So You Want To Have A Career

FolkWax: Your song "We Can’t Make It Here" garnered a lot of attention. Has the political side of your music helped you gain an audience?

James McMurtry: Certainly, and putting that up as a free download did more for me than anything I’ve put on CD in the last decade. I didn’t know the power of the Internet until we put that thing out and I put it out as a free download the week before the elections, probably six to seven months before we’d cut the rest of the record.

James McMurtry was the beneficiary of a John Mellencamp production and a push from Donnie Ienner’s Big Red machine. But, his debut, "Too Long In The Wasteland", didn’t break through.

Track down that 1989 album. You’ll enjoy the opening number, "Painting By Numbers" and the title cut, but the killer is the second song, "Terry".

Terry’s off the track
sent him away and he won’t be back
for a while

If you haven’t heard that you’re off the track, I don’t know why you read this, I don’t know why you listen to rock and roll. That’s the mantra of high school guidance counselors, principals, sometimes even your parents. You’re growing up, surveying the landscape, making your own choices, which everybody says are wrong. But you’re convinced they are uninformed, they’re wearing blinders, they can’t see what you see. But even if you get straight A’s, that’s not good enough for them, because of your attitude.

That’s why we revered our rock stars. They didn’t buy into the game. They played by their own rules. Forget what today’s music sounds like, it’s whored out to all the people we used to hate, we just can’t believe in it, because we haven’t changed, our situation hasn’t changed, these same people and corporations the stars are involved with are no better than the school administration, they’re telling us how to look, how to behave and ripping us off all at the same time. There’s no way we can win. You want us to buy your overpriced CDs and go to your shows? Fuck you!

James’ so-called career continued to slide downhill. I’m partial to his third record, "Where’d You Hide The Body", produced by the long lost Don Dixon, but it had no impact and James was cut loose from Columbia, he descended into the wasteland. Until he composed a song "We Can’t Make It Here", cut it solo acoustic in his home studio and rush-released it in time for the 2004 election. That rush-release was a post to his Website. Not trafficked like TMZ or PerezHilton, a backwater in the vast landscape of the Internet.

Normally posting a song in the wilderness has no effect. Just ask all those with songs on MySpace and YouTube. They can’t get any traction. But "We Can’t Make It Here" began to take off, because it was everything the rest of the music online is not, i.e. good. Furthermore, it sounded nothing like what was being hyped by the major corporations on their controlled outlets known as radio and MTV. People heard "We Can’t Make It Here" and spread the word. They couldn’t help themselves, it was just that damn good.

You can hear the electric version on James’ MySpace page (track 5: But this wasn’t the original download. The one James gave away at first had a magic, an urgency absent from those overworked records on the radio. It was lightning captured in a bottle. With a circular groove and lyrics unequaled in this century.

Used to be you lost your major label deal and you were two steps away from working at Wal-Mart. If you could cobble together the money to make an album, you couldn’t get it in the store. And, if somehow you managed to get your music in the store, you couldn’t get paid, you lost money, you were on the verge of bankruptcy. Live gigs dried up, you can’t book someone nobody knows anything about, who’s not being played on the radio.

But all that’s ancient history. Artists have been freed from the major label system. To make a deal with one of the big four is to cut a deal with the devil. All you’ll hear is no, what you can’t do. They’re so busy protecting their already gone monopoly they’re paralyzed, they’re living in 2003 at best. Furthermore, they’re going to tell you what to record and when to release it. They’re concerned about their job, not yours. They’ve got a spouse, two kids, a big mortgage and BMW lease payments. You’re crashing on your girlfriend’s floor, driving your 1992 Toyota stuck together with chewing gum and you’re just a pawn in their game.

But that game is all you know, all you dreamed of from before puberty. You’re waiting for Orson Welles in "The Muppet Movie" to give you the standard rich and famous contract. But you detest everything these people stand for, they and radio and television are the high school principal of yore, with all the power and no compassion. You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, ask if you believe in yourself, if you’re willing to invest in yourself, stop crying and start working.

It all starts with a killer track.

Stephen King wrote about "We Can’t Make It Here". That’s how I discovered it. And just like he says in his buzz column in this week’s "Entertainment Weekly", I had to tell everybody I knew, I wrote about the song multiple times. Public radio picked up on the track. The blogosphere amplified the impact. McMurtry was recalled from the wilderness, older, grizzlier, sans plastic surgery, worse for wear physically, but brighter intellectually, he became a star for the new age.

A new age star is not ubiquitous. Most people have no idea who he is. But his fan base is rabid. His fan base wants every cut, hangs on every word, tries to convince newbies to join the faith. If that track is good enough, you can suddenly tour the country. For years. Cut another one, and your star rises even higher. Just don’t believe you can ever cross over, to the dark side. That you’ll be embraced by the system. The system doesn’t like your type. The system likes to beat people down, so it can control them. The system sues people for trading music, the system wants the government to protect its business model, all in the guise of protecting art. They’re not protecting art, they’re protecting their wallets. Art’s just fine. Unfettered from their system, cream can truly rise to the top.

The public makes stars today, not the system. Those people you see plastered in ads, they won’t be here soon. Dollars are propping them up, not quality. Quality is long-lasting. Invest in quality.

The Internet is incredibly democratic. It will tell you how good you are. It’s not about street teams, not about friends, it’s about excellence. People are looking for good things. If they find them, they’ll tell everybody they know.

So that’s how it is, that’s what we got
If the President wants to admit it or not
You can read it in the paper, read it on the wall
Hear it on the wind if you’re listening at all

Get out of that limo, look us in the eye
Call us on the cell phone tell us all why
In Dayton Ohio or Portland Maine
Or a cotton gin out on the great high plains
That’s done closed down along with the school
And the hospital and the swimming pool
Dust devils dance in the noonday heat
There’s rats in the alley and trash in the street
Gang graffiti on a boxcar door
We can’t make it here anymore

You can’t make it in the old system anymore. This ain’t about theft, this ain’t about copyright infringement, this is about opportunity. For a new golden era. Where the artist sits at the top of the pyramid. Are you ready to climb up and take control?

Then make great music. Respect your audience. Give people the tools to spread the word, never rip them off. Know that growth will be slow. But that the edifice you’re building is solid, that it will pay dividends like the old record company pension plan, but now the beneficiary will be you, not the fat cats. Believe in yourself. But don’t be delusional. Is your record as great as "We Can’t Make It Here"? Is it lightning in a bottle? If not, keep your day job. Forever.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.