Business Interviews

Q&A: David Lowery, The Trichordist

By | Published on Tuesday 28 May 2013

David Lowery

Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter David Lowery has been recording and performing for three decades, initially with his band Camper Van Beethoven, and since 1990 with his second project Cracker as well. In 2011 he also released his first solo album ‘The Palace Guards’. But more recently he has been in the news as much for his opinions on the various shifts that have occurred in the music industry, and on the impact of the web on the artist community, with those views being shared via the blog The Trichordist.

In his commentaries Lowery draws on his experience of economics and running music companies as much as his life as a musician. Although he has covered various issues in his writing, of late Lowery’s strong opinions on the ways big brands and web advertising networks are helping fund unlicensed music websites have stood out. And that is the topic he will be debating in London tonight at the latest MusicTank Think Tank event, this one titled ‘Follow The Money: Can The Business Of Ad-Funded Piracy Be Throttled?’

Ahead of the debate, CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke spoke to Lowery about The Trichordist, the music business in 2013, and why ad-funded piracy is such a big issue.

CC: What motivated you to set up The Trichordist?
DL: It started as a discussion between an informal group of musicians, songwriters, producers, recording engineers, artist managers and indie label folks. Most of those involved wanted to form a content creators’ type union – and that is actually in the works – but a smaller group of us broke off and formed The Trichordist. We just felt there was a real void in the blogosphere for a site that presented the artist’s perspective. It’s also a lot easier to run a blog than a union. We don’t even require consensus. We write what we feel like writing. We never dreamed that we would influence public policy in the US, but it looks like we have done so.

CC: The site’s hashtag is #StopArtistExploitation – who is doing the exploiting you’re trying to stop?
DL: The hashtag is specifically directed at two things. First, ad supported piracy and the entire tech ecosystem that supports it. But also the ‘legitimate’ digital services that use the market failure caused by industrial scale piracy to buy the streaming rights to our songs for a pittance, or to force us into ‘no audit’ licensing deals. “Submit or be torrented” is how one of our fellow indie bands phrased it on Twitter.

CC: You mentioned one of the issues you have been particularly vocal on there, ad-supported piracy, which is what you will be discussing at the MusicTank event tonight. Can you tell us a little more about that area of concern?
DL: There’s basically two parts of the ‘for profit’ web: transactional and subscription sites like Amazon and The New York Times and so on, and then advertising-supported sites and services. With the latter, the name of the game is page views. The more page views, the more valuable your site. Search engines drive page views, so to make money you need your site to appear in as many different searches as possible. A particularly profitable model is to ensure your site comes up when people search things like “Macklemore free MP3 download” or “Macklemore Thift Shop free lyrics”. And that’s exactly what lots of unlicensed music sites do.

But they are only profitable because of the advertisers. And it’s often big companies who are advertising. If I search for Macklemore ‘Thift Shop’ on the unlicensed lyric site, I get ads for Priceline, Nissan, Amazon and, curiously, the Viceroy Hotel in Palm Springs. Though given Macklemore’s pro gay rights stance, that’s probably a well designed keyword selection on the part of the Viceroy. This happens because of the ad exchange networks used by the brands and the unlicensed music sites. Many of the major ad exchanges appear to be involved in serving ads to this particular site – you can see this because if you download the Firebug plug-in for Firefox and highlight a particular ad, it will give you the dynamic HTML code that served the ad in the lower window.

Unlicensed lyric websites are a particular pet peeve of mine, because it is very inexpensive and easy to become licensed when you are running this kind of service. Which illustrates one of the untruths propagated by the tech industry: that the music business/artists/songwriters have blocked any attempts to produce legitimate tech-music businesses.

CC: Google runs one of the biggest ad exchange networks, though this does seem to be the one area of the piracy debate where the web giant seems most willing to engage with the content industries. Is Google fighting this battle with us?
DL: No, not at all. Google’s “fight” is a brilliant piece of PR strategy. Google has something they call the Transparency Report On Copyright Infringement Notices. They maintain this database that in theory should help. But at any time you can find some part of their ad ecosystem serving ads on any number of the top 200 infringing domains. I have hundreds of screenshots with packet logs showing Google’s subsidiary DoubleClick serving ads to these sites.

CC: Is it enough for the brands whose ads appear on file-sharing sites to wheel out the excuse that a middle man is (or several middle men are) to blame?
DL: No, of course not. The ad delivery system has defied the main overarching trend of the internet: disintermediation, or cutting out the middle man. Instead there has been a hyper-intermediation for ad delivery – I’ve counted seven broad layers of intermediation.

