“I actually am fascinated by metal bands. I think metal fans are the most ethical consumers of music…They do go out of their way to make sure they buy the albums by the artists they like and they give each other crap about it all the time if they don’t do it. I think all music fans need to adopt that-the ethics that metal fans have. – David Lowery
David Lowery doesn’t give a damn about anything but music, or so it seems. He doesn’t stand like a “rockstar” or wear “rockstar” clothes, but he does stand for musicians and the musician’s fight to make a living.
A month before his band Cracker played Vinyl Music Hall with local groups Elyse Therose and The Ocean as Mistress opening, I contacted Lowery’s publicist for a phone interview as part of my music column in the Pensacola News Journal.
Stealing a Sunday morning in the company of a June sky before locking myself in the office, I actually walked around the park for an hour before our interview at noon.
So many questions to ask the lecturer/businessman/musician, but mostly I wanted to talk about music.
I wanted to talk about music and the controversy surrounding his openness about musicians who try to “make it” in a time where “free” is the prevailing reality/mentality.
In our discussion, Lowery was open, honest and explained why he wrote the “Letter to Emily White” and why the issue is important to him. Here is a link to the PNJ article “David Lowery speaks out on file sharing” and the full interview follows below.
*** David Lowery Interview***
MS: As an artist, professor, author, husband and more, how do you juggle it all?
DL: How do I do it all?
MS: Do you have some magic organizational skill. How do you do this?
DL: I don’t know. I just get up every morning and make a list of what I need to do for the day and approach it that way every day. I never really think about really so much the longer term things. I get up in the morning and if I need to-say this week, what we’re doing is writing songs- you get up in the morning and you just decide that you’re going to try and write some songs with the band. If you write one, you do. If you don’t, you don’t worry about it, you move on to something else. Most of the stuff is..the hardest thing and the thing that takes the most time is being in a band. And to write the songs, recording and stuff like that. With being a professor at the university or writing, that all just comes from my life experiences. I already know all this stuff. It’s fairly easy for me to map it out and teach the kids or write it down. The hard thing has been being in a band for almost 30 years now. Essentially making a living doing that and being able to get up and write songs and record them. That’s the hard part, so that’s really what I concentrate on. The fact that I’m doing all of this other stuff with writing and teaching, that really just follows what I already do, you see what I’m saying?
MS: Exactly. Do your students ever get star struck? “Oh wow! This is David Lowery from Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven?”
DL: Well, some know very well who I am and some don’t really, because, you know, they’re 18. Like, I started 30 years ago. They weren’t even born. We don’t really…when I’m teaching and stuff like that, we talk about a lot of other things besides just music. I teach the Economics and Finance. Now I’m off to doing Promotion and Publicity class. You end up talking about a lot of things that aren’t directly related to music. They’re indirectly related to music; the song publishers after the Civil War in New York City. We spend a lot of time on obscure things like that because that’s how the industry originally organized itself. It’s not necessarily about me and now, we’re looking at the 160 years of the music business.
MS: A point you just brought up, 160 years of the music business; in your opinion is this one of the darkest days for a musician trying to make a living in that history.
DL: It’s very much like when recorded music came out. It’s much like that period in that the…when people like Edison and the Victor Company and stuff like that started making records, that was the first phonographs basically, that was the first time we’ve really seen that in human history. Recorded versions of people’s songs and it took about 15 years to work that out. It was finally Teddy Roosevelt that brought forth an update to copyright. Everybody finally agreed that it was fair if, say the Victor Company was going to make money from recordings of songs that in fact those people that wrote those songs could be compensated for them. And that made sense to everybody it justtook a good fifteen years. Everybody agreed that that was fair. Even the Victor Company.
Now, what’s going on, so in a way, yeah, this is a darker time because now what you have are file sharing sites, which essentially make their money from advertising and I we’re talking about, they’re not advertising like obscure things, we’re talking about Hertz, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney Company, big companies advertising on these file sharing site and making money. So, we’re in that same situation again where file sharing sites make their money by advertising, but yet, none of that money is shared with the artists who created that music and so, yeah, it’s exactly like I’d say, we’re at about 1908. But anyway, it’s funny because we just went through a period since the 50’s where slowly, year after year, not only the musicians but the consumers demanded that artists be compensated fairly. And the record labels used to give twenty bucks to some blues musician when they were putting stuff out, you know, back in the 30’s. But we had a period of about 60 years where slowly artists gained more rights, partly because the consumer demanded that the artist be compensated. Now, we’re completely in reverse. Where the consumer is like “I don’t want to pay for that! I’ll pay for the pipes, I’ll pay for my internet connection, I’ll pay for my hardware, the ipod, but I won’t pay for the content.” Which is the money that goes to the artist. So yeah, It’s a very regressive time, but I think It’s basically people haven’t really thought about it. Haven’t really thought about it, hard enough. So you know interesting.
