David Lowery And The Impossible Question

David Lowery is a name you might not be familiar with unless you’re a passionate follower of ’90s alt rockers or music industry wonks. And there’s probably some heavy overlap between those two groups. Well, he is getting more buzz in the last couple of days than he has since his band Cracker was in MTV’s Buzz Bin, thanks to a blog post he recently wrote in response to an NPR intern, regarding nothing less than the future of music commerce.

Lowery was a founding member of both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Both groups navigated the tempestuous waters of the music industry in the late ’80s and early ’90s and both managed to find moderate success. Cracker is likely known to many fans of AOR and MOR radio for their singles “Low” and “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).”

But David Lowery is a music industry renaissance man. He has done stints as a college lecturer at the University of Georgia and as a trading analyst, specializing in quantitative finance. Suffice it to say, the man is smart. “I like to think that I am uniquely qualified as an artist, entrepreneur and geek,” Lowery wrote in a blog post from April 15th titled “Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss?” He continued, “I can out geek most of you.”

Lowery has become increasingly visible as a writer and industry critic through his blog posts at The Trichordist. Billed as a “community blog for those interested in contributing to the advancement of an Ethical Internet, and the protection of Artists Rights in the Digital Age,” posts on The Trichordist often cover and report on issues revolving around copyright, illegal file sharing, and ways artists can protect themselves from a myriad of industry perils. In short, they’re the good guys, albeit with a particular slant in terms of coverage and ideology.

Still a young site (it appears that the article archives only go back to March of this year) The Trichordist has already found itself the center of viral attention. The aforementioned article “Meet The New Boss…” is a sprawling tome (based on a lecture), dedicated to revealing the promises the Internet era failed to deliver on for artists. I highly recommend reading it. Lowery makes a number of excellent points, from refuting specious arguments around tour revenues to the stranglehold iTunes and Amazon have on the digital media market. Even better, nearly every point is backed up with hard evidence.

Fast forward to June. Emily White is a senior at American University, where she is general manager for WVAU, the college’s radio station. She’s also interning at NPR Music for the summer. As part of her duties, White is a blogger for All Songs Considered, NPR’s venerable weekly new music program. In her inaugural blog post “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” White relates her experience as a hardcore music fanatic, circa 2012.

“I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused,” White writes, “But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer.” That doesn’t mean that White isn’t supportive of the music she likes and the artists who make it. Shows are seen, t-shirts purchased, albums are put onto iPods by friends or acquired through her radio station gig, and convenience trumps experience. These are commonplace consumption habits, throughly modern and remarkably unremarkable. It’s ironic that a blog post written by a green intern and filed under “Musings” could have such an explosive impact.

Two days after White’s 517-word post went up online, a new Lowery-penned piece appeared on The Trichordist. The article, “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered,” begins with a disclaimer: “Our intention is not to embarrass or shame [Emily White]. We believe young people like Emily White who are fully engaged in the music scene are the artist’s biggest allies,” the disclaimer reads. “We only ask the opportunity to present a countervailing viewpoint.”

Lowery uses White’s blog post as a basis to level charges against an entire generation of music consumers. Many of his charges are legitimate. Lowery notes that while many don’t pay for music anymore they choose to pay for smart phone with data plans and expensive laptops. While past generations have stuck it to the man by embracing counterculture, the current generation is forsaking artists and embracing all that big business has to offer. Google, he contends, isn’t looking out for the best interests of artists when top search results are illegal download links. They’re in the business of selling advertising, not of waging a war on copyright infringers. Lowery also convincingly argues against the wholly positive perception of the “Free Culture” movement. With regards to what he refers to as “ad sponsored piracy,” he writes, “What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting.”

But there are some glaring flaws to the overall approach of the post and his arguments. White notes that she hasn’t bought a physical album in years and has received most of her music from song swaps she’s done with her friends along with a little bit of illegal downloading. The way Lowery takes that news, you would think that people didn’t share or acquire music through less than legal means before the advent of the internet. Travis Morrison, frontman of indie rock stalwarts The Dismemberment Plan and apparent Huffington Post blogger, spent the better part of his piece “Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damned Kids When I Was A Kid.” noting all of the ways he acquired music for free in his youth. Between shoplifting and radio rips, Morrison acquired much of his music without paying for it.

