In an instant, David Lowery realizes how best to explain his caustic reputation.
“Have you ever heard this expression ‘fuck-you money’?” he asks, glancing down at the piece of pizza in his right hand. It sags beneath the weight of its own prosciutto, so Lowery swoops in with his left hand to correct the droop. He looks up again, smiles and continues with the epiphany.
“We use that in the financial world. It’s like if you have enough money that you basically don’t have to listen to anybody,” he says. “You can say ‘fuck you’ to anybody you want.”
He takes a bite and puts the remainder back on his plate. “It’s not that I have fuck-you money,” he says. “But I have this fuck-you lifestyle, right?”
Lowery is a 54-year-old former rock star whose two principal bands, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, helped presage the eventual expansiveness of indie rock and the mainstream rise of roots-rock. With those bands, he has played enormous festivals for tens of thousands, started the record label Pitch-A-Tent and the music festival Camp Out and penned hits such as “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” early-’90s anthems that offered relatively affable and rather unabrasive alternatives to grunge.
Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker both still exist; Cracker just released their ninth album, a two-disc set called Berkeley to Bakersfield that explores the group’s respective roots and rock influences on separate conceptual discs. But neither act has enjoyed a major commercial success in two decades. They issue albums on independent labels (sometimes their own) and tour many of the same clubs they played during their respective popular ascents (sometimes by bus, sometimes only by van).
These days, Lowery is a part-time musician and a part-time music-business lecturer at the University of Georgia, where he shares a ground-floor office with a professor emeritus he’s never met. The little room sits beside a long row of recycling bins. In Athens, a Southern college town known for its Bulldogs and a long-thriving music scene that spawned R.E.M., the Drive-By Truckers and Widespread Panic, Lowery lives in a spacious, century-old home owned by his manager for a decade, wife of four years and legendary Georgia booking agent, Velena Vego. They both have desks in a rear addition. Framed posters of Vego’s booking feats (Gnarls Barkley and Elf Power on one bill?) and an assortment of his music memorabilia line the room. The walls of the small bathroom in the corner are crowded with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven posters, two of them signed to Vego.
Lowery owns a home in Richmond, Virginia, too, where his ex-wife and two adolescent sons still live. Many weekends when he’s not on the road, he flies north to be with them.
Sitting in Ted’s Most Best, a popular independent pizza restaurant just off campus, on a Thursday afternoon, Lowery seems happy — cheery, even. He’s just lectured two-dozen undergraduates about the complexities of publishing royalties in the digital music industry. After his class this afternoon, he and Vego will drive to Atlanta, where she books the palatial 2,500-capacity Buckhead Theatre, to spend time with the comedian Hannibal Buress. He’s dressed in a pullover Polo sweater and dark jeans, with a trim blond beard suggesting that he’s somehow tougher than the 24-year-old math nerd who sang, “Last night there were skinheads on my lawn” three decades ago.
Lowery, in essence, does not seem like a guy in need.
“I have my bands. I have an audience that’s very loyal. I’m not totally dependent on my music career,” he says. “So I have a certain latitude that my peers don’t have: People can’t fuck with my career because I’m saying unpopular things.”
He has metaphorical fuck-you money.
“If I start criticizing record labels, they’re not going to sign me to a major deal. But I don’t want them. I don’t need a major publicist,” he continues. “People have threatened me — screw you, we’re going to boycott your band, all this stuff. But how are you going to boycott me if you’re already stealing my music, anyway? Now, that’s funny.”
Lowery laughs, but for the last three years, or since February 13, 2012, when he delivered a speech in San Francisco entitled “Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss?“, his most serious and public work has come from his very vocal role in the very contentious battle over the future of music online. In fact, he has become perhaps the most important and ardent consistent spokesperson for artist rights in a digital area. He has testified to Congress’s Committee on the Judiciary and submitted arguments to the Department of Justice.
As a lecturer, as one of three writers at his policy-wonk website The Trichordist and as a talking head happy to be brash in interviews with either Marc Maron or The New York Times, he has wondered who is getting paid, just how much they are getting paid and exactly how a “free culture” comprising streaming music and illegal downloads can produce an equitable, sustainable music economy for bands. In June 2012, the Los Angeles Times dubbed Lowery “an essential music and tech-biz critic.”
