even when touring, and that was before COVID. Many of my friends draw a blank when I quote him about the cell towers and buffalo–lyrics that for me are like name-checking lines from Shakespeare or Bob Dylan that should naturally be part of vernacular speech.
I am aggrieved about our economic/musical complex that, due to such problems, barely allow genius artists like McMurtry to be heard. And of course thousands of others are more screwed; we don’t even know their names.
Silver Linings of Neoliberal Streaming: McMurtry in Four Clicks
However, since we do live in a semi-golden-era for surfing in the archives, let’s go to YouTube and pick out a few songs. First up is “Out Here in the Middle” with the roaming buffalo. Listen for how it captures the ambivalence of loving the midwest (“where the center’s on the right/and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night”) without failing to note how it is ravaged by capitalism and many other problems. Here’s the link again.
Next is the best of his best, “Ruby and Carlos”—among the great lyrics of all time in this genre and a centerpiece of his resume as a songwriter’s songwriter.
Now we turn to “Choctaw Bingo,” the fan favorite in circuits where he plays (I heard him in a beer tent at a Harley Davidson dealership). Think about 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 “Can’t Make it Here”— the closest thing he’s had to a hit, but not the sort of song that music executives like to market. It is interesting to consider how this 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 easily extrapolate from its takedown, written in the Reagan era, of 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 smaller as trends that destroy musicians’ livelihoods, or writ larger as insurrectionists run free, Congress refuses to address our broken health care system or climate change, and Republicans organize 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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