Musician David Lowery’s contrarian voice comes to the Lawrence Arts Center this week
Musician David Lowery is the man behind Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, meaning that if you came of musical age in the late 80s and the early 90s, he’s responsible for numerous earworms stuck in your head. Songs like Cracker’s “Low” and “Teen Angst,” to say nothing of Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” are absolute classics of the era when college rock became alternative.
Over the years, Lowery has toured with both bands—sometimes simultaneously—while also serving as a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, where he teaches music business classes. Thanks to a breadth of knowledge on all aspects of the music industry, he’s exactly the person with whom to speak about the ever-changing media landscape.
We spoke with Lowery by phone from his home in Athens, Georgia, one morning as he prepared to go teach, ahead of his appearance as part of the Lawrence Public Library 780s Series this Thursday, February 9, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
The Pitch: What class are you going to teach this morning?
David Lowery: A class on the economics and the business side of music. I think I started 12 years ago, and it sort of morphed into a whole other career for me. It’s fun, actually. It’s a really popular class. It’s nice to have something like that and not be teaching something that students have to take that is, like, drudgery.
When you’re teaching your class, how much does your personal experience weave in and out of what you are teaching your students?
A fair amount of it. There’s not really a textbook or anything for what I do, so I have to knit together a lot of things. Much of that just has to be built on your own experiences, like, “This is how we handle this situation. This is what we do. This is what I see peers do. This is what I see other bands do. This is what I see labels do.” It’s kind of a weird place, but it’s unique in that I don’t think any other university has a music business program that sits in the business college.
Let’s look at supply and demand. The rules of supply and demand: This is what economists did. This is what an economist discovered over the years. Here are some odd exceptions. And then, let’s look at how it might work in the music business.
You always have reality providing a good example to the class, like the whole Taylor Swift/Ticketmaster/Live Nation/AEG fiasco, so it can be interesting.
Given that you have a 40-year career in the music business, how has this class changed since you started teaching it?
The odd thing is it hasn’t really changed that much. The music industry—whether it’s the musicians, songwriters, publishers, or record labels—is always in a battle with the distributors and the broadcasters, which used to be radio and things like that, to get paid. There’s still radio out there, but most students and young people are consuming music through digital distributors like Spotify.
Remarkably, all the struggles are similar. There were a few major things that kind of agitated things for a while. For instance, the internet. We’ve congealed into a sort of a stasis that looks a lot like what was going on in the 90s, where you had large monopolies, like Clear Channel, that were one of the bottlenecks in the music industry—gatekeepers. Now, your gatekeepers might be your algorithms with Spotify.
I try to put it into a long historical context of, like, you just moved from the one sort of stasis for the music business, it gets upset for a while by the introduction of digital music distribution platforms, and then it just kind of forms to the stasis that looks a lot like the old one.
Do you feel that that reliance on catalog and legacy artists stifles innovation, or does it allow at least some of the up-and-comers to be able to exist because it keeps a label chugging along?
The public never really had access to what was really going along on with the large labels, like where their sales are coming from and stuff like that, or what we think of as transparency. If you remember all of the Billboard charts and the various radio airplay charts, those were actually highly manipulated.
The Billboard Hot 100 was some weird combination of sales that excluded albums and songs that weren’t current and weren’t released in the last 18 months, so it was kind of a reflection of what was going on with the newer music. What was happening was that it was hiding a lot of the catalog sales, which have always been important.
You’re just able to see those catalog sales are so important now. In many ways, the younger acts have it a lot easier in that you can get your stuff out there and to an audience that doesn’t involve duping cassette tapes like you had to do in the 80s—one by one—and selling ’em at their shows.
They also have it harder because we’ve gone from traditional gatekeepers to this kind of tyranny of listening algorithms and recommendations on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music, which makes them the gatekeepers now.
The tyranny of choice is a difficult problem to manage for emerging artists. There are just so many people out there, and it’s such a low bar: “Hey, I made a song on Garageband on my laptop, and I had to sign up for something like DistroKid, and I just put it straight on all the digital platforms.”
There are hundreds of thousands of songs like that coming up that are really low-cost for the inventors and creators to get out there. I don’t know if that’s helpful.
Given the tyranny of choice and everything—curating and helping pull stuff up out of the vast pool help people discover new art. You’re speaking at a library event next week. Did you agree to do this because you agree with libraries’ missions to make things available to the people?
I find speaking at the library interesting ’cause it’s not like trying to speak in a bar about music before you play a show. It’s just a completely different format, and I know I like it. It’s sort of like the kind of entertainment you got in the 1890s when Mark Twain was traveling in the west and speaking at some opera house in some mining town.
There used to be a much broader notion of what was interesting to go to, and this just sort of hearkens back to something that we don’t have that much anymore. And, you know, I like to do it. I mean, one of the most boring things to me—I understand why I have to do it—is to get out there and go on some panel and talk about how you write music or how you recorded this record or what was the promotional strategy that the managers and the publicists and the record label took. All of that is just really tedious to me now. It’s more interesting to go up there and talk about stuff like this.
I have some pretty contrarian opinions on a lot of this stuff. You have Sir Lucian Charles Grainge, the head of Universal Music Group, basically came out two weeks ago and said, “Yeah, we were kind of wrong on this way the streaming services divide up the money. We’re gonna have to change that.”
There were 10 years of me being an outlier like, “This is what’s gonna happen. This is what’s gonna happen,” and speaking in the library is where contrarian voices get to present opinions and stuff like that. The podcast algorithm isn’t gonna boost your contrarian viewpoint.
David Lowery will appear in conversation with Lawrence Public Library director Brad Allen, as well as play a short acoustic set, this Thursday, February 9, at the Lawrence Arts Center. Details on that show here. He’ll also be at Knuckleheads the following night, Friday, February 10. Details on that show here.