Rock audiences first heard the craggy voice of David Lowery in the band Camper Van Beethoven, urging listeners to “Take the Skinhead Bowling.” And as Cracker frontman, he sang such era-marking songs as “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).”
But even as Lowery, 56, continues to lead both bands on an unusual double bill, he’s an outspoken advocate for musicians’ rights.
A professor of economics and finance of the music business at the University of Georgia for five years, Lowery has issued such influential essays as his letter to an NPR intern who boasted of owning 11,000 songs despite having purchased only 15 CDs in her lifetime. Then there was the essay subtitled “My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89.”
And in late 2015, Lowery filed a class-action lawsuit against Spotify, seeking at least $150 million in damages and alleging that the streaming service knowingly, willingly and unlawfully reproduces and distributes copyrighted songs without obtaining mechanical licenses.
We spoke to Lowery from California, where he filed the suit and where his latest tour was starting.
Q: How does it work fronting two bands at once?
A: It’s interesting. It’s a lot of songs for me to remember and have rehearsed, and remember the structures of, and things like that. But it’s a good challenge. It keeps you fresh. It keeps you running. Physically, it’s a little bit challenging, but I don’t know. I feel like we play two-hour shows if I’m playing with Camper or Cracker anyway, so this ends up being kind of like three hours with a break, so it’s really not that hard. But instead of remembering 70 or so songs that you’re carrying around on tour, you’re remembering like 140 or something that you have to be well versed in.
Q: Why two bands at all? Why not join them into one, or does each have a different aim?
A: We do this from time to time — we combine the bands. When we do that, we call it the Traveling Apothecary Show. And we’ll play Camper and Cracker songs mixed together and stuff like that. Truthfully, it’s just because this set of shows that we do started like, “Let’s just play some songs after Christmas before we do that New Year’s show.” And it kind of turned into a good time of year for all of us to get together and play.
Our schedules are slower and there’s not a lot going on. Not a lot of bands are out on the road. We started doing this and it ended up becoming really popular shows for our fans, and a good time of year to play. So we can afford to bring everybody along so it was more authentic. … So it’s the original — well, not the original Camper lineup — it’s the lineup that most people are familiar with Camper Van Beethoven back from the ’80s. We’re bringing Chris Pederson from Australia, we’re bringing Jonathan Segel from Sweden, and we play with the original lineup, and I think that’s more authentic and interesting. The two bands don’t see each other that often. So maybe if we were always on the road, there’d be some issues, but there really isn’t. … It’s like a family reunion.
Q: The most recent work from both bands was all about California. Was that planned, or just something that was on your mind?
A: It was my Joan Didion phase, like “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” I guess. It wasn’t really intentional, but it became a good framework for us to hang the songs on.
Q: Then you put out a solo album, “Conquistador,” last year as well.
A: It’s more kind of a spoken thing. It’s influenced by epic poetry. … I specifically made only made 1,000 copies of it. There are about 30 left. And that’s it. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
Q: And why just 1,000?
A: One of the reasons is to keep it from streaming services. It’s a dramatic work, so it doesn’t qualify for any of the compulsory licenses. I don’t know if people realize this, but all your pay as a writer of songs — with the exception of something placed in a film or television or a commercial — is governed by the federal government. They literally set the rates that you’re paid.
But if you’re an author of a book, it’s not. So to me, it wasn’t like I was trying to do this as an experiment. I didn’t set out to do this. But when I put this “Conquistador” thing together, I was like, this is not a song, so it doesn’t qualify for any of this federal overregulation that has clearly been distorted by the levers of government power that set the prices for songs have been clearly been manipulated in favor of large multinational corporations.
So check this out — by selling this album as literary work or dramatic work, and only selling 1,000 copies, I’d have to have 23 million views on YouTube to make the same amount of money.
Q: Speaking of which, what is the status of your class-action lawsuit against Spotify?
A: It’s a long, hard slog. It appears that it’s over millions of songwriters who were not being properly paid and, more importantly, their songs were never actually licensed.
There are federal compulsory licenses which will require you to license your songs to these services; they have very minimal requirements, but it appears the streaming services didn’t even do that. So if you have a Congress that doesn’t do anything, and you have a copyright office that has no enforcement powers, like in the United States, the only thing left for artists to do is file a class-action suit.
Q: What can fans do?
A: Well, the first thing they have to understand is that there’s not a single songwriter or musician that I know that is against streaming services. It’s like saying the coal miners when they strike against the coal mines are against coal mines. No, they’re striking for fair pay.
We’re in a great industrial transition again, and usually when that happens, the content workers get the short end of the stick until this stuff gets sorted out. So for one thing, the paid streaming services like Apple, Tidal and even the premium side of Spotify pay songwriters and artists about eight times as much as the free sites. So if you like music, pay for a subscription services rather than one of the ad-supported services, which includes YouTube.