Still, Lowery takes the issue of music piracy, of lost artist wages, very personally. He’s not a reporter and his writing is generally strengthened by his prosthelytizing. However, he takes it a step too far in his riposte against White. Lowery points out the losses of income that many musicians have experience as an effect of music piracy. He then points to the deaths of two close friends and highly-regarded musicians, Vic Chestnut and Mark Linkous, the latter best known as the principal member of Sparklehorse. Both men took their own lives and Lowery points to their strained financial situation as a key contributing factor to their suicides. Lowery then goes on to write, “I present these two stories to you not because I’m pointing fingers or want to shame you. I just want to illustrate that ‘small’ personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly ‘love’.” While the sad fates of these two musicians certainly could not have been helped by financial woes, connecting them here to illustrate the problem with young people not paying for music, with no mention of the other issues that plagued both men, is seriously tenuous. That he did so in the context of an open letter directed at this young woman was irresponsible.

White’s article and Lowery’s subsequent retort set off a flurry of coverage. Two blog posts were all it took to set off a firestorm of opinion, analysis, and think pieces. Support for White and Lowery seems to be evenly divided, both receiving love from high and low places in equal measure.

Emily White (not the NPR intern Emily White, but the manager of Amanda Palmer and Brendon Benson Emily White) weighed in with her piece “In Defense of Emily White (The NPR Intern)” on Hypebot. In the post Manager White waxes philosophic on the positive benefits that new technology has provided artists, from new distribution methods to cheaper recording equipment. Manager White also praised intern White, saying, “As an artist manager, THANK YOU, [intern Emily White] for supporting musicians by buying most likely thousands of dollars of concert tickets and merchandise throughout your 21 years.” Music industry watcher and noted crank Bob Lefsetz railed directly against Lowery’s assertions, equating the fight against file sharing, “akin to protesting dot matrix printers.” Letsetz continued, “[Lowery’s] right. The artists have suffered financially with the collapse of the CD model/Napster. But with destruction comes opportunity¦ Don’t forget, the record companies sued to kill the Diamond Rio, the predecessor of the iPod. Do you want to give up your iPod to satiate David Lowery?”

On the other side of the debate, many are hailing Lowery as a valiant defender of the artist and of how the music industry should be. Sasha Hecht, writer for Noisey and the typically transgressive Vice Magazine, calls out White for her cavalier attitude on purchasing music. “One of our generation’s most toxic characteristics is our nonchalance when it comes to ignoring our privileges and then running them into the ground,” Hecht writes. “It’s time to grow up, accept our responsibility as a part of a mutually beneficial symbiosis, and keep this ship afloat.” Ben Sisario of The New York Times notes that White’s assertion that her generation is willing to pay for convenience is, “a practical statement, not a moral one.” A post inspired by the White/Lowery debate went up on SF Weekly‘s website yesterday. It was titled, “Top 8 Reasons to Pay For Music, Even If You’re Young, Broke, Lazy, and Indifferent.”

It isn’t fair to divide the squabble as something between the old guard vs. young upstarts, or artist vs. fan. Though the battle lines are being drawn, no one is really providing any workable solutions. White’s utopian ideal, a Spotify-like service that would allow for access from music fans and would provide a fair compensation to artists, sounds great in theory. Obviously we’re not there yet. And White isn’t really getting her music for free, as Lowery points out. White, like many of her generation (this writer included), are paying for access.

Lowery, a man with a great deal of economic insight and real world experience when it comes to the music industry, isn’t afraid to voice some hard truths. However, he isn’t really providing much in the way of answers. In his “Meet the New Boss…” post, it would seem that Lowery would be fine revisiting the era of major label dominance. But many artists would find themselves in similar economic straits in that culture. And Lowery is debating the merits of cultural practices. It’s hard to defeat ingrained, generational consumption habits with a blog post.

But, if we distill his piece to its essence, it is revealed simply as a question of morality. He illuminates the line in the sand as this: either you think taking music for free is okay, or you recognize it as wrong, regardless of circumstances. There is far more common ground in this distillation. Of course, the intern Emily White took no such stand either way (Lowery points out that she even seemed to acknowledge something being wrong). It is unfortunate that she became an object lesson, but perhaps we would not be having this much-needed conversation if not for the personalized nature of this spark.

So after a bit of collective huffing and puffing, we all find ourselves back at square one. Everyone recognizes there’s been a problem brewing in the music industry. How are fans going to have the access and convenience they want? How can we get artists paid? Is there, in fact, a way we can have our cake and eat it to? Perhaps there is no way of answering that question right now. Chances are we won’t recognize the answer until it’s staring us in the face.