David Lowery has had a curious third act. First he was at the vanguard of the 1980s American indie-rock boom with the wonderfully eclectic and loopy Camper Van Beethoven; and then he right-time/right-placed it again in the '90s, with the more aggressive, more snide Cracker. And while both those bands are ongoing — and excellent — concerns, Lowery has recently become one of the leading artists' voices in the continued discussion about digital music. (He even now lectures on the business of music at the University of Georgia.) We caught up with Lowery in the van on the way to a gig, just as the details of Apple Music, which will be available starting June 30, were being made public.
Apple's entry into the streaming-music world has been the thunder rumbling off in the distance for a while. Now that Apple Music is finally here, what are your first reactions?
There's obviously a lot still to be learned. But the issue with the other streaming services has been that the payment on the free tiers is really low. Premium-tier payment is something like seven or eight times higher. So if Apple is moving people towards paid streaming, that's a net benefit for artists. It moves us in the right direction.
So the fact that Apple Music is going to cost $9.99 a month after a free trial seems more appealing to you than something like Spotify, which in its free version has no cost barrier to someone hearing a Cracker or Camper Van Beethoven song?
Let me give you an example from my own catalogue: I get enough spins off of "Low" from Cracker and a couple other songs, there’s like seven tracks that have been radio singles, that what I get paid is not far off from what I would regard as sustainable income. But those are hits. Those are songs that are played on commercial radio and satellite radio. With Camper Van Beethoven, the amount of spins that we get from streaming — if free streaming is going to cannibalize any sales, then it's not helpful to us. Camper Van Beethoven got something like $100 last year from all free streaming services. That's ten albums sold. It's not helping us much.
Jimmy Iovine spent a lot time today hyping the curation aspect of Apple Music. Do you have a sense of whether curation is something that the music-listening public is eager for? Does that feel like a good way to get people to discover new stuff?
There’s a curation bubble in the music-tech space that started about two years ago. There's this idea that curation will solve everything. A lot of people have been offering it, like it'll somehow create all these new, hungry audiences. This is just anecdotal, but I don’t see a lot of people sharing amazing playlists on Facebook and Twitter. I really don’t know where this faith in curation is coming from.
"Curation" seems like something probably goes over well when you bring it up in a meeting.
It’s definitely something like that. There’s not a huge difference between Pandora, Spotify Radio, or iTunes Radio. You’re getting kind of similar stuff on all of them. Maybe a human element will be radically different. I don't know.
Do you have a sense of whether or not the deal that publishers and license-holders are getting from Apple is better than the deals they're getting from Spotify or, say, YouTube?
Well, the sound recordings that we own are almost all licensed out right now, and those licenses begin expiring at the end of this year, so I wouldn’t necessarily know what the current deals are. I assume the big indie conglomerates like Merlin have cut their deals with Apple, but I’m not really part of that. I won’t know the specifics until our licenses revert back to us.
What about on the publishing side? Is Apple Music going to be good for artists?
It'll be the same as everywhere else. There's a cap on what you can get, and the cap is the statutory rate, which is just about 10 percent of the revenue generated from the service. I can’t see Apple paying more than that. I probably have a shit ton of notices of intent at home that Apple is going to use the statutory license and pay me at a statutory rate; it's what every streaming service pays. You think the minimum wage is bad? Try having a maximum wage. That’s what statutory licenses do.
Do you think Spotify and YouTube are nervous about today's announcement?
Those are two very different entities, and I'm not sure how they're both feeling. Lately in interviews I've started saying nice things about Spotify because they’re not the biggest problem for artists. The biggest problem is YouTube, and all the the user-generated, unwrangled content. If you’re the Universal Music Group, you have content ID systems and dedicated anti-piracy teams that help make sure your streams are getting counted and that you're getting paid. But if you’re an indie artist, YouTube is a much bigger problem. The rate they pay you is much lower that Spotify and there are are a lot of streams that don't get caught, which means musicians don't get paid. So, from my perspective, their having some competition is a good thing.
So if the big positive you're anticipating from Apple Music right now is its pushing more listeners towards eventually paying for streaming content, what's the negative? What's your takeaway as far as a downside?
Hopefully what we don’t see happen is what happened with iTunes, where it became the dominant player. It would be great if streaming music resembles something like the streaming-television market, where there’s Amazon Prime, there’s Netflix, there’s Hulu. There’s multiple players. If Apple streaming comes to dominate — look how beholden authors are to Amazon. We don’t want a situation like that for musicians.