How Can We Get Artists Paid On The Internet? A Chat With David Lowery

Little did I realize, when I popped over to the Urth Cafe on Beverly a few days ago to talk with the musician David Lowery about artist compensation in the music business, that within the week he would be at the center of one of those “Media Firestorms.” Founder of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, Lowery is a big, charming, voluble, bearded ginger who natters as fast as I do; he also has a mathematics and programming background and knows a lot about amateur radio, and is a big dork. We had a marvelous talk about the above-named topics over coffee. I’d become interested in his recent work and activism after reading a post on his blog, Trichordist, “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss,” about the failed promise of “disintermediation” and Internet distribution in the music business: “I was like all of you. I believed in the promise of the Internet to liberate, empower and even enrich artists. I still do but I’m less sure of it than I once was. I come here because I want to start a dialogue. I feel that what we artists were promised has not really panned out.”

Just days after our talk, though, came a blog post by NPR intern Emily White, in which she admitted that, though she has a music library of over 11,000 songs, she has only ever bought like 15 CDs, and Lowery’s incandescent response. So much for my sobersides examination of intellectual property issues! The whole internet is still on fire with this story. When I wrote Lowery to exclaim over the fallout, he responded, “We usually get a few thousand reads a day on our blog. And I mean a few, like 3k is a good day. Sometimes we will get these crazy viral things for a few days, the way ‘New Boss’ did. But this Letter to Emily is totally off the charts. Like half a million reads in 24 hours.”

Dear Media, what a dog’s breakfast you have made of this Firestorm. The dialogue between White and Lowery is not a fight. These alleged adversaries are in agreement with respect to the only significant point at issue—that musicians should be able to make a living, and they can’t in the current circumstances. Let’s extend the conversation from there.

KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS

White’s original post opened with a response to an NPR colleague, Bob Boilen, who’d just consigned his music collection to the cloud; 25,000 songs, 200GB of reclaimed space on his hard drive. Big deal, said White; because she didn’t live through the transition between physical and digital music, storing music in the cloud seemed to her like a small step, rather than a large one. Fair enough. Then the surprises began. She wrote:

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?

Lowery’s response was both exasperated and gentle, teacherly (in fact he is a teacher, in the Music Business program at UGA). He is over twice White’s age and had no compunction about assuming all the authority of maturity and experience. He pointed out that the same kids who pay uncomplainingly through the nose for iPods and bandwidth on which to play music suddenly get all dodgy about paying for the music itself.

The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:

Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

I am genuinely stunned by this. Since you appear to love first generation Indie Rock, and as a founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band I am now legally obligated to issue this order: kids, lawn, vacate.

You are doing it wrong.

It is a bit surprising to hear a 20 year old say so blithely what “my peers and I” will or will not pay for, as if they weren’t already obediently paying without objection for what they’ve been told to pay for, which is iPhones. In fact, White’s generation in general has raised more or less zero opposition to their corpocratic bondage. But it’s also quite plain that Emily White has finally figured out (as she’s “grown up,” she says) that she wants musicians to make more money. David Lowery wants the same thing!

The difference is that David Lowery has identified exactly where the money is going that should be going to artists: it’s going to Spotify, Apple, Amazon, et al., and these entities are not handing a reasonable portion of their proceeds back to artists, as record companies once did, nor are they shouldering any of the risk of making a musician’s career.

ON NEW MODELS OF COMPENSATING ARTISTS

During our conversation, Lowery and I talked about some of these issues, including what potential Kickstarter holds for new and established musicians.

MB: What do you think about Amanda Palmer raising all that coin for her new music project with Kickstarter?

DL: Really fascinating. I don’t want to rain on her parade, because I think that’s really fabulous. Something I’ve always said is that I’ve never understood why CDs are all the same price? I don’t know, a CD, someone who wants a hard copy should pay $150 for it, and if you’re just a casual fan then download, 79c for it. So that kind of fits into my idea that some people are willing to pay more for their music.

Kickstarter isn’t going to create new artists. The ones who are succeeding are people who have already had some success. A lot of them have come off of major labels, where they’ve had people spending money building their brand, and in some ways you’re cashing that in a little bit on Kickstarter.

There are a very few exceptions. There was a little regional band I produced a record for, but they did have a little regional following. They had a little record label that put money into them, they had a big manager, Red Light Management, building their brand; they were literally just a Virginia regional band; they got $35,000 to do their record, I thought that was fantastic for them.

