In this interview Brad Auerbach speaking with singer-songwriter and proud Austin resident James McMurtry about the rapid evolution of the music industry, and his thoughts on digital “tip jar” and artistic philanthropy in general.
Guest post by Brad Auerbach on Forbes
James McMurtry is one of America’s songwriting treasures. Too often just out of the mainstream spotlight, he is beloved by a steadily growing core of fans who appreciate his highly literate lyrics and infectious guitar work. A decade ago he bubbled into the larger spotlight with his ode to a growing American reality; We Can’t Make It Here won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year 2006. The song still evokes knowing nods, which is both sad and prescient.
A proud citizen of his hometown, he states, “I live in Austin; I am surrounded by Texas.”
In concert during a recent swing through Southern California, he delivered a setlist with a veritable cascade of lyrics. Indeed, he acknowledged that “There has been recently been much chatter about lyricists,” referring to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. McMurtry presented classic songs like “These Things I’ve Come to Know” and “Peter Pan.” The latter includes a great couplet: “I can’t grow up / ’cause I’m too old now.”
McMurtry has opined often on the challenge of making music today. “I got in at the tail end of the record companies giving advances. Time to tour, I say. Back before Napster and Spotify, we toured to promote record sales. Now we make records to promote tour dates. My crowd is older, and that implies more hard copies than downloads, which is good.”
I was able to ask McMurtry for his insights about the rapid evolution of the music business. Specifically, I wondered what he thought about my idea of a digital tip jar, whereby fans could leave a donation directly with the artist while streaming the artist’s music. He responded while writing in a van, “careening through West Texas.”
McMurtry: “I don’t like the idea of artists, or anyone, having to depend on philanthropy. When philanthropy becomes a normal way of making a living, those who must depend on it are ruthlessly exploited. In the U.S., it is our custom to tip waitstaff and bar staff twenty percent. Because of this custom, restaurateurs and bar owners are allowed to pay their servers far less than minimum wage. If everyone tipped, this would work out, but not everyone does. And servers pay tax on a percentage of their ring, so if you don’t tip, it costs them money to serve you. I think servers should be guaranteed a decent wage for their services. I feel the same way about musicians. We create a product. If you like it, you should buy it for a reasonable, but mandatory fixed rate.”
Me: “As a former waiter who worked his way through college, I concur with your take on the plight of the restaurant worker. But when you describe a mandatory fixed price, whom do you suggest set the price?”
McMurtry: “That’s what performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI are for; they set the rates.”
That is indeed the job for performance rights organizations when it comes to setting the rates for public performances, but I don’t think McMurtry is suggesting a government-induced price for consumers to purchase music. That leads to a slippery slope where every artist is valued the same, a prospect that loses its attraction the more one thinks about it.
Me: “What if an up and coming artist is more interested in exposure than immediate revenue, should he be required to sell at the mandatory fixed price?”
McMurtry: “He can put it up on his website as a free download if he wants. I do it with political songs I don’t care about selling.”
McMurtry continues to stir things up, he remains a fascinating artist. Indeed no less than Stephen King has asserted that “James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”
On my bucket list is a road trip with a stack of McMurtry’s CDs and his Dad’s books on tape.