I saw a band play the other night, enjoyed it, and as I’m wont to do when I enjoy a band live, I moseyed over to the band’s “merch” booth, ready to happily part with some hard-earned cash. (By the way, the band was Columbus’ Psychic Wheels, whose sound, if I were a music critic, I would resort to a facile “Buzzcocks meet Beat Happening” description in an attempt to communicate their awesomeness.) You can usually tell how good or bad a band is by a glance at their “merch” booth. Typically, the more intricate the booth setup and the greater the variety of the “merch,” the worse the band. (If they’re shilling beer cozies, screenprinted thongs, and handcrafted dolls, watch out!) Psychic Wheels’ setup consisted of LPs and 7”s spread out over a bar table, nothing priced, with a handwritten cardboard sign instructing buyers that if no band member was nearby to just take what they want and leave however much money they think is fair. I felt weird about this impromptu ethics exercise, so I waited for a band member and asked how much for their LP and two 7”s. “Fifteen dollars, I guess,” he said, and gave me in addition two more albums by other bands on Psychic Wheels’ Superdreamer Records. Fifteen dollars won’t even get you one record from many bands.
I don’t want to assume anything about this band’s artistic philosophy, but it got me thinking about the complicated relationship humble Midwesterners like me have with creative ambition. For all I know, the musicians in Psychic Wheels would like nothing more than to become the next U2, but it’s my impression that like a lot of so-called “local” bands they’re content to play shows when they feel like, record and release records when they can afford it, and carry on with the band as an avocation for as long as they remain interested. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, I respect and admire it.
It can be hard to pursue creative success (however one defines that term) in the Midwest, especially given the cultural expectation that to be serious about your art you must be willing to relocate to the areas of the country where the industries supporting that art are centralized, namely New York and/or Los Angeles. In her AV Club column comedian Cameron Esposito writes, somewhat defensively, about making the move from Chicago to L.A. In her mind Los Angeles is the only place in which a comedian can have a viable career. Below she juxtaposes an imagined future had she remained in Chicago with the brighter but vaguer opportunities L.A. will continue to offer:
I began to imagine myself at 50, living in a city that just didn’t have any jobs in my field outside of live performance and scraping rent together with live show earnings. I imagined myself having to go out every night for a set at some bar and having to drive to Milwaukee or Peoria or Madison every weekend and missing all the events my not-yet-existent kids would ever have and never sleeping in the same bed as not-yet-my-wife. It was when I knew what I didn’t want that I was finally ready to move.
The thing that makes this city great is how logical a backbone it provides to completely illogical pursuits. I joke around for a living. Los Angeles affords me the opportunity to sell that ability to audiences and TV bookers and casting agents and my fellow comics—comics at every level. Comics who are the reason I started in comedy. It’s an everlasting showcase in front of the folks who make the shows and movies I’ve always loved. It is a shitty and scary and sometimes harsh and often lonely city. But it’s more than a city of dreams. It’s a city of work, and that’s a good thing. That’s why I came here in the first place.
She’s right in a lot of ways, and not just for comedians. Aspiring actors, directors, and screenwriters have comparatively few prospects outside of the Hollywood monolith. And for writers and musicians, a move to New York can serve as not just a symbolic gesture of serious intent but also it can provide crucial opportunities for networking and showcasing one’s work. But what bothers me about Esposito’s column is the false dichotomy at its heart: You either choose to move to one of the country’s two perceived nexuses of cultural aspiration, or you choose not to aspire.
Leaving aside the point that not all artists have the freedom and privilege – financial or otherwise – to pack up and move and sacrifice everything else for the sake of their capital-A Art, I take issue with Esposito’s assumption that art that aimed at smaller or different or niche or local audiences (i.e. art that is not tremendously profitable and wide-reaching in the way that art sponsored by the “entertainment industry” is) is inherently less valuable and the people who create it less serious. It’s kind of gross and, what’s more, emblematic of the vapid celeb aspirant stereotype Esposito seeks to dispel by promulgating an ethos that reframes the “city of dreams” as the “city of work.”
