The music business has never been easy, but it used to be simpler: sell records, sell tickets, sell merchandise, get paid. The gradual migration to digital distribution of music has changed almost everything, and musicians have been forced to play catch-up.
When David Lowery comes to New Orleans to play Gasa Gasa on Thursday, he does so as a member of Cracker, the ‘90s alternative rock band that had hits in the early 1990s with “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and its “Kerosene Hat” album.
He has become a fierce critic of the digitally oriented music industry, which he contends impoverishes musicians. He’s not a Luddite, but he is worried about musicians’ financial health and their ability to make music and get paid for it.
Cracker will perform in support of its recent two-disc set, “Berkeley to Bakersfield,” and the struggle that has become a major part of Lowery’s public life finds its way onto the album.
“We will fight you,” the album begins, and Lowery argues, “You cannot take what is not yours.”
The business took the fun out of music for Peter Holsapple, former member of the Continental Drifters and the dBs. Holsapple said he almost quit making music last year because he was so depressed by the finances.
“I find myself in the unenviable position of having had to quit playing music because there’s no way to make a living at it,” he said in 2014.
He has returned to writing and recording, but “I’ve had to re-evaluate what I can expect from my musical career, and now, with virtually no expectations or possibilities of financial success, I can go about the business of just being creative and letting that be the total reward for what I make.”
Revenue from streaming is catching up to revenue from digital sales. But “the pie is simply smaller,” said Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.
Ten dollars a month for a paid subscription to Spotify or Pandora as opposed to $16.99 to buy an album produces less money to divvy up between the labels and performers, and only about 30 percent of Spotify users pay. Most listen to the ad-supported free version.
Aiges runs the foundation’s annual Sync Up music business conference during Jazz Fest, and he has discovered through conversations with industry insiders that “people still don’t really know what’s going on.”
Last week, Sony Records’ contract with Spotify was leaked to the press, and it revealed a deal was very beneficial for Sony but not so good for its artists.
The lack of transparency is New Orleans trombone player Jeff Albert’s biggest objection to Spotify. He recently launched his own label, Breakfast 4 Dinner Records, and he plans to put its first two releases on Spotify.
For him, the economic concerns aren’t quite the same as they are for Holsapple and Lowery.
“Recording income has never been a huge part of my income,” he said. “For me as a relatively unknown artist, it’s in my best interest for as many people to have access to my music as possible.”
Albert believes the future of music distribution is digital, so his participation in Spotify is also a philosophical decision. “At some point it’s going to be all digital, so we have to figure out how to make it work for us.”
When Cracker’s David Lowery got into the digital music battle in 2012, his concern was that people were illegally downloaded music, in effect stealing from the artists who made it. Today, that concern seems quaint as streaming makes ownership unnecessary.
Now, streaming-related issues have moved to the fore, but he still sees theft and morally unsupportable behavior. Pandora is being sued in federal court because it decided that a loophole in copyright law allows it to not pay royalties on recordings before 1972, and Lowery is as concerned by the dishonesty of that stance as he is by those who argue in favor of the sort of free access to music that the Internet makes possible.
“People worship the Internet like a cargo cult,” he told Salon.com last year. “It’s this thing that they have that brings them free stuff, and they think it’s magic. It’s beyond rational thought and reason, right? And they have no sense that behind all that free stuff are the drowned ships and sailors.”
Scott Aiges thinks jumping to such dire positions is premature.
“The whole situation is completely fluid,” he said. “The situation that we have now is completely different from the one we had three years ago, and the one that we have now is totally different from the one we’ll have three years from today.”