Lowery: The blue-collar musician at the eye of the copyright storm
The first generation to love the Man and hate grungy artists
Interview A few days after we linked to his long, exhaustive talk about the state of the music business, musician and songwriter David Lowery hit the headlines in the USA. In a blog post replying to NPR intern Emily White, Lowery summed up how the 'don't pay for music' argument sounded to him:
"Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!
Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!"
The post, which attacks the cynicism of the tech industry and 'Free Culture' Movement, received millions of hits and enormous exposure.
I caught up with the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven singer last week. In a follow-up, we'll focus on where the industries can go next - file your questions below or by email here.
Were you surprised at the national exposure given to your post? Why did it ignite such a debate?
It's less to do with my writing, than that there's a vacuum for somebody to say that, essentially, if you're a fan of musicians, then you should make sure they get paid.
I didn't expect it to go so viral. It had less to do with me, and what I wrote, and more because I think your sorta Average Joe hasn't really bought all the lines about "internet freedom". The average Joe has not been convinced by those arguments. The tech blogosphere has just convinced people in the tech blogosphere.
So there was an opening for somebody to say something that was more commonsense.
The debate's very old now - twelve years since Napster was at its peak. And if you asked me ten or twelve years ago that we'd be where we are now, I'd have said you're crazy. We have services but the markets are sickly. Investment is disappearing and musicians are getting poorer.
Who this affects is the 99 per cent of musicians - the Middle Class of the business. It affects the top end, but it has affected us much more.
There's a reluctance on the tech side to acknowledge that you can't have a functioning market without some kind of property enforcement. And I'm reluctant myself, to be honest.
You need a rule of law, or otherwise you have a failed state. And in a lot of ways, the market place for songs and music and films does kinda resemble a failed state.
You want to appeal to people's better nature.
You have legitimate businesses trying to compete with illegitimate businesses and it's made the market unhealthy. Really only the biggest players benefit - the richest, most powerful players benefit. Small stakeholders can't really compete when the market's like that.
It's surprising where some of the opposition to enforcing property rights comes from. I'm thinking of some libertarians. In real life they're polishing the armour and painting the 'Keep Off My Property' signs. But when it comes to the internet some of them just throw these principles right out of the window. I'm fascinated by this. Why do you think it is?
If you go back to Bastiat, liberty really depends on private property. He's kind of their Ur-Reader. It's one of the foundations of libertarianism - I think Bastiat would say something completely different about cyberspace to what a lot of Bastiat readers would say.
The internet is already censored
I guess when I was first in bands, and I'd just graduated from college in the 80s, I worked for these guys who are libertarians. I ended up reading a lot of this libertarian literature. It stuck with me all these years. It stuck with me all these years: mass collectivisation of our copyrights, of private property, I started thinking about this again. I was like, 'wow! Why haven't the libertarians really picked up on what their forefathers said. There needs to be some protection of the virtual property or you'll never have liberty or freedom on the internet'.
With older, more intellectual libertarians they like the argument, it convinces them.
Part of the Left has always had this history of making Utopian grand plans. Think of HG Wells, for example. They have no idea of the human collateral damage of their schemes.
It's the liberal academic (liberal in the American sense) who is most likely to argue this without even thinking through how it might affect individuals like myself. I don't necessarily want all my songs on YouTube. I would like to hold some of them back, so people buy the album, for example. Think of the effect it has on individuals.
They don't realise how essentially working class the music business is. Most people who work in the music business are almost like skilled Blue Collar workers, working on guitars, or drivers, or engineers in the studios. It just seems really odd. I feel like I've been attacked by a liberal academic elite, and it's attacking what's largely a working class profession.
What happened after SOPA is that the radical wing won, so there's no middle ground any more
I went up to Capitol Hill this year with East Bay Ray of the The Dead Kennedys. What we did find, which is really fascinating, is we didn't have to explain much to conservatives. Once we said this is about healthy markets, we were in, and they were listening. With the more liberal members, Democrats, they kept throwing up these roadblocks about freedom and censorship.