If it’s truly the work that matters, it seems to me that the Midwest – and the South and the Interior West and small towns and college towns and mid-sized cities, etc. – can offer unique advantages. One can write and perform and make things anywhere. And with the magic of the internet one can easily share the things written, performed, and made everywhere. A lower cost of living can, beyond the obvious economic benefits, provide an artist with time and space that would be at a premium in a more prominent locale. There’s no denying the unparalleled scale and diversity of opportunities for networking and creative collision to be found and places like New York and L.A., but a sense of isolation can help foster a fiercer work ethic and a healthier sense of self-reliance – and the freedom from self-consciousness to experiment boldly and fearlessly. One of the things that drew so many Beats and hippies and punks and no-wavers and other artistic non-conformists to New York in the middle of the twentieth century was that there were plenty of skuzzy, non-gentrified areas in which to live cheaply and unbothered, where innovative and democratizing music, art, and literary scenes could be built from the ground up. Nowadays young creatives often end up taking on massive debt and working long hours at menial jobs for which they are overqualified just for the privilege of existing in the space of already established scenes, striving toward the opportunity to be invited in instead of building their own.
In a piece for Columbus Alive, Eric Obenauf, co-founder of publisher Two Dollar Radio, writes about the advantages of running a literary press from an unassuming place (Columbus, OH):
What there is in Columbus, certainly, and in superabundance, is opportunity. The opportunity for affordable housing. The opportunity to experiment with new business models. The possibility to shirk its reputation as a test-market for chain restaurants. The opportunity to re-appropriate some of the neglected urban areas and cast a new flag and really get funky.
Here, there is space to launch a locally-focused festival — like Independents’ Day — and grow it to attract more than 12,000 people. There is space to communally gather with more than 100 artists, shop for locally-sourced goods and learn aerial dance or tai chi in a dynamic, grungy setting like 400 West Rich. The landscape is permeable and rich, a place where you can really put the rubber to the road.
The Midwest is the New West, a reimagined American frontier. Here, in Columbus, it’s happening. There’s a beat, a pulse. If you listen, you hear it. It’s not obtrusive or condescending, and if you want you can dance to it.
There is a fresh conversation occurring about what this place means. And perhaps most importantly, here you can be a part of that conversation rather than have it dictated to you by developers or Blue-bloods. And that’s something special. That’s Real American.
And we can cite any number of artists, writers, and musicians who did their best work or spent their entire careers succeeding creatively in less than hip locations. Off the top of my head I think of Kim and Kelley Deal in Dayton, OH, who live part-time at home with their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother but have continued to tour and produce great music as The Breeders (albeit at their typically measured pace), as well as fellow Daytonian Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices. And continuing the topic of music, Swindon was a sort of shorthand for crummy English provincial towns, but it was the home base of XTC for years and I believe Andy Partridge still lives there. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but literary culture flourishes throughout places that aren’t New York. Cities major and minor usually have a couple of visible and prominent novelists to call their own, like Nashville’s Ann Patchett or Menomonie, WI’s Neil Gaiman, or, I don’t know, Oxford’s William Faulkner. Speaking of, author and all-around great guy Jack Pedarvis, a man I am perhaps overly pleased to call an acquaintance, lives in Oxford while writing for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, largely via telecommute.
Maybe I’m coming across as defensive. It’s easy to be insecure about where you live if it’s a place that’s not commonly considered cool or aspirational. Creative pursuits can feel hopeless or pointless anywhere but especially in cities and towns lacking the presence of major moneymaking industries built around those types of creative pursuits. But whenever I visit those cool, aspirational places they strike me as overly curated and unmysterious and after a while I just end up missing Cincinnati. I like the undiscovered, raw material quality of it and cities like it. I like the openness and friendliness and I find it more enjoyable and affirming to work free of the burdens of high expectations. I agree with Esposito that it’s all really about work, and most of the process of creating happens in isolation anyways, in one’s head or on paper or computer screens or in practice spaces. Do we want external validation or do we want to be left alone to work? It’s better to work and live somewhere you love and feel like you belong than somewhere you feel like you should.