But others have been a bit less generous, in large part because Lowery refuses to play nice with his numbers or safe with his warnings. In 2012, Lowery publicly responded to an article by NPR summer intern Emily White, in which she admitted that, though she had more than 11,000 songs in her iTunes library, she’d only purchased 15 CDs. Lowery responded to White’s 518 words with his “Letter to Emily,” a 3,796-word document in which he infamously exclaimed, “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!” He has publicly called members of the Future of Music Coalition “fucking liars,” lampooned executives at tech companies as evil overlords, accused new streaming services of old-fashioned payola and lambasted YouTube for propping up musicians associated with anti-Semitic and white-power movements.
In short, on the Internet, David Lowery looks like an asshole.
A month after his Times coronation, Albany’s Metroland wrote an article titled “Why David Lowery is Full of Shit,” accusing him of the “usual old-guy bemoaning.” In another editorial, original Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen labeled Lowery as a “maudlin, mildly-talented” musician and decried his “constant whining.” Even Flagpole, the alt-weekly newspaper in Lowery’s adopted hometown of Athens, asked, “Is David Lowery’s crankiness counterproductive?” They concluded, rather flatly, no.
Whether vilified or exalted, Lowery has emerged as everyone’s token angry old man when it comes to music’s online future — eager to say what’s on his mind, no matter the enemies it begets. On that front, he seems eager to please.
“Somebody has to do that,” Lowery says, “and apparently I’m pretty good at it. Someone has to be the bad cop on this and illuminate these issues.”
But all of this — Lowery’s barbed strategy, his bullet-point positions, and the poison-the-well criticisms they invoke — seem symptomatic of the scan-and-respond nature of discourse in the online age. To wit, not long after Lowery began speaking on these issues, a half-dozen violent threats emerged online. One Reddit thread, he says, even planned to “swat” his home, meaning a user would call the cops and falsify a crime so that a SWAT team would bust down the door.
“When you get into this stuff online, it doesn’t translate into the world,” he says. “That hostility doesn’t carry over, to the point that I end up bragging online that my spins or attendance at shows post-’Letter to Emily’ hadn’t changed.”
Even Emily White, the NPR intern who launched 1,000 blog posts, doesn’t have anything against Lowery, though they’ve sometimes been poised as generational enemies. In fact, she says, they seem to want the same thing. By email from New York, she explains, “I think we actually share many of the same core values and opinions, just expressed in different ways. I have no ill will towards Mr. Lowery. I’d be happy to talk with him about a sustainable future for creators anytime.”
White is now 23, works at Billboard and subscribes to both Spotify and Rdio.
“I still feel very uneasy about the state of music consumption,” she continues. “In Lowery’s post, he wrote to me, ‘Your letter clearly shows that you sense that something is deeply wrong, but you don’t put your finger on it.’ I’m honestly still trying to put my finger on it.”
Lowery, however, doesn’t equivocate: He wants all of his online agitation and energy to cause substantive shifts in the way new technology rewards musicians, from a little-known but essential Department of Justice order called the “consent decrees” to Spotify’s ongoing rate negotiations. If not, he vows, he’s ready to take at least one issue to the Supreme Court of the United States.
“I don’t like people who rattle cages just for the sake of rattling cages,” says Casey Rae, the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition. Lowery has frequently pitted himself against Future of Music in public, but they share many of the same prerogatives. “Over the years I’ve known David, I’ve understood that he’s a guy who really wants to solve these problems. In 2014, I feel that way more than I ever have. But where I feel like a diplomat, David might feel like a bomb thrower.”
Lowery likes that.
“A little bomb-throwing,” he says from his tour bus a few weeks after the prosciutto pizza “never hurt anyone.”
David Lowery did not agree to speak at the SF MusicTech Summit in February 2012 in order to make enemies. In fact, when he was initially invited, he had no definite plans or agenda. For the past year, he’d been teaching students at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business about publishing, copyright and the music industry at large, so he planned to talk about the confluence of and contrasts between the online economy and the music economy. He can’t even remember the precise topic.
