David Lowery Q&A: On Spotify Rates and His Letter to NPR’s Emily White

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david lowery emily white streaming interview

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker frontman David Lowery caught a lot of flack last summer when he wrote an open letter to NPR intern Emily White, regarding her piece called “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With.”

The young writer admitted to only having bought about 15 CDs in her lifetime, despite having over 11,000 songs in her iTunes library. This opened a fiery, yet important discourse within the music industry, showing just how different older generations and millennials consume and care about music.

It also spelled out a lot of problems for career musicians. With the 2012 launch of Spotify in the United States, the music industry has changed faster than ever. According to The Guardian, music streaming was up 700 percent last year and is expected to rise again in 2013. Billions of songs have been heard through online streaming services, eclipsing the amount of songs being downloaded.

We spoke to Lowery, a professor of music business and economics at the University of Georgia, about the aftermath of his letter and how the industry has responded.

It’s been a couple of months since you responded to Emily White’s NPR piece. Have you learned anything about the discourse? Do you still feel the same way about streaming, about her generation’s consumption of music?

I don’t think people understand. I’m not against streaming; I just don’t like the rates that artists are getting these days. But that’s an easy fix. I think we’re more concerned with this notion that’s been promulgated on the Internet that, essentially artists make all their money from touring. It’s not true, never been true. Most artists don’t even make any money touring — only like the top 1 percent do.

There’s been a lot more artists coming out and saying, “You need to buy our albums because that’s really the only way for us to make any money.” My wife’s a promoter; She probably books 300 shows a year. If you’re not playing for more than 500-600 people a night — and that’s five or six nights a week — you’re not really making a living.

The cost of touring is really expensive. And you know the other thing about touring is that you’re lucky if you get 60 percent of the revenue from a show, because the costs for the venue and the staff and the sound and the insurance and all these things are so high. It’s not really a great way to make a living for an artist. I mean, the reason most artists tour is because it’s fun, right? And it tends to promote the albums that you have for sale, and I don’t really see that changing any time soon.

Yes, it’s possible to make money on the road. I mean, Cracker always tried to tour and make a little bit of money by keeping our costs really low. But it’s hard to do that 180-200 days a year, which is what you have to do. It’s a pretty brutal way to live. It’s one thing to go out and just sort of go out for 10 days and do a small East Coast tour or something and just kind of all sleep in the same hotel room or sleep on the bus and occasionally shower in the venues, but really the recording is what pays for it. The other thing is, people are perfectly willing to pay for the iPods and iPhones and iPads and laptops. And they’re willing to pay for the high speed Internet connection to get the music. It’s just weird that they don’t want to pay the artists, who are actually the only non-corporate entities in the value chain. I just think that’s really bizarre.

So yeah, I think writing that letter sort of made a lot of people think about it differently. It’s given me a platform to talk about that stuff and it’s restarted the dialogue.

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