A lot of the auxiliary players in my bands, though, they have had less than successful experiences with Kickstarter here and there, trying to fund a little solo side project; some have been successful, some haven’t.

So I’m not really sure that’s a solution. Getting $1.2 million, isn’t that what Palmer wound up getting, something crazy like that?

MB: Yeah! But then she went and broke out how much everything was going to cost and she’s like, I’m not really gonna get rich off of this.

DL: But you see what she’s doing, too, is that she’s spending regular major-label money, because you still have to spend money in order to promote things, even with the web.

MB: She is a really good self-promoter. I met her just for a second at the Occupy here in LA; she was playing the ukelele and whatnot. A really forceful person. One of these people who is grabbing the universe by the throat, you know, and saying look at me; not everybody can do that.

DL: No, not all kinds of artists can be like that. How would a band like Pink Floyd have done something like that? They were too high to do any of that shit.

One of the most common responses to Lowery’s Letter to Emily post is that if the digital model is so bad, why is there still such great music being made?

MB: One thing that all these policy makers including Lawrence Lessig [whom Lowery is forever battling against] are getting wrong is that they’re not looking at IP issues as primarily a question of, what will ensure that we have the biggest selection of the best cultural products?

DL: There is a really scary thing in academia right now: a series of studies trying to get funded, academic studies trying to show that quality has not suffered since 1999 in music, trying to head off that argument.

Joel Waldfogel at the University of Minnesota has a study that he’s working on that looks like—he’s arguing that quality hasn’t suffered in music. I don’t want to get into a fight with him here, but just browsing his abstract, I think there are strange choices of how he’s measuring “quality” and strange dependencies between his datasets. So anyway, I think he’s a reasonable economist; he may come up concluding that quality does suffer, but in his abstract he is saying that it doesn’t. [Lowery discussed l'affaire Waldfogel in a Trichordist post earlier this week.]

Anyway there are some people out in front of the curve, all ready to make this argument, and then there’s public policy people saying, well we shouldn’t do anything about piracy, because it’s not hurting the quality of music. This is all very sinister and seems like a conspiracy to me, and it’s sort of crazy to put on the tinfoil hat, and say there’s a conspiracy to support this argument. But I think they’ll trot it out.

MB: It’s not tinfoil at all. I am sure that there is grant money to be had for making that argument.

DL: Yeah, they can go to Google, and they can say: we think that we can prove that piracy may not affect the quality of music and they get a quarter of a million to do a study, like from Google.

THE OUTRAGEOUS IDEA OF COMPENSATION

Instead of discussing how to work out the agreed-on problem of how to increase compensation for musicians, and discussing the related intellectual property issues, there has been an avalanche of mind-blowingly dumb bickering about irrelevancies in response to Lowery’s Letter to Emily: We used to make mixtapes, and that was stealing, too! Is David Lowery going to go to garage sales and make people pay royalties when they buy old CDs?!, etc. etc. etc. The New York Times accused Lowery of “throwing the morality book” [Pilgrim's Progress?] at White. The Los Angeles Times said, “many commenters were dispirited that [White] didn’t see this lifetime of free music consumption as, well, wrong in any way.”

On the blogs, things went completely haywire.

• “For centuries artists created because they had to, and they made money here and there, if and when they were good enough to gain an audience. Artist’s [oof] were grateful when this happened, as it was rare and came only after a lot of work and great sacrifices, if at all,” said the eye-popping Wesley Verhoeve, who has never heard of Michelangelo, Caruso, Patti, Titian, Picasso, Alexander Pope, surely this is stuff you could pick up even from Peabody’s Improbable History? Oh, and this was a good one.

“Look, ‘artists: recording music costs nothing now. Distributing it costs nothing. Press buzz costs nothing. These fundaments [!@!)#] of a music career are yours for the taking. The only thing now separating “artists” from “guy with a laptop” is the art.”

It’s so amazing how only good music gets attention and makes money now, and bad musicians with no fundaments are punished through starvation! Obviously, because their fundaments get smaller and smaller! #yay

But the best was “David Lowery Wants a Pony” by Mike Masnick of Techdirt. The bovine willingness with which Mr. Masnick and so many, many others simply lie down in front of the corporate bulldozer is truly flabbergasting, just perversely magnificent. “[M]y focus is on what’s working in today’s market, not pining for the way things used to be,” he wrote.