But two weeks before he was scheduled to speak, the United States House of Representatives ended its plans to pursue the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a controversial piece of legislation meant to, in its own legalese, “combat the theft of U.S. property.” It failed following large protests that claimed it would create blockades to the free flow of information online. Large technology companies played a pivotal role in its dismal public approval, with staged blackouts on Wikipedia and Google. Lowery didn’t agree that SOPA was the right legislation at the right time, but he felt that the debate didn’t reflect the bill’s actual contents. The message had been distorted, he felt, by well-heeled tech firms.
“I realized the political power that the Internet companies had. These were no longer these nifty little nerd startups. There were serious Wall Street CEO, Forbes Magazine types running these companies that had helped liberate us as artists,” he says. “They were turning into something else.”
So Lowery decided to talk about where that left musicians, or what he calls music’s “revenue problems” — that is, how piracy wasn’t going away and how, in his view, streaming services weren’t doing their part to fill artist wallets. He was given a lunchtime slot in a large room on that Monday, and he took audacious advantage of it. He compared the new digital distribution networks of illegal file sharing, streaming and even legal downloads to a conglomerate casino, where most people lost or made very little and where a big winner would occasionally emerge to keep everyone happy.
“It appears that the majority of recording artists are not making any money recording albums — zero,” read one slide. “Under the new model, the casino is the winner.”
Lowery’s talk sent tremors not just through the conference but also through the music and tech industries. He’d walked into the devil’s den, after all, and challenged the demon to a fistfight. Responses ranged from the gracious to the enraged, accusing Lowery of fabricating facts, exaggerating scenarios and drawing untenable strawman arguments. Still, it got people talking; an alternate version of the speech posted to Lowery’s blog has generated more than a million views. And perhaps most important, it thrust Lowery into a still-raging debate.
“This is a long, 11,000-word paper that I wrote. What is that, 40 pages? I put that out there, because I thought we really needed to look at this,” he says of the “Boss” speech. “But I got a lot of blowback from tech people, and it pissed me off. It became a real split for me, because I had to go against all these people that I knew and liked. I wasn’t very popular after that.”
Five months later, SF MusicTech Summit cofounder Brian Zisk asked Lowery to return and speak that fall. Though Lowery initially agreed, he begged off two weeks before the event, citing a schedule conflict. But he wanted to return in February, he told Zisk, an offer Zisk seemed to accept. “Can’t wait to see what you come up with regarding the new album,” he wrote in an email.
But early the next year, Zisk informed Lowery by phone that he no longer had an open slot. Lowery thinks his string of attacks on companies like Google, which sometimes fund events like SF MusicTech Summit, had earned him a slot on a blacklist. (Zisk wouldn’t comment for this story.)
“If you’re going to have a conference, you need to have some dissenting voices,” Lowery says. “You can’t just all say, ‘Yeah, this will be great’ when it comes to digital music.”
Lowery’s detractors often argue that he simply hates the Internet, or at least that he’s too in love with the romantic notion of an old, physical music model to embrace a new digital one.
“Lowery isn’t the first to wish that everyone else would behave as if the world around them hadn’t changed,” Eliot Van Buskirk wrote for the tech blog Gizmodo not long after he published his “Letter to Emily.” A month later, MTV’s Eric Spitznagel responded to Lowery’s open letter with one of his own, attempting to match Lowery’s sour tone with this pity-the-old-man quip: “I don’t want you thinking I’ve been going through your mail. I’m assuming you know how the Internet works and meant for us to read it.” And when Steve Albini delivered a highly debated keynote address at a conference in Melbourne in November 2014, one could imagine the veteran producer flinging a set of darts at a target shaped like Lowery’s face. “It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitized material,” Albini said, “and I don’t believe the public good is served by trying to.”
In truth, Lowery is obsessed with the Internet, or at least his cell phone. He frequently mutters his way toward the end of a sentence so he can read a tweet that’s flashed onto the screen of his iPhone. He doesn’t mind interrupting a conversation to reply to a comment on The Trichordist.
