The Sound of the Internet is Not So Sweet to the Ears of David Lowery

Much has been written and discussed about the state of the music industry, and the impacts digital media has had on it. Past IPilogue coverage has included detailed analysis of last year’s copyright pentalogy, the music industry’s assault on Eastern European digital stores, and an interview with the president of Music Canada. The main themes of the debate usually revolve around the typical balance between users and rights-holders. In a recent New York Times interview, musician and professor David Lowery continues the debate over music in the digital age, and raises some controversial points from the perspective of the music industry.

The interview begins by discussing the “Lars” effect – the backlash and resistance faced by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich when he became involved in a lawsuit against Napster. Undeterred by the potential Lars effect, Lowery has been championing artists’ rights and economic policy for years. In the interview, Lowery discusses concerns over the influence of Silicon Valley, in what he describes as the twin perils of weakening copyright law, and diminishing royalties for music. He has particular concerns over online streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. While artists’ royalties have been diminishing, many online music services have been lobbying for lower copyright royalties.

In the US, song royalties are set by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB). The royalties are notoriously complex, and, many argue, ill-suited to the modern age. However, they form a large portion of artist remuneration making them prime targets for lobbying from all sides. Recently this has included new Silicon Valley companies looking to capitalize on internet distribution. Internet streaming services are now lobbying the CRB to lower internet royalties. Advocates like Lowery decry this as government-mandated subsidization of these companies at the expense of musicians. They argue that royalties should be set by the market, and artists should be free to opt out of the royalties set by the CRB.

Lowery’s main thesis is that the internet and digital revolution have the potential to benefit artists, but have so far failed to deliver. Himself a recording artist, Lowery bemoans diminishing royalties across the industry. While he and other commentators acknowledge the diminishing payout will still result in adequate profits for the labels and top artists, the concern is over the artistic “middle class”; those like Lowery who used to derive sufficient benefits from their works to sustain full time employment being an artist. With the lessening of royalties, the concerns are that the musical middle class will be squeezed out, and all that will remain are the top commercial hits and passion projects created by artists sustained by other employment. Lowery is not a luddite pining for the old days of CD sales, but thinks that the promise of the internet has not been fully fulfilled in the music industry. He argues stronger copyright laws, and more scarcity in the market is needed to restore profits to artists.

Of interesting note were the comments on the article. Perhaps in a sign of changing times, comments of support outnumbered those of criticism. Many thought Lowery was only stating the obvious, and advocating for a robust and profitable music industry which benefits the artists and users alike. Given the backlash against Lars Ulrich in the early 2000’s, it seems like public opinion may be changing. With the easy availability of affordable pay-per-download music from iTunes, Amazon, and others, perhaps the sentiment has shifted towards supporting the music industry.


Alex Buonassisi is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at the University of British Columbia.

One Comment
  1. I doubt that public opinion is shifting towards supporting the music industry’s battle with digital media, but it is time to recognize the interests of the “artistic middle class”.
    An underlying assumption in discussions of the “copyright balance” seems to be that artists and rights holders are always richly compensated for their works. When we think about the interests of copyright owners it is hard to shake the images of conspicuous consumption glorified in celebrity culture. This perception caused the “Lars” effect the blog mentions – public indignation that a greedy multi-millionaire would sue ordinary folk to collect a few more dollars, and outrage against a strong copyright regime that would let him.
    David Lowery however sheds much-needed light on the difficulties facing the “artistic middle class”, with popular blog posts like “My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89” and his critical response to an NPR intern who claims to have paid for only 15 CDs in her life. For indie musicians or the “artistic middle class”, enforcing a strong copyright regime is necessary to protect their livelihoods.
    The copyright balance is typically presented as a “David vs. Goliath” battle, with users as David and rights holders as Goliath. But not all rights holders are Goliaths, and sometimes the copyright balance simply pits two Davids against each other.

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