Musician wants fair shake in Internet age
RICHMOND, Va. — In the music business, they still talk about the “Lars curse.”
It has been 13 years since Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, identified the screen names of more than 300,000 Napster users in a copyright infringement lawsuit. The tarring he received in response — being derided as greedy and insensitive to fans — still makes musicians think twice before complaining publicly about the problems with digital music.
But it hasn’t stopped David Lowery.
As the leader of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, Lowery had a modicum of fame in the 1980s and ‘90s. But over the last year, he has become a celebrity within the music industry for speaking out about artists’ shrinking paychecks and the influence of Silicon Valley giants like Google over copyright, economics and public discourse.
In public appearances and no-holds-barred blog posts, Lowery, 53, has come to represent the anger of musicians in the digital age. When an NPR Music intern confessed in a blog post last year that she paid very little for her music, he scolded her in a 3,800-word open letter that framed the issue in moral terms. Since then, he has attacked Pandora for trying to lower royalty rates, accused Google of masterminding a broad anti-copyright campaign and compared people who doubt the effect of piracy on musicians to those who think President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
“Once the cobra bit me, I might as well just eat the cobra,” Lowery said in a recent interview at his home here. “Nothing worse can happen to me.”
The issue has become hot as technology companies like Pandora and Google have replaced major record labels as the villains of choice for industry critics. Recently, Thom Yorke of Radiohead caused a stir by removing some of his music from Spotify and that the service would hurt new artists.
To his detractors, Lowery is a divisive ranter who pines for a lost, pre-Internet economy. But his knowledge of legal and technological minutiae — he is a lecturer at the University of Georgia’s music business program — make his arguments hard to dismiss.
“He’s telling his personal story and standing up to the big corporations who claim to support songwriters, even as they work to undermine our rights behind the scenes,” said Paul Williams, the songwriter and president of ASCAP. “He hasn’t flinched, and I think that’s given courage to other artists.”
Like most musicians, Lowery has seen his royalties fall with the overall drop in record sales. In 2002, his share of songwriting royalties from sales of the first Camper Van Beethoven album (released in 1985) was $1,147; last year it was about $440, a 62 percent decline. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the value of record sales and streams fell about 44 percent in that time, to $7.1 billion last year, from $12.6 billion in 2002.
At the same time, the nature of royalties has changed, going from larger payments attached to CDs and downloads to fractions of a penny from streaming services. Pandora, for example, pays record labels and performers a combined 0.12 cent every time it streams a song; Spotify’s rates are not disclosed but are usually estimated at around half a cent per stream.
“As little as I was getting paid in 2002, it looks pretty nice compared to almost nothing,” Lowery said.
Lowery, who still plays with both his bands (Camper Van Beethoven released its eighth studio album, “La Costa Perdida,” in January), said he had been an early believer in the promise of the Web for artists. But in a process he describes as less of a light-bulb eureka moment than “a fluorescent light with a bad ballast, flickering there, wanting to come on,” he gradually shifted.
“What we do as musicians was slowly being devalued and demonetized, especially for niche artists who are never going to make it up on the road,” said Lowery, his face stubbled with red hair and his voice still slightly raw from a concert the night before.
On “The Trichordist,” a blog Lowery writes with a mostly anonymous group of like-minded independents — “a leaderless jihad,” he calls it — this conversation is an unvarnished monologue, with Lowery’s own royalty statements as visual aids. One popular recent post: “My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!”
His heated tone, and his tendency to see corporate tentacles everywhere, have not endeared Lowery to everyone on his side of the business. After being rejected from a conference this year whose sponsors included Google, Lowery accused CASH Music, a two-person nonprofit that makes open-source software, of being “at best quislings and at worst shills” for not publicly defending him. Jesse von Doom, CASH Music’s co-executive director, said in an interview that his organization has indeed received $105,000 in grants from Google in the last two years. But he insisted that no strings were attached to those grants, and that he’s nobody’s shill.
“The problem with David,” von Doom said, “is that he is driving the car in the right direction, and veering off the cliff some of the time.”
Lowery’s modest three-story house here would seem an unlikely headquarters for an assault on technology companies. Sitting at his computer in his home recording studio in a room decorated with portraits of Lewis and Clark, Lowery recalled one of his blog posts, which offered qualified support of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill aborted in early 2012 after a thunderbolt of opposition from Google, Wikipedia and other Web titans.
One of the first comments on that post, Lowery said, was, “We’re going to turn you into Lars Ulrich.”
Some of Lowery’s ideas oppose the unquestioned credos of music on the Internet. For example, he thinks musicians would benefit more from scarcity of their work online — and from the power to withdraw from any service using their work — than from the ubiquity we have come to expect from services like Spotify and Pandora.
He and his Trichordist colleagues also advocate for an “ethical Internet” supported by strong copyright laws and industry practices that pay artists fair royalties. In response, he has been mocked as naïve.
“People say, ‘Hey, man, you can’t fight this, we’re moving from ownership to access,’” Lowery said. “That’s exactly why I’m fighting it. We have to get it right. I want to get those rates right.” Speaking of young musicians like his students at the University of Georgia, he added, “I want them to have the same advantages I’ve had, to get paid fairly.”