“Isn’t it great?” he says as if to himself, suddenly staring at his screen an hour into an early-morning coffee-shop conversation. “I’m basically running my own publication right here, from an iPhone. We had 92,000 page views yesterday and 62,000 visitors on some old story. I guess a tweet got sent around?”
Later, he opens an application, Reverb, that musicians can use to auction old gear at a lower commission than on eBay; in 2013, he and Vego became part of a group that invested $2.3 million in the start-up. He talks about it like a proud parent. “This is becoming pretty popular,” he says, spinning his phone around to show it off. “There’s a whole cult developing around it.”
These interests aren’t new for Lowery. The son of an Air Force master sergeant and stay-at-home mom, Lowery moved north from Southern California to Santa Cruz, drawn by the promise of college, a strange music community and some friends who had gone before him. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in mathematics from the University of Santa Cruz, a school so closely associated with Silicon Valley it now has a satellite campus in the Valley’s NASA Ames Research Park. Just before Camper Van Beethoven hit the road in the mid ’80s, Lowery worked for a massive industrial farm, programming computers. Between tours, he’d even go back.
“If Camper Van Beethoven hadn’t taken off, I would be living a very different lifestyle,” he says. “I was always doing music, but if it hadn’t been successful, I’d probably be working for one of these tech companies. I’d have a different opinion on all this, I guess, based on how I make my money.”
Lowery calls applied mathematics “cool.” He considers one of the earliest Google employees a close friend. He speaks with pride about tricking Facebook algorithms. He brags about learning HTML so he could build Cracker’s website in the early ’90s. In 2008, during his divorce, he moved to Chicago and worked as an analyst for a friend’s private capital company, using math to trade equities at rapid rates. Eventually, he learned about new tech ventures in Chicago run by “these quirky, creative people. I was at least knee-deep in that stuff.” He joined advisory boards for several new companies, including what became Groupon. He used it in an early stage to crowdfund his festival, the Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven Camp Out.
“I’ve always had all these other jobs,” he says. “So in 2012, when I’m invited to speak at SF MusicTech, it’s because I’m seen as this musician who has his feet in both worlds. And I still do.”
Lowery keeps his feet in both worlds, in large part, by spending several hours a week with those who have yet to survive or slink from the cynical battles of the music industry: college students. He teaches three classes — an introduction to the music business, a deeper exploration of the key financial concepts behind it and an advanced study of its publishing system. Before an intimate Thursday morning class, Lowery admits that he loves the job and mostly likes the students. He’d guest-lectured in Georgia before program director and former Sugar bassist David Barbe asked him to join in 2011. The age and generational gap can sting, though.
“They’re good kids, almost all of the time,” he says during the five-minute commute between campus and his home. “But sometimes, I do look out and think, ‘What fucking planet do these 18- and 19-year-olds come from? And how did I end up with them?’ It’s shocking.”
But the lectures, which often morph into conversations that apply assigned readings to the real world, seem to energize Lowery. And today, there is a lot to discuss: A week ago, Taylor Swift backed out of Spotify, ultimately telling Time, “I think there should be an inherent value placed on art. I didn’t see that happening, perception-wise, when I put my music on Spotify.” And just yesterday, Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Swift’s Big Machine label, contested Spotify founder Daniel Ek’s estimate that the singer stood to earn $6 million from the streaming service in the next year.
Lowery doesn’t bring any of this up. Instead, he’s walking the class through an annotated section of Steve Winogradsky’s Music Publishing: The Complete Guide. He explains the differences between interactive streaming (Spotify, which allows you to toggle specific songs and artists) and non-interactive streaming (Pandora, which doesn’t) and why one pays a set of royalties the other doesn’t. To demonstrate the difference, he uses Spotify to select and play a track by The Game. He pauses it the first time he hears a curse word. The students laugh.
Lowery chose Winogradsky’s 2013 book in large part because it’s one of the few academic texts that actually explores publishing in a modern digital music industry. This is the present and the future, Lowery insists. Chapter 12 even begins with a preemptive apology from Winogradsky, a veteran attorney who confesses that the difficulty with writing this bit is that the situation is evolving too quickly for a printed, static textbook.
