Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker frontman David Lowery is royally pissed. Make that royalty pissed for the lack of compensation he's received for the use of his songs on online webcasts, most notably Pandora.
On June 23, The Trichordist, a website for artists for an ethical and sustainable Internet, ran a submission from Lowery titled "My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!" Lowery included images of his quarterly royalty statement and aired his thoughts on webcaster abuse of music artists.
Lowery's main intent was to highlight how little he was receiving for his songs. He sites Cracker's biggest hit, "Low" from 1993's Kerosene Hat, as the biggest injustice in a seriously flawed system already designed to exploit musicians. "Low" was played 1,159,000 times on Pandora and the royalty payment was a mere $16.89.
Recently Lowery, who's playing Crescent Ballroom on July 21, sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with us. When things turned to Pandora, he had a lot to say -- as you might expect.
(For sake of comparison, Lowery received only one-fourth less pay -- $12.05 -- for one-tenth the plays -- 152,900 -- on Spotify. Still pitiful, but not as horrendous as Pandora, which earns the most ire from Lowery.)
For the record, Lowery is a 40 percent owner of "Low," a track he co-wrote with Cracker bandmates Johnny Hickman and Davey Faragher. The total payout on the song from Pandora for 1,159,000 plays was a thieving $42.23 -- about four-thousandths of a cent per play.
Lowery sees Congress as much to blame as Pandora itself. It's the lawmakers, Lowery explains, that set the rates of royalty for artists -- not the record companies, not the musicians, not the even the songwriters whose hard work and effort created the song. And, says Lowery, Pandora is currently lobbying Congress to reintroduce the ironically dubbed "Internet radio fairness act," to lower that royalty rate further, by as much as 85 percent according to Lowery's June 24 reply to a Trichordist reader's comment.
In a recent interview with Lowery about Camper Van Beethoven celebrating its 30th anniversary with a tour that brings the band and Cracker to the Crescent Ballroom on July 21, I saved my questions about the current Pandora melee for the end. I only needed to say the word Pandora before Lowery's temperature boiled.
New Times: I want to ask about the Pandora uproar. Has there been much backlash or more of a positive response?
David Lowery: We're getting a positive response and moving the ball forward. It's out there now. It is what it is.
But here's the way to look at it: Why does the government set the prices that webcasters pay? Silicon Valley is the most vital and profitable segment of society, so why is the fucking government even fucking meddling in the marketplace? Are [webcasters] struggling? Do they need a bailout like the car companies in 2008? That's the first thing.
The second is, why the hell is Pandora and webcasters proposing a bill in Congress that would force copyright royalty judges to calculate our rate lower? It's not like World War II, where we have to ration sugar, chocolate, and gas. Can't songwriters and record labels say to Pandora: "Hey, we don't think you're giving us a good price and we're just going to drop out?" No! You can't drop out of these services.
They are compulsory. What is the government doing, in this day and age, setting prices? Why the fuck is Pandora lobbying on Capitol Hill to lower the prices? Why are they so afraid of this?
I posted [my royalty statement online] to show how little songwriters actually get paid because Pandora is actually trying to get the rates lower. Now they're saying they weren't trying to get the rates lower. They made up this whole story about how they agreed to this deal they didn't really agree too. I mean, Pandora is just fucking actually lying.
I show that the songwriters for the song "Low" got a total of $42.23 for [over a million plays of] the song. They said I grossly misstated what they pay songwriters. That is a bold-face lie. I posted the statement from them. Nobody should believe what Pandora says.
Really, I should fucking sue them for defamation and fucking retire. I'm not going to do that, but people need to look into this. This is getting to be an Enron-like situation. They're telling the stockholders: "Everything's going great!" And then they are telling Congress: "We can't make a profit." So, which one needs to investigate this? Does Congress need to investigate [Pandora for] lying to Congress, or does the Securities and Exchange Commission need to investigate them for lying to investors? Which one is it?
To me, they have fucked themselves into a corner in such a way that even an idiotic pot-smoking band would never get themselves into.
You're right. It's a bad situation. And musicians always had a hard time anyway. Record labels were always after every penny they could take while reaping big profits and leaving the musicians in a perpetual stage of struggle.
Right, and this is where the miracles happen. This is why Silicon Valley and the webcasters are so amazing. You know how hard it was to make the old record business look good and charitable? [Laughs sarcastically.] Yet somehow these webcasters have made the record labels look down right charitable and nice. That's how bad these [webcasters] are.
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Look, we musicians are on the frontlines here. We're the canaries in the coalmine. It's everybody else's job after this. Think about it: [Search engines] want your data. Instagram wants to use your photos without paying you or asking your permission. [Laughs] You guys are probably next.