Cracker’s David Lowery: an essential music and tech-biz critic


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In the wake of the collective Internet freakout over SOPA and PIPA, and the ongoing conversation about whether services like Spotify can create an artist-sustainable model for online music consumption, a new voice of sanity has surfaced in the commentary wilderness. David Lowery has done time in the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; as an economics lecturer at the University of Georgia; as a board of advisors member at Groupon, and bears a long list of nerd bona fides. He has firsthand experience in nearly every aspect of the debate on how tech culture is changing the music industry.

But what makes his writing for the blog The Trichordist so compelling is his unflinching devotion to artists and their livelihoods -- a bedrock principle that often pits him against the titans of today’s culture-consumption technology. His polemical but non-wonky, numbers-don’t-lie essays are worth spending an afternoon with. But two recent posts have caught fire for their contrarian bomb-chucking at the conventional wisdom about tech and the moral vacuum that leaves artists as the third wheel in the new music economy.


One, which ran Monday, is a responseto an essay by an intern at NPR'sAll Songs Considered program. In it, the author admits she has led a ‘music-centric’ life for all her Millennial existence (culminating with a coveted internship at one of the most influential music-journalism outlets in the country), but has paid for only maybe 15 albums in her life. She posted it as a rejoinder to an article about the dwindling need to own physical or even digital records, but many commenters were dispirited that she didn’t see this lifetime of free music consumption as, well, wrong in any way -- especially as such a professed fan of music.

Lowery’s essay, which is fairly compassionate and written in an educational spirit, returns to ethical principles of fairness and support. It runs upstream against a tech culture that presumes if something can be done with the Internet, it must be done, and therefore music must be made free because it can be:

‘I just want to illustrate that ‘small’ personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly ‘love.’ And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.’

He movingly cites the suicides of his friends Vic Chesnutt and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, each of whom suffered profound depression and other psychological distresses, as collateral damage from the collapse of the record-sale model in some ways. Chesnutt in particular faced massive medical bills and foreclosure at what should have been a high point in his music career, and while it would be trite to blame file sharing entirely for his mental and physical illnesses, financial struggles certainly contributed to his despair.

Lowery’s essay is a visceral reminder that the small choices nearly everyone makes to consume music online for free have real consequences in aggregate, and how it’s especially sad that ostensible ‘fans’ are perpetuating this new system of enriching tech-conglomerate intermediaries instead of artists.

A second essay, published in April, is less gentle. In it, he throws a bucket of cold wateron the messiah complex that permeates so much of the media-tech axis. He breaks down exactly who got paid under the ‘old’ and exploitative major-label model, and how the pie gets divvied up in the new digital music economy.

His answers might surprise you -- most record deals were, by comparison, a pretty good deal that overall sustained a lot of artists whose careers didn’t yield massive success. Most artists don’t actually have recourse to make anything beyond a lower-middle-class and insecure living in today’s promised land of touring, licensing and merch sales. He reminds us that today’s ‘free music’ actually comes from funneling money out of record sales and royalties, and into sites and services like Spotify and Google AdSense, the latter of which supports the likes of the noxious Kim Dotcom’s MegaUpload.

But most important, he asks a gut-check question for young music fans today: why are guys like Spotify CEO Daniel Ek the new ‘rock stars’ at the expense of actual, well, rock stars? Isn’t it cooler and just as much work to be in a band than some online-streaming startup? And shouldn’t we compensate people accordingly?

Lowery’s essays are deeply empathetic toward musicians, built on figures from the actual body count of the music-economy wars, and fundamentally come from a place of real music fandom.


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--August Brown