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David Lowery has taken issue with Pandora, but is he justified?

David Lowery vs. Pandora_edited-1

How far, in subsistence terms, would $17 get you? Or $16.89, to be precise. This is the question blogger and songwriter David Lowery has posed, in dramatic terms by publishing excerpts of his royalty statements in a recent blog post.  The amount quoted is his songwriting royalty for a million plays of a track on the Pandora Internet Radio streaming service.

And the answer, naturally, is not very far – especially for people harbouring dreams of one day collecting royalty cheques of their own, the cold hard reality presented of the financial recompense for being an artist is jarring.

But should it be?

I’m a big fan of data, and the Information Age means we have more data to play with than ever before. But we should also remember that an abundance of data increases the opportunities for misdirection and cynical manipulation just as readily as