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

This article, by Maria Bustillos, originally appeared on The Awl on 6/21/12. Note that while it focuses on digital music piracy, the issues in it, of perceived value, piracy, intellectual property rights and the need for artists to earn a living, are equally applicable to ebooks.

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.


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!


Read the rest of the article on The Awl.