Cracker frontman talks about music piracy and how much money he's lost over the years

Special to Lowcountry CurrentJune 19, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    WHEN: 9 p.m. June 21

    WHERE: The Windjammer, 1008 Ocean Blvd., Isle of Palms

    COST: $18

    DETAILS: www.the-windjammer.com

Every so often Cracker -- the California troupe best known for '90s alt-rock hits "Low" and "Euro-Trash Girl" -- gets something of a renaissance. The cult indie film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," which featured "Low" prominently, being a prime example of the phenomenon. Cracker, of course, is nothing without founder David Lowery, who went on to form the band in the early '90s when his critically regarded indie outfit Camper van Beethoven disbanded.

Today, both Cracker and Camper van Beethoven are active on the touring circuit and, Lowery, himself, parcels his time between both groups and as a lecturer at the University of Georgia's Terry School of Business (yes, you read that right). If you were at all wondering, being a musician pays better than being an educator, although he cautions, "If I were only in Camper van Beethoven, I'd say 'no.' [Camper] just did, like, five countries in Europe and I think we made about 200 euros each."

In advance of Cracker's show at the Isle of Palms' Windjammer on June 21, Lowcountry Current spoke with Lowery about his thoughts on music piracy, how much he's estimated he's lost because of it and if he see more smartphones in concert and college auditoriums.

Question. Almost exactly a year ago, you were engaged in an online sparring match between an intern at NPR, who penned a blog where she freely admitted acquiring most of her music collection without paying for it. Are you happy with the overall response?

Answer. The discussion got reopened in a way that hadn't been before because it was before, it was like, oh yeah, super megastar Metallica or the RIAA suing downloaders. But that's not really the big picture. The big picture is that free music isn't free. There's lots of ways that people make money off of stealing our music and giving it away. What [I was] trying to do in that letter was to make the young woman aware that when you're downloading for free there's a lot of unrelated companies and individuals that you're enriching instead of the artist. Most of the sites run are advertising supported, so you have major brands in the United States plus major technology companies like Microsoft and Google serving ads off of these sites.

It's not like music's free. You're paying for the hardware; you're paying for the pipes; and you're paying for the entire infrastructure. It's just none of the money is going to the artist. It's kind of like the 1950s music business whereby artists wouldn't get any royalties until they complained. And then maybe they'd get an occasional Cadillac. This is like the 1950s music business, but you don't actually get the Cadillac.

Q. Have you ever thought about how much you've lost because of music piracy?

A. Yeah, I would say since 1999, it's about a half-million dollars.

Q. You personally?

A. Me personally. If you figure that record sales are off 64 percent since 1999 -- actually, it's off more than that. I think it's off 67 percent now. That's about a third of my royalties over 13 years.

Plus, essentially all that iTunes and Amazon do is they host your music online. That's a cool service but, ultimately, they take 39 percent of all revenue, right off the top. That's pretty stiff considering the old distributors took like 17 percent. The old mom and pop record stores took 40 percent, but they had actual physical copies, shipping, air conditioning, stoned employees, shoplifting. It sort of made sense that they took 40 percent.

Q. Can music again become profitable for the artist?

A. There's a debate over whether streaming pays enough to be sustainable or whether it would work for niche, quirky artists. Of course, because Cracker has these big hits, we can generate significant revenue from streaming and satellite radio play. We get paid for the stuff. In contrast to my other band, Camper van Beethoven, [we only have a] couple really minor things that are kind of obscure and rarely played on the radio. That streaming model doesn't really work for a band like Camper van Beethoven. And so that part needs to be worked out. I'm not really sure what the answer is. But it's pretty easy. Just use licensed services. Spotify's a licensed service. Google's new All Access, that's a licensed service. Apple's whatever-they're-going-to-call-their-streaming-thing, that's a licensed service.

Q. Switching over to your day job, are more people on phones in class or concert?

A. (Laughs) You know what, they're on their phones during class, I think, more. Personally, until they hit that first midterm and then they tend not to be on the phones anymore. Some professors ban phones and computers in their class. I'm more laissez-faire. I just sort of let them figure it out. Like when they get that 71 on the first test.

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