During the lecture, then, Lowery shares an email exchange with Winogradsky. Lowery asked the author for a clarification and an update on one piece of text. He reads the response and shakes his head with exasperation over the legal layers of the music industry. This is Lowery’s bailiwick, but even he seems mystified by the maze. “We couldn’t have made a more complex system with more moving parts if we tried, right?” Lowery tells the students. “This is why we have this class, to figure this stuff out.”
They laugh again and take his empathy as an invitation to pull the lecture out of the book, to use these high-minded intricacies as a springboard for more germane and specific situations. One student asks if Lowery has seen Ek’s response to Swift. He has.
“Speaking of that,” asks Lauren Taylor, a senior, “how would you respond to a very angry sorority sister about how mad she is that Taylor Swift has pulled herself from Spotify? She asked for people to give her CDs, and the other girls were posting download links where you could just get it. It’s so common. What would you say to her?”
This question, with some variation, has been the very center of Lowery’s platform for almost three years: How can the artist maintain some degree of sovereignty and self-respect in a world where music is deemed as a free, instant convenience? Sell out to the system, or stand the consequences of unfettered piracy, loser. He smiles, scans the rest of the class and turns back toward Taylor: “I know. It’s hard, isn’t it?”
But Lowery doesn’t launch into a tirade against streaming music. He doesn’t launch into a tirade against anything, even when one student in the back of the classroom says, doltishly, “Let me put it this way: There are ways around buying it.” Instead, Lowery names some alternatives for hearing Swift online. He ponders aloud if this is an opportunity for paid streaming to supplant free streaming as a future compromise, as that seems to be at the core of Swift’s argument.
A student invokes Sweden, Spotify’s homeland, where paid subscriptions are often bundled with cell phone or Internet plans. (Collectively, paid subscribers boost the payments per stream by a factor of 10, some estimate.) Sweden now enjoys one of the most successful and vibrant music economies in the world. Lowery leaps into the deeply theoretical by insisting that Swift’s decision was a calculated and ingenious test of ideas, not a flippant move over who she wanted to hear “Shake It Off.”
“Have any of you taken any classes in quantitative research?” Lowery asks. No one responds. “In quantitative research, you create something called an experimental framework. You need the world one way, and you need an alternate version of the world with something changed, to see if the change had an effect.”
He thinks that Lucian Grainge, the Universal Music Group CEO that has pushed his empire toward a digital embrace, helped engineer Swift’s move as an experiment for the future. Big Machine operates beneath the Universal umbrella.
“I’m putting on a tinfoil hat here,” he admits. “But I think Lucian Grange got some quantitative researchers at Universal and said, ‘We’re going to measure how many sales free streaming displaces. We’re going to measure that and then figure out what to do.’ That’s totally his style, too. Taylor Swift may have taken a big step forward for streaming.”
For the first time in 20 minutes, the class is quiet, but they’re not bored. Rather, they’re staring at Lowery, who is suddenly on a roll. He dips into windowing, a system used by the television and film industries to make premium content available only through certain services for a limited time. He lauds Swift not as a businesswoman looking out for her bottom line but as someone on his teleological team — that is, someone thinking about sustaining artists in an inevitably streaming future.
“There’s potentially really negative blowback. The idea that it’s a PR move is crazy. She could have been turned into the next Lars Ulrich,” he says. “But that’s how you set up a pseudo-experiment. You need two sets with one piece missing.”
Just before class ends, Lowery turns back to Winogradsky’s Music Publishing for less than five minutes. He recapitulates the earlier streaming distinctions, reiterates the onion-like layers of the entire impossible argument, and reminds the class of the reading for next week. Then he thanks them for the discussion and lets them go.
It’s tempting to dismiss Lowery’s teaching approach as an excuse for indoctrination, a chance for him to correct the freeloading evils of kids, just as he did in “A Letter to Emily.” But there is a sense that he doesn’t have the answers, either, although he’s the paid lecturer in the room. Mostly, it seems, he’s attempting to give his students some historical, legal and financial context for the questions that their generation faces — about art, about its value, about its future.
