Is David Lowery’s Crankiness Counterproductive?

Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher

David Lowery

Local guy, MBUS lecturer and Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery is no stranger to causing controversy as a result of his stance on artist rights in the digital age. On Monday, he unleashed another epic screed on his Trichordist blog, where he posted a screenshot showing the amount of royalties he received from various Internet radio outlets last quarter.

Of specific note was the payment he received from tech giant Pandora, which awarded Lowery a grand total of $16.89 in songwriting royalties—”Less than I make from a single T-shirt sale,” he wrote—for over 1 million plays of Cracker’s hit 1992 song “Low.”

In addition to noting that he also receives a separate performance royalty for “Low” (which is “higher but also what I would regard as unsustainable,” he wrote), Lowery went on to explain:

Soon you will be hearing from Pandora how they need Congress to change the way royalties are calculated so that they can pay much much less to songwriters and performers. For you civilians webcasting rates are “compulsory” rates. They are set by the government (crazy, right?). Further since they are compulsory royalties, artists can not “opt out” of a service like Pandora even if they think Pandora doesn’t pay them enough. The majority of songwriters have their rates set by the government, too, in the form of the ASCAP and BMI rate courts–a single judge gets to decide the fate of songwriters (technically not a “compulsory” but may as well be).  This is already a government mandated subsidy from songwriters and artists to Silicon Valley.  Pandora wants to make it even worse.  (Yet another reason the government needs to get out of the business of setting webcasting rates and let the market sort it out.)

Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t Pandora get off the couch and get an actual business model instead of asking for a handout from congress and artists? For instance: Right now Pandora plays one minute of commercials an hour on their free service. Here’s an idea!  Play two minutes of commercials and double your revenue! (Sirius XM often plays 13 minutes and charges a subscription).

Several commenters challenged Lowery’s interpretation, pointing out that the $16.89 from Pandora is more per listener than the $1,522 Lowery earned from “Low” via terrestrial radio, which reaches more listeners per play, last quarter. While also noting that AM/FM radio has never paid royalties to performers, this post attacked Lowery’s entire premise, arguing that the $16.89 figure is misleading, given the amount Pandora and its ilk actually pay out to publishers, performers and others involved.

But that’s all secondary to an overarching issue: As the latest one shows, Lowery’s blog rants are patronizing, pedantic and full of hand-wringing regarding the Kids Today (“That’s the new generation. They think rebelling is sucking the dick of the man,” he wrote in a comment.) His motives are surely pure, but is his crankiness counterproductive?

Most rational people agree artists should have the final say over how their work is used and how, if not how much, they are compensated for it. But if Lowery, by now the de facto voice of his cohort on the matter, wants to inspire a change of heart among folks who stream music online—a disproportionally young population—shouldn’t he tone down the crotchety-old-man schtick? After all, even though in his post he proclaimed that “[t]he revolution will not be webcast,” he has to know that’s untrue.


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