David Lowery versus the future of the music industry

Branford Jones

How the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven Mad Genius Makes His Own Rules: David Lowrey, right, with his Cracker songwriting partner Johnny Hickman.
Branford Jones photo

Some folks just have a knack for doing things their own way.

When a teenage proto-hipster started forming garage bands out of Southern California with names like Sitting Duck, Box O’ Laffs, and Estonian Gauchos, David Lowery wasn’t trying to impress anyone.

“These were punk bands,” he says. “Post-punk ensembles really. We incorporated ska, surf music, early ’60s psychedelic garage. We played everything fast with a punk beat or sped it up.”

When asked about his early influences, Lowery references obscure pre-flower power groups such as The Standells and Chocolate Watch Band that started out around the year he was born, 1963. If you want to talk about psychedelic rock roots, these were the bands they tested the acid on. But for an early 1980s kid out of Redlands, the psychedelic aspect of the music was really more of an affectation.

“I didn’t even drink,” he says. “It was really different than the traditional punk thing. We dressed like hippies even though we weren’t hippies. We wore ponchos with Guatemalan bags and went to punk rock shows.”

When he started the iconoclastic DIY indie rock group Camper Van Beethoven, Lowery was on a straight edge kick, which you might have inferred from the stripped-down, neon-pure, in the moment, don’t-really-give-a-shit-what-you-think approach to making music.

“It was later on we got back into doing all that stuff,” he says, alluding to early psychamericana acts such as Kaleidoscope, and Country Joe and The Fish.

Not that there weren’t some freaky times along the way. Lowery recalls one night at The Blue Note in Columbia, Mississippi, when the band took magic mushrooms and drank throughout the whole show. Then, of course, there was the time in Las Vegas when someone at The Record Exchange album shop gave them a few hits of LSD before they opened for metal band L.A. Guns.

“We went way too far and got unplugged,” Lowery says. “It was in a weird part of Vegas not on The Strip where people actually live. There was a classic old-school club owner with a cowboy hat and pistol in his belt. We had to count the money in front of him so we couldn’t tell him later we got ripped off… which was really hard because we were on acid.”

From rock idol to dorky dad

It was November 1993 when “Low” reached No. 3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in Billboard Magazine. Although “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” had hit No. 1 a year prior, it was a music video directed by Carlos Grasso that caught the attention of the vanilla MTV-watching youth populace.

“Nobody thought it was going to be a hit,” Lowery says. “The video was made at the request of the director.”

The black and white telenovela depicts Lowery singing on a hanging microphone in a dark bedroom as a trashy Sandra Bernhard drives pissed-off around town until they meet in a boxing ring and she kicks his ass.

While the imagery of the video and lyrics clearly suggest the song is comparing heroin addiction to a bad relationship, it was the foresight of talent developer Michael Plen that freed the edgy tune for mainstream radio. He called Lowery around the time Virgin Records was beginning to work on the release of the single.

“You are saying ‘stone’, aren’t you?” Plen asked. “Like you can’t move?”

Lowery insisted it was “stoned”.

“He kept trying to correct me until I finally realized what he was doing.”

Lowery wrote down the explanation and faxed it to Plen.

“I think it’s called plausible deniability” he says.

Seemingly overnight the band went from playing the club circuit to yawning arena sheds as part of a series package tours with other alternative rock groups of the time such as Violent Femmes, Pavement, Afghan Whigs, No Doubt, Gin Blossoms, Candlebox, Garbage and Meat Puppets.

With the period of 1994-1997 as the sole exception, Lowery has been playing 500 to 1,000 capacity clubs for the better part of three decades while producing bands such as Counting Crows, Sparklehorse and Tea Leaf Green.

Meanwhile his 16 and 19-year-old sons have discovered indie groups like My Bloody Valentine and other ambient rock from underground record labels such as Chicago’s Kranky.

“I tell them my connections,” Lowery says. “My younger son goes, ‘Dad, when you tell us stories of the bands, that’s really cool and you should be proud of that, but it kind of ruins the magic for us.’”

Showing off some hard-won parenting wisdom, he compares this to how he would’ve felt had his father bragged about concerts he organized during his time running an Air Force officers club in the ’50s.

The streaming industry’s indie avenger

Nowadays, when he’s not on tour with his two much-loved alt-rock groups, Lowery teaches the business of music at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he holds PhD in Higher Education. In 2015, he was instructing a class about music publishing using his own experience with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker as examples when a couple of students noticed some of his royalties were missing. Lowery began looking further into it only to confirm that he had a whole bunch of songs that were completely without any history of payment from several major streaming platforms.

“What we figured out is if your songs weren’t associated with a major label, you weren’t being paid,” he says. “It seemed like folks knew it and they were keeping the money from independent songwriters.”

Earlier this year, Lowery closed a class action suit against Pandora for $112 million and there is another one with Rhapsody (now known as Napster) heading toward a settlement now. The problem as he sees it is that the copyright industry is a largely self-supporting institution run by a panel of three non-elected judges.

“There is no free market for songs,” Lowery says. “My view is all of revenue of these government institutions essentially disappears into regulatory capture.”

While the digital era offers musicians a lot of freedom to sell themselves independently, the streaming revolution isn’t benefitting the artists as much as the corporations themselves. For his latest work, Lowery will be “windowing” the songs, as Hollywood would say, by releasing them on limited paid streams before selling out of the record at shows and online, all prior to putting it on any free streaming service.

“What streaming services don’t get right is it’s not one size fits all,” he says. “For legacy acts like us, it makes more sense to get off the streaming platforms and sell directly to our fans. Once demand has been exhausted or whatever, we’ll put it online. For younger bands, they’re maybe better off streaming right away.”

As an example, Lowery mentions one point of his research which indicates that the net income of 1,000 vinyl albums sold at $25 each equals the same income of 71 million streams on YouTube.

“Digital distribution economists would say there is inefficient capital in the system,” he says. “It’s a big deal fighting back against that. The cool thing is there are no rules now about how to do a record.”

— Sean McAlindin

About Sean McAlindin

Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he's not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local backcountry powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.

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