Those are the reasons that Barbe hired Lowery. Sure, his opinions have made him controversial, but his background in math and music gives him a rare perspective that allows him to both impress the students and challenge their assumptions.
“When I was in college, I knew if all my professors were liberal or conservative. They couldn’t keep their personalities and biases to themselves. It comes through when people teach, unless they’re teaching math,” Barbe explains. “David stands up for what he believes in, and an education should be about students testing that and figuring out what you believe, too.”
In the late ’70s, with its wealth of students, relative isolation and quick access to Atlanta, Athens, Georgia, evolved as a Southern hotbed for what would eventually morph into indie rock. From the early movers and shakers like the B-52s, R.E.M., Pylon and Love Tractor through the ’90s with the Glands and the quixotic Elephant 6 orbit of Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, decades of great bands filed out of the sleepy inland town. That’s not to mention the Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic or the late Vic Chesnutt, all of whom emerged from Athens to varying degrees of notoriety. And that’s only a recognizable sample of the rock side of the city’s musical heritage.
The scene has changed, of course, growing as most tiny pockets that produce enormous stars will do. There are more clubs, more bands and more variety, Barbe offers, with an audience less centralized on groups of weirdo friends. Downtown, by all reports, is less idiosyncratic than it used to be, with the arrival of boutiques and chain restaurants in spaces that used to house record shops and dive bars.
But heritage remains essential in Athens, and not just because a Confederate flag hangs ignominiously outside of General Beauregard’s, a bar on one of the town’s central strips. It’s hard for an outsider to have a conversation about music in this town without hearing the names Buck and Stipe, Mangum or Hart. The Georgia Theatre and 40 Watt Club still sit near the city center, as do a number of other small clubs and bars that host shows, oftentimes in less formal settings.
And Athens still produces notable bands — in recent years, Dark Meat, the Whigs, Venice is Sinking, Futurebirds and Hope for Agoldensummer. Athens boasts a few record labels, a publicity firm focused on college radio and college rock, and a record store that has remained on the same downtown corner since 1976, just across the street from the Dixie-baiting pub. Tilt your head to one side, and the place feels like a quaint college-rock idyll at a time when other such enclaves have hewn toward homogeny.
For someone like Lowery, whose reputation has lately been made as an ostensible opponent of the online evolution of the music industry, Athens is an almost damningly appropriate adopted home — a living museum, some might say, with the availability of Internet access.
Before the sun has set on a warm Athens Wednesday in early November, Lowery squeezes Vego’s Honda CR-V through a claustrophobic maze of construction debris, dumpsters and other cars. After two decades, Cracker is now Lowery, childhood friend and longtime collaborator Johnny Hickman and whatever members of a rotating cast spread between different cities are available at any given time. Tonight, Lowery practices with the Georgia half of the band in a rented room inside the dingy back hallway of a large industrial space.
Lowery delights the less-traveled sidemen with war stories from the road and his position as the frontman: He makes sure they’ve seen the new Cracker premiere on CMT. He talks about the time he met Jerry Garcia when Cracker opened for the Grateful Dead. Garcia had just emerged from a porta-potty, and Lowery worried that he hadn’t washed his hands: “The whole fucking time, I was thinking about how there was no sink. That was my 75 seconds with Jerry Garcia.”
On the way home, he stops by Chase Park Transduction, Barbe’s recording studio in an office space a few minutes away. Cracker recorded part of Berkeley to Bakersfield here, and tonight, one of Lowery’s touring acquaintances, the Canadian songwriter Dennis Ellsworth, is mixing a new record to tape with Barbe. Lowery tells two stories about how his friend and Cake frontman John McCrea has gotten good at gaming the music industry. The evening — or Lowery’s entire Athens existence, really — feels rather like heaven for an aging-but-active musician.
What’s more, Athens’s size and anachronism help foster Lowery’s latest line of work, or at least the feeling that what he’s doing can amount to more than rattling cages. In a small but creative town like this, you can have opinions that have an impact and believe that the rest of the world might follow suit. Vego, for instance, tends to do business a bit less by the numbers than someone who runs two clubs might. She insists that she books with feeling and belief whenever possible, taking pride in getting bands into her rooms before they become famous.