MS: That pretty much leads to my next question. June 18th 2012, your letter to Emily White is probably the most articulate, personal, and humane perspective given on this entire file-sharing debate. It’s been 12 years since Lars Ulrich and Metallica and Napster, but your letter to her, it’s huge, how have things changed since Napster and then, and what kind of reception have you received since your letter?
DL: I think unfortunately in the beginning Lars Ulrich, Metallica and the record label sort of made it about, “Hey! You’re taking my money.” But my thing was…the approach was, “What are the ethics of being a fan?” If you’re a fan of some artists and essentially your actions should be so that if you’re going to use their music, if you like this band and you like their music, essentially, you need to make it so that the revenue that is generated by that, goes to the artist and not to an online advertising company or to some file sharing site that ‘s based in the Ukraine or something like that. You need to make your actions your responsibility. It’s your responsibility, so if you are a fan of this band, then your actions should make it so that the artist is compensated fairly. And that’s all I did. I didn’t approach it by law or money or anything like that.I think a lot of people don’t understand that’s how it works.
Sites like The Pirate Bay or Kim Dotcom, they didn’t share files out of the goodness of their heart. They do that to make money, Kim Dotcom made $400 million dollars. And yet, we used to bitch about record labels like ripping off the artists and stuff like that, well Kim Dotcom is a hero by making $400 million dollars and giving zero of it to the artists? I think it’s just that nobody really thought about it, so I just wrote the letter and got around. I put that letter on my blog, which might get a thousand reads a day, but it ended getting millions of reads because it struck a chord with people, not anything I did. It struck a chord with people and so they shared it and passed it around.
MS: I think it’s amazing. I thank you for writing it. It’s human.
MS: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen in 2012?
DL: I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe I’m not understanding the question.
MS: Anything that blew you away or was amazing…made you stop and go “Wow”?
DL: (pause) 2012. Let me come back to that.
MS: That’s cool. What’s the biggest obstacle you think you’ve had to overcome in your life?
DL: I don’t think it’s the biggest obstacle, but certainly, I started out playing music in a band, you know, Camper Van Beethoven, that nobody wanted to put out our records. It wasn’t punk rock enough for the-this was 1983-it wasn’t punk rock enough for the “underground” labels and it wasn’t commercial enough for the major labels, but yet we felt with our band that essentially, there were other people out there that enjoyed, there were probably other people out there that enjoyed our…
(phone cuts out, we’re temporarily disconnect. I call Lowery back)
MS: As far as obstacles. …
DL: We just started putting out our own records. That’s how Camper Van Beethoven started. We just started recording them and putting them out. That’s what I’m saying. We were a band that nobody…we made a demo tape basically and we weren’t punk rock enough for the underground labels, and we weren’t mainstream enough for the big labels and we just put out our records ourselves and promoted them ourselves. That’s how Camper Van Beethoven began and so, in a way, that’s been my ultimate accomplishment. Is that we did it ourselves.
It wasn’t as easy. You couldn’t just put your music on, say Youtube , and put a video of your band on Youtube. You actually had to distribute physical hard copies of your music to radio stations and call them up and convince them to play it. Ultimately, my big accomplishment in life has been doing, recording exactly the kind of music that we wanted to record and getting out there to people ourselves without getting any help from big record labels. Of course later, we did, once we sold albums, once we were popular, once we were on the radio, we did cut deals with the major labels to have our stuff distributed and to help promote ours stuff, but originally, we broke through on our own and I think ultimately, that’s my big accomplishment.
MS: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen at one of your concerts?
DL: I don’t know because, there’s a lot of crazy things that go on at shows. I’m not talking about…I’ve done thousands of shows, all over the world. I’ve played at Patrol bases in Iraq. In war zones. I’ve also played big arena sized concerts. I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life. It’s hard for me to think of the “craziest” thing, but I think of the absurd things. I remember one time we were playing in Austria and for some reason there was a guy in the front row-I guess you can bring your dogs into the venue, you can bring them into restaurants, pubs and beer gardens and we were playing in some place in Austria and this man insisted that I hold his dog. So he kept handing me the dog to me while we were playing. That’s absurd.
MS: I’ve got to ask you. I’ve read interviews with you before. Your sense of humor, have you ever considered doing stand up or like Henry Rollins has his spoken word tour. Have you ever considered doing something to that effect?
DL: I’ve done some shows for my solo record where, essentially, I explain what’s behind certain songs and there’s a story behind them and I’ve done that. I did that on my tour for my solo album where basically I explained the story behind each song and then I played them. I don’t think I’d want to do a pure spoken word thing. I have done that in…I also have a blog called 300 Songs…which is a song-by-song history and I have done some bookstore reading type things and it’s interesting but I’m more of a musician. That’s what I do. I would do it more like I did with my solo record where I tell the story about the song and then the play the song and some of it’s funny and some of it’s not funny.
MS: You mentioned in one of you sites that you’re not extroverted. Would you consider yourself shy or introverted?