Okay! And in the other corner, ladies and gentlemen, the outrageous idea that musicians be compensated fairly—just fairly, not in Midas amounts, the way the megacorps are compensated.

ON ADVERTISING, “CURATION” AND WEB ENTREPENEURSHIP

David Lowery was on the board of Groupon in its early stages.

MB: The first tech bubble was scary enough; now it looks like we’re doing the exact same thing again.

DL: Maybe the bubble popped itself with Facebook. I was shocked by what our board was asking for Groupon. I think it’s kind of working its way out, it was fairly priced, because there are transactions actually happening.

But advertising is such a complicated way to make money. There are a lot of steps in between, a lot of unpredictability. If the Internet is so perfect, why do we need advertising? Isn’t the Internet as it perfects itself going to get rid of advertising? Isn’t that the direction?

If someone’s looking for Camper Van Beethoven, they can go in and type Camper Van Beethoven and get to our website very easily. Eventually we can sell our tickets very easily. There isn’t a lot of room for advertisers to get into the chain of the transaction anymore.

MB: Okay but what about all this hoo-ha there’s been about curation? That absolutely speaks to this. It’s not a matter of getting between the transaction; it’s bringing new transactions. The blogger, the curator, editor, whatever, is enormously valuable: these people bring an audience to people like you or me, whom you would have no access to otherwise. How does that work, in your ideal world?

DL: It’s kind of like, okay. That does work; it’s what people didn’t understand about Groupon; some sort of value that you’re bringing. [in wonderfully hammy radio-announcer voice] “The best deals!” But dumb advertising, blind advertising: I want to advertise this Camper Van Beethoven record: it becomes uneconomical.

So maybe ‘curating’ is the direction where we have to go. It’s not the flat, open Internet if you want to add value, if you want to add value, you’re actually creating little bumps, a hierarchy.

MB: Yes. I think it’s just like a DJ.

DL: Exactly. Curators are becoming more important I think, don’t you? Ideologically, I have no problem with that. Not everybody has time [to experience everything new.] I don’t have time.

MB: Right? It’s an essential part of what you’re talking about—to create an economy, and value virtual property and in order to compensate people for it, aggregating audience is a key component of that.

Then there are new kinds of entrepreneurship. Lowery produces evidence that even very young people are handling new opportunities online entrepreneurially.

DL: My kids are 9 and 12, they’ll be 10 and 13 soon. My son is starting to be a little bit like a teenager.

MB: Oh god, is he having the sullen?

DL: Sullen. He is kind of a computer tech musician, got it from me I guess. He is either in the basement playing the guitar or drums or he’s online. The other day he got really sheepish because I caught him—he was on Valve, this gaming platform. They also have a platform called Steam, it’s almost like an iTunes for games—really really clever, it’s like a rights management thing actually, check it out.

They have their games that they make, they allow all this heavy modding, and hosting other services, so they have this real user-generated content thing. Kids will host what they call “maps” on separate servers of these games that they play through Steam.

So I caught my kid the other day clearly doing a Paypal transaction like on the microphone, while he’s playing some game. You know, I make them play in the living room kind of near where I am. I gotta keep track of all that, they’re talking, they’re chatting with people all over the world…

MB: Oh my god and the next thing you know, there’s some dismembering WEIRDO.

DL: I know! exactly. So I sort of waited awhile and then I go, ‘were you exchanging Paypal information with people?’

He said, ‘kinda, well, yeah.’

‘What were you trading money for? Just so I know, you’re not gonna get in trouble.’ And basically, it was like a friend is hosting a server, and they’re selling the admin privileges of this game to other kids, so they have higher status and privileges in the game.

So there you go: creating virtual property. I was all, well, that’s cool!! Making little things—having a lemonade stand, you know.

THE BOTTOM LINE

What this really is, is a simple political issue: a labor issue. It should be possible for a working musician to support a household without having to tour twelve months out of the year, just like it should be possible to live modestly on minimum wage (which it ain’t). But because “art” and “artists” are seen in our world less as craftsmen, and more like these special magical unicorns who are “compelled” to “make art” and can live on air, we are taking our eyes off the ball. Let’s agree on the obvious, and figure out how we can all be paid fairly for our work.



Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman. Photo by Jason Thrasher.