“I book baby bands that come up. I’m trying to be the tastemaker, and I’ve been doing that for 23 years. What am I going to be getting in the future?” says Vego. She speaks with the spitfire authority of someone who has wrangled and managed groups, her husband’s included, for a quarter-century.
“I don’t want to book venues where I’m saying ‘I don’t care anymore,’ since I booked them because they were big on YouTube,” she continues. “I don’t want to book things that are big on YouTube. I want to book things with integrity.”
Sure, that last part is a bit of a strawman, but the implication for the couple holds: For Lowery and Vego, Athens is as much a showcase as it is a crucible. Private ideas become public information, whether through what Lowery teaches a few of the university’s 35,000 students or the entertainment options that Vego, in turn, gives them by night. Though the two were wed in California in 2010, they had another ceremony in a music business class. Barbe officiated. Athens rock club owner Barrie Buck served as the maid of honor, Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood the best man.
Lowery believes he can have an impact on the national debate over music distribution. On August 1, he filed a paper with the Department of Justice titled “The Consent Decrees Violates Individual Rights.” Quoting James Madison and citing Kafka, he urged the Department of Justice to strike down a set of rules known as consent decrees.
The DOJ established those orders in 1941 in response to the rise of royalty-collecting-and-distributing organizations like BMI and ASCAP; the decrees compel organizations to license music for standardized prices and to grant licenses even if exact rates have yet to be established. It was meant to be a temporary system, but it’s become a permanent solution. Lowery, however, believes that these rules, which were codified two decades before he was even born, violate the fifth and 14th amendments, stripping him of his legal due process. They limit a songwriter’s control over their material and their ability to bargain.
Many critics argue that abolishing these decrees would hurt small-scale songwriters, because it would force them to negotiate their own rates. Without collective bargaining, they’d lose. Lowery asserts that ending the consent decrees would actually increase the collective-bargaining power of songwriters by removing anti-trust restrictions. What’s more for Lowery, it’s about principle and choice. The ability to opt out, he says, is a right. Lowery and a small coalition of unnamed songwriters are now preparing to take the issue to the Supreme Court.
“I’m very serious,” he says. “We are shopping for a constitutional lawyer to make a constitutional case out of the consent decrees, if they don’t do away with them by the end of the year. The consent decrees are pointed at the songwriters, when they should be pointed at companies like Spotify. It’s a monopsony. They’re so big, they can push our prices down.”
On more than one occasion, Lowery has promised Vego that he will devote one more year to this fight and that he’ll soon return to being a full-time musician and teacher. The week after Swift announced her decision to withdraw from Spotfiy, he turned down interviews with the New York Post and Los Angeles Times. He needed to focus on class, band practice and his new album. Vego complains that many of Lowery’s popular peers praise his work in private but never take a public stand.
They don’t yet have fuck-you money, it seems.
“He was supposed to do this and pass the baton. That’s what he promised me, but no one was taking the baton,” she says. “People that sell a lot of records would call and say, ‘It’s so cool you’re doing this.’ But that’s it. Meanwhile, he was getting daggers.”
They both know that Lowery is unlikely to give up this fight anytime soon, anyway, especially with a possible court case looming.
“Velena would like for me to stop after this year,” he says, smiling. “But that’s like telling Velena to stop booking concerts. It’s not going to happen.”
Instead, he openly fantasizes about using his university position to form a legal center that serves as a watchdog of and advocate for artist rights. He compares it to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based nonprofit that presses for civil rights. He thinks that his consent-decrees challenge could supply the anchor. The music industry wasn’t and isn’t perfect or fair, Lowery admits, both in his salad days or now. But he insists he doesn’t want to live in a society that doesn’t think it can and must get better.
“I want to be engaged in our broader digital rights. Should giant firms who have our credit card information be better regulated? I don’t know,” he says. “Music is what got me into this conception of what our rights as citizens should be in this digital realm. But that’s not exactly bomb-throwing, is it?”