Why would Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft want to give other companies a cut of the revenue when they can clearly deliver the ads directly? It makes no sense. Unless you want to insulate yourself from liability of high risk supply and potential RICO (racketeering) prosecution in the US. So basically the major companies set up ‘exchanges’. But if someone set up a database operation in the middle of an open-air heroin and cocaine market in Baltimore and matched buyers and sellers, they would be thrown in jail along with drug dealers.

The truth is many of the major Madison Avenue advertising agencies are complicit in this racket. They want to serve ads on these sites. They could demand the ad exchanges screen their supply better, but they don’t. And why shouldn’t they? They have a financial incentive to sell as many ads as possible whether they are legitimate sites or not.

CC: For artists, the ‘enemy’ was often traditionally the big record companies (certainly once any one artist’s initial deal with a major had gone sour). Are there new enemies in the digital age?
DL: Absolutely there are new enemies. Number one on my list right now are stupid academics with no real world experience that seem to think getting rid of copyright would vanquish “evil” Hollywood and lead to a flowering of culture and some new enlightened age. They remind me of the radical college professors I had back in the early 80s that thought Maoism was a more just and benevolent society. The idea is that somehow artists would be liberated from evil record labels, and never be exploited anymore. There are two obvious problems with this that people with doctorates should be able to see.

First, artists are already liberated from the record labels. And second, if you eliminate copyright, artists would just be exploited by a different set of large companies AND the old ones. Actually, if I was the CEO of Sony and copyright was removed, the rational response – and my duty to shareholders would require it – would be to just stop paying royalties to songwriters. It would be like the 1950s and early 1960s music business, where the artists rarely received royalties, and if they complained the label might buy them a new Cadillac. This actually happened! My mother-in-law worked for Sam Phillips, my father-in-law was a car dealer in Memphis. How do you think they met?

The only reason anybody has to pay songwriters and performers anything is because the artists have a valuable piece of intellectual property called song copyrights. What academics propose is the 1950s music business all over again, except probably without the occasional Cadillac this time.

CC: Do you think enough artists take an interest in issues like this? Do the young artists you teach seem more tuned into these issues than your contemporaries in the artist community – or do artists of all ages like to leave the business side to the businessmen?
DL: Record labels have retrenched so dramatically that most music is now self-released by the artists. Most young artists have to be businessmen. My figures are approximate, but in 2011 about 75,000 new albums were released in the US, and by my back-of-the-envelope reckoning, 800 were released by major labels or their subsidiaries.

And absolutely young artists are aware of this. They have strong opinions about it too, though they are opinions a lot of young artists are nervous about sharing. They fear that if they tell fans that they must pay for their music, because that’s what’s fair, they will suffer a backlash against them from the cybermobs. To paraphrase the pro artists hacktivists at Horse And Cow Society: “It’s like ancient Rome. Bread and circuses for the techno vulgus”.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at a group of independent artists from the CMJ college radio charts. Almost all of them are offering some or all of their songs for sale, whether on iTunes, their own website, or via indie aggregators like CD Baby. They clearly prefer people buy their songs.

CC: Aside from piracy, what are the biggest issues artists should be aware of in 2013?
DL: The consolidation of the concert promotion business. Artists are getting a lower share of live revenues because the consolidation of the concert business has allowed concert promoters to tack on all kinds of extra fees from parking to ticket surcharges. The consumer is also getting screwed in this as well.

CC: Given or despite the challenges you document on The Trichordist, do you think it’s harder or easier being a new artist in 2013 compared with when you started out?
DL: It’s easier to make your music and get it out to the world, but it’s much harder to get paid. It’s also much harder to get noticed, given the vast volume of music now released. That latter part I can’t say is a bad thing, because I think in some ways it makes the music scene more diverse and better for the consumer. I am also a consumer of music remember. But it’s more exploitative now than it’s been since the 1960s. Those getting rich off of music are the new digital intermediaries.

CC: Other than your writing and teaching, what other projects have you got coming up?
DL: I’m currently on a UK/European tour with Camper Van Beethoven supporting our new record ‘La Costa Perdida’. But I think the next album I’m gonna make is with Cracker. It appears to be an update of the California/Southwestern country and country rock of the 1970s-1990s. Think an alt country version of the stuff Dwight Yoakam (Bakersfield/LA) and Linda Rondstad (Tucson/LA) did during that time.