David Lowery on Spotify Lawsuits and the Battle For Creators' Rights

DO NOT REUSE!!
Raymond McCrea Jones
“Just once or twice in the real world has anyone ever come up to me and said anything negative about my advocacy, and it has been relatively polite,” says Lowery, photographed Jan. 10 at his home office in Athens, Ga. “How people react online is often different, of course.”

These days, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery may be best known as a thorn in the side of music-technology companies like Spotify, which he sued in 2015 for copyright infringement related to unpaid mechanical royalties. That case ultimately resulted in a $43 million class action settlement against the company that is awaiting court approval, although Lowery is no longer the named plaintiff, helping publicize an issue that returned to the news in late December when Wixen Music Publishing sued Spotify for $1.6 billion. (Another class action brought by Lowery against Rhapsody is still active.)

"Streaming is the future of the music business, and I'm not against it -- I just want everyone to get paid fairly," says Lowery, 57. "There could be millions of songs that songwriters weren't getting paid royalties for, and the future should be better than that."

Lowery got his start as an indie rocker in the 1980s with Camper Van Beethoven (best known for the off-kilter "Take the Skinheads Bowling"), then became a presence on MTV in the '90s with Cracker ("Low"). He still tours and records with both bands. But he started something of a second career at the 2012 SF MusicTech Summit, where he gave a speech -- "Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss" -- that punctured any illusions that YouTube and download sales would leave creators better off. He then started a website called The Trichordist, where he blogs about the music business with the same sarcasm he brings to some of his lyrics, and he has become a prominent voice for creators in the digital age. Now, Lowery has organized the Artists' Rights Symposium, which will bring policymakers and musicians together on Jan. 22 and 23 at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, Ga., where he teaches about the music business.

"Someone needed to talk about these issues," says Lowery, who is married to Velena Vego, a talent buyer for Live Nation in Atlanta who also books the 40 Watt Club in Athens. He sees the symposium, which will focus on how artists can enforce their rights without expensive lawsuits, as part of the same work. "If I can't effect change," says Lowery, "I can at least affect the conversation."

How did you start working on creators' rights issues?

I started talking about artists' rights in the digital age after I watched the anti-Stop Online Piracy Act tidal wave, a lot of which was based on outright falsehoods. I used to be a completely pro-digital artist -- burn down the old, replace it with the new. But none of it turned out the way I thought it would, so I wrote a little talk [for the 2012 SF MusicTech Summit] about how the new digital landscape wasn't any better than the old record company system. Plus, there appeared to be a greater concentration of power -- we built these giant digital monopolies that we now can't get around. You can't really promote your music without Apple, Google or Facebook and basically transferring value to them. I found that disturbing because I came up as completely independent.

This has grown to the point that you testified in front of a House of Representatives intellectual property subcommittee. What was that like?

When you see these hearings on camera, there's this big panel of congressmen, but they never pan back to show that there really aren't many people there. That made it less like a performance so I was a little nervous. But I'm used to expressing myself in five minutes -- I'm a songwriter and that's what we do.

You've been accused of idealizing the major-label system as it was in the '90s, when Cracker was signed to Virgin.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both systems. The good thing about the digital age is you're liberated creatively. But it's extremely difficult to get paid, and over the long term that tamps down your creativity. You have to go get another job.

You've also been criticized by some industry figures for going after the streaming services that are helping to turn the business around.

If there's anything I've done that will have long-term repercussions, it's that. Without that suit, I don't know if the National Music Publishers' Association would have gotten to a settlement with Spotify; I'm not sure if the small publishers would have the same kind of deal as the big publishers. But yeah, there were people who didn't invite me to their Christmas parties.

There's a lot more optimism in the music business than there was a few years ago. Do you share that?

The business in the U.S. is still about 50 percent of what it was. But I'm really talking about two things. First, if you're below a certain threshold of popularity, playing for 200 people a night, that and record sales used to be a middle-class living, but with streaming I'm not sure. Second, songwriters have been shafted -- they get a much lower percentage [of streaming revenue, compared to sales]. In this business, I don't think a band like Camper would've persisted as long as it did.

You're performing with Camper and Cracker, plus teaching at UGA. How does this fit together?

Camper and Cracker are both basically family businesses; we're not a bunch of stoned dudes who record and hand it off to a manager and label. With Camper, as an indie band, we wanted to do business in a different way, so extending that to public advocacy is natural. It all blends together.

For a while you also worked in finance as a quantitative analyst, right?

I have a degree in math [from the University of California in Santa Cruz] and I know a bit about derivative pricing. I happened to be playing a private party and, beforehand, I was carrying around The Black Swan [the book about probability and risk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb] and someone asked me, "Are you reading that? Do you understand it?" And, after I said yes, "Are you interested in advising us?"

That must have been quite a change of pace from playing in a rock band.

The hours are sure different! But I was around a lot of really smart people, and the conversations were interesting. One day our positions were going crazy and a young lady who worked with me puked into the trash can. I'm in a band, so I've seen plenty of stuff like that.

Tell me more about your role at UGA.

I started teaching classes about the business a few years ago and then became full time. I teach the finance and economics of the music business, which I really enjoy.

Most people think young people, like your college students, see artists' rights issues differently. Is that true?

I'm mostly teaching students who want to go into the business, so they all want to make money. The ones who make music want to make enough to record. Getting paid is something anyone who's serious about music doesn't see as controversial.

Why are you starting this conference?

The music business is built on monetizing the exclusive rights of creators, so we should look at how they're protected. But should that always mean federal civil copyright lawsuits? There could be other ways to do that. What about getting ad networks to follow best practices? There's a law enforcement panel since a lot of bad actors engaged in piracy are also engaged in malware, ad fraud. And piracy creates a market failure that drives down prices. It's hard to ask for more money for songwriters when there's a constant threat of people using our work for free.

Will the conference be annual?

I hope we can have it on other campuses. All the music business conferences are in New York, L.A. or D.C., but music is created all over the country. I'd like this to be the premier academic conference on this. Like everyone else, I want a hit. 

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.