I get it, but the internet is already censored. For instance, I've never seen anything pornographic on You Tube. They are filtering what is going up there. I've never seen a brand like Coca Cola, a real mainstream American brand on ad networks. They censor that too. But they claim they aren't. Whenever you're arguing with somebody so disingenuous, you have to throw out everything they're saying.
But any enforcement, even gentle speeding-tickets, means the end of the Garden of Eden. The unicorns will die! I think part of the problem is that any digital rights group that compromises, stops saying No, and says 'Actually that's a pretty fair and sensible measure we'll back that' - will lose its members to the No Enforcement At Any Time camp. The Pirate Party, for example.
I think digital rights people are hamstrung, they can't be a postive part of the conversation any more. It's a waste of time going on TechDirt to argue your opinion, it's an echo chamber of people who belive what they want to believe.
Billy Bragg tried and found this out the hard way.
Basically with those organisations, like EFF or Public Knowledge, there probably are some moderates there, but there are no people there you can convince to do anything. Jonathan Taplin, who's on the board of Public Knowledge, said they get half of their money from Google. So the thing to do is not engage those groups - and just talk to Google!
And the US Government. Those are the two players, right there. The US Government and Google.
The digital rights groups have made themselves irrelevant by saying no to everything.
What happened after SOPA is that their radical wing won, so there's no middle ground.
What Is To Be Done
To me there's been an amazing lack of innovation on the music business side, in terms of partnerships they could do. I can understand them being cautious but I think critics acceeding on enforcement would call their bluff.
I would actually disagree on one small point. I do agree with you, the industry needs osme innovation and the industry was stupid in allowing themselves to become totally dependent on iTunes, and now, essentially, Spotify. The movie business to me looks like they set up a bunch of competing movie and television services. They set up Hulu to go against Netflix and the cable TV providers have their own services. It's in a stronger position. The music business didn't really do that.
But do you know about Snocap?
We covered it here, but isn't it an amazing story?
It was Shawn Fanning from Napster. What they did, and got all the major labels to sign off on it, was essentially legalise all the P2P file sharing. It was actually the tech industry that did not take the music industry up on it.
That's really conveniently buried by the tech lobby. Shawn Fanning got the music industry to essentially clear all the stuff for P2P. They were going to be the rights processing part of it, and bless the Kazaas and Limewires.
pic: Joe Mabel
So what should should happen? What legislation or initiatives would you like to see?
Well, ultimately there has to be a stick. We have to start relatively easily with the ad support. I know not all the networks rely on advertising but many do. Legislation that allowed us musicians to penalise the advertisers, that's doable. Payment processors is another place to start.
If it was me I would approach it really incrementally: one little thing followed by another little thing and see what works. Eventually you have to deal with Bittorrent on the ISP level but I would start with the advertising.
The digital rights groups have made themselves irrelevant by saying no to everything.
Ultimately the ISPs are liable. The way they have interpreted the DMCA leaves them with a huge liability. It's not as hard to get them to go along with a plan as people think. I have requested take-down notices through ISPs: Not individual downloaders but people who are seeding. Almost invariably the ISPs will tell you they don't have to do anything because the repeat infringer is somebody who has not been convicted of copyright of infringement in a court of law. So they say they don't have to forward the notice of infringement. These are from six of the bigger ISPs in the United States, and the seeders have contributed tens of thousands of downloads of one of my songs. That is their legal response.
Now, I don't believe the DMCA was ever, ever written to say that (laughs). I think the ISPs are just piling up the liabilities. The more their shareholders figure this out, the more they're going to get worried about it.
The argument is always: do you after go after the sources - the Megauploads, or make the intermediaries liable, or go after the end user?
There's a place ethically for all of them to get some scorn (laughs). They should all be pressured equally.
I don't think this battle is one in the tech blogosphere. And maybe pressing the music business by making it easier to license.
I have kids in my classes at the University of Georgia who want to start some music platform by there's no central marketplace or registry that allows them to do it. That would allow a new service that doesn't need tens of millions to start. ®