DL: I’m just saying that I’m not going to be…I think the main thing that I think a lot of times, if you’re a front person, you go out there and play then you go to the party afterwards, you’re the life of the party or whatever. I’m not really interested in doing that. It’s just sort of the ultimate irony that I ended up being the singer of a band but I’m not really interested in being that extroverted. I’m kind of private; I have my friends that I keep close to me. It’s a small group of people and then we sort of have the fans, but I’m not really in normal everyday life like a person that goes out and interacts easily with people. It’s a bit of a dilemma for me and it’s been a dilemma for me my whole life.
MS: I totally understand that. How do you view the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
DL: I don’t really know enough about it to tell you. I think it’s a little sad that we are the wealthiest country on the planet earth, but yet, out of all the…we’re kind of the only one that has so many uninsured people that is clearly something that as a nation, I think morally, we need to work on. I don’t really have an opinion on how…I don’t really feel I know enough about it to tell you how we should do that.
ML: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
DL: Yeah. I was told by somebody a really long time ago. It was this guy that was a friend of ours that managed a couple of bands, he put on shows and he ended up working at SST and he one day said, “You know, when you make records, you really should just make them for yourself because you’re the one that has to go out and play those songs every single day. And ultimately when you’re recording music, you really need to make the music for yourself because you’re the one that’s going to go out and play that stuff every day. Not really making it for the audience, you really actually should be selfish. And if you do that, you’ll enjoy what you do and that’ll translate better to the audience.
MS: Almost on the same note, what would you tell someone who wants to be where you are?
DL: I think they have to write music for themselves. Not for the audience. I’ve sort of explained that little bit. What lead me to think. Playing music and becoming successful as a musician has to be secondary. The first thing you have to do is write music for yourself and then once you write music for yourself, then what your goal is essentially to find the people that share your tastes and your likes. It’s not about being popular; it’s just simply about finding those people that share your same musical sensibilities, right? It is actually not a popularity contest.
MS: It’s sad how music now is almost a popularity contest.
DL: Well, It is and it isn’t. I mean, yeah, we’re in this weird time were we have sort of nothing in the middle. There are these mega-pop mainstream stuff and then there’s all this really specialized niche artists. There is definitely a lot of people making music for themselves and making a career out of it which is awesome. They may not be big stars, they may be barely surviving, they may be making $20,000 a year, but they’re doing it. And so, I don’t know. I see…kids that are in bands and sometimes they’re playing some really obscure sub, sub genre of metal, right? And they’re somehow making a little, at least a part-time job out of it because they can find their niche audience. Technology today allows them to find that little niche audience. Maybe it’s only two people in their town that like that kind of music, but if you add it up, worldwide, globally, there’s enough there for them to make an album.
Also too, you know the other thing that fascinates me? I actually am fascinated by metal bands. For whatever reason, fans of all this like niche metal, they actually go out of their way to make sure they buy stuff. I think metal fans are the most ethical consumers of music. I’m really fascinated by that. They do go out of their way to make sure they buy the albums by the artists they like. And they give each other crap about it all the time if they don’t do it. Fascinating to me. I think all music fans need to adopt that, the ethics that metal fans have.
MS: Even you saying that, I’m thinking right now of a couple of Christian post-core metal bands that are just that way. They go out and buy the disc when it comes out.
DL: The disc or the paid download or buy it directly from the artist, but there is a real…in metal fandom, there’s a real ethic that you support your artist. Whereas, once you get outside…and there’s some other niches where people do that too…but you know what I mean. It’s strange times when your manic mainstream music fan must learn music ethics from Death Metal bands. Right?
MS: Yes. I have two more questions for you David. How do you want future generations to remember David Lowery and his art?
DL: I want them to remember that stuff without gatekeepers. Not through the filter of journalists and other people, but I want them to remember it by simply listening to the music and forming their own opinions. And that’s possible now.
MS: This next one’s kind of a crazy one; do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
DL: Creamy. But I don’t eat very much peanut butter.
MS: What can fans expect on this tour?
DL: Well, we list this tour as a package tour. We are playing literally half an hour, except for Pensacola, which is going to be our own show. So I imagine we’ll react the other way, it will be a fairly long show and we’ll play a little bit off of every record and we’ll probably dive into the deep tracks instead of the hits like we have to do on the rest of this tour.
MS: The last time I saw you in Pensacola, It was a nice treat for us (Lowery played one set with Cracker and another with Camper Van Beethoven)
DL: Well thank you, I appreciate it.
MS: Is there any reason why Pensacola? Why the deviation from the tour sometimes. Is there a reason why?
DL: Well, you know. I don’t know. For some reason when we come to Pensacola, we always have a nice audience there. People know our stuff; both with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. There’s just always been certain pockets where we’re more popular than other areas. I would say Pensacola’s not a huge audience, it’s not a big town, but we’ve always been played on the radio around there and we always have people show up at our shows, so we go there.
– Michael L. Smith