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03 Sep 2014

Gotta Fight for Your Rights: David Lowery, of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, Battles for the Musician's Fair Share

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Camper Van Beethoven. Camper Van Beethoven. Jason Thrasher

David Lowery, the frontman of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, doesn’t think some musicians fully understand their rights.

“A lot of the younger artists don’t realize that the pay was considerably higher about 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s kind of like a one-two punch. First, you’re affected by online piracy, where that knocked off about a third of our income, and then the thing that’s happened lately—and none of us saw coming—is that our share from online streaming services is so low.”

Lowery is bringing Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker to the bands’ 10th annual Campout at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, from Thursday, Sept. 11, through Saturday, Sept. 13.

During a recent phone interview with the Independent, the former Redlands resident said that while he loves streaming music, there is a big downside to it.

“I have Beats Music on my phone; my kids have it on their phones, and we listen to it and find it convenient,” Lowery said. “But between the services and the record labels, the artist is getting a really small premium from that revenue that comes from streaming. With Spotify being valued at $6 billion now, and Beats Music being sold to Apple—and that’s $3 billion there—it doesn’t seem right to us. It’s not that we’re against streaming; it’s the share of revenue.”

He said that most people don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes regarding streaming music.

“It’s really hard to explain it to the general public. Basically, when the labels cut their deals with the streaming services, it looks like they trade in equity, given they own a part of Spotify,” he said. “Universal Records owns part of Beats Music, and Apple gave them a big payout. So, essentially, the labels traded our songs for … ownership in the services.”

Lowery conceded that the struggle between musicians and record labels is not new.

“There are these stories that go back to the ’50s about the blues band going to the record label and saying, ‘Hey, where’s my money?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we got you this Cadillac.’ The Cadillac was worth less than the royalties. By the way, this story about the Cadillac: It’s true, because my mother-in-law worked for Sun Records, and my father in law was a car-dealer, and that’s exactly how they met each other. That really did happen!” he said with a laugh.

However, Lowery said there was a progression toward protecting artists and their royalties.

“There was a period in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s where the artists kind of finally worked it out,” Lowery said. “Between our unions and our songwriter groups, that were kind of like unions for songwriters, we could work out some pretty equitable pay arrangements—and we’re sort of back to square one right now. It’s not like it can’t be worked out, but it’s not going to get worked out without us bitching, moaning, screaming and holding these people’s feet to the fire. That’s how it’s going to get sorted out. It’s not pretty, but that’s the way it’s going to go.”

At stake, Lowery said, is the standard of living for a lot of musicians, some of whom struggle to make ends meet even after a hit song or record.

“They’ve seen their revenues fall from maybe having a nice middle-class existence to, ‘Oh, shit, I can’t even support my family on this!’ So, it’s tough times. It’s going to take guys like me, East Bay Ray from Dead Kennedys, John McCrea from Cake, and some (other) older musicians with a sense of what’s fair in this industry to speak out and explain this to people.”

He said the modern economics of the music business have led to some musicians deciding not to record new material, because it’s no longer economically beneficial.

“There are a lot of artists doing that,” he said. “I’m essentially an optimist for the long-term. Eventually, I assume these streaming services are going to have to start paying more to give people the incentive to make albums again. It’s going to have to work itself out.”

Camper Van Beethoven has recorded two albums in recent years: La Costa Perdida, which Lowery said is Northern California-themed, and El Camino Real, which is Southern California-themed. Cracker also has a new album in the works.

As for this year’s Campout, Lowery conceded he’s had some booking challenges, but he promised it’s still going to be a lot of fun.

“We had a few people who were in, and then they were out, and then someone bigger might come in, and we’ve delayed announcing a lot of details,” he said. Chris Shiflett from the Foo Fighters was going to come and do his country thing again, but he had to drop out. But we do have Brant Bjork from the Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age family. We have The Dangers from Riverside; we’ve got the various Camper side projects … and there will be local people like Jesika Von Rabbit, who’s going to do some stuff again. It’ll be great and just as good as last year.”

The 10th annual Campout with Camper Van Beethoven and Camper takes place Thursday, Sept. 11, through Saturday, Sept. 13, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $75 for a three-day pass, or $25 for one day. For tickets or more information, visit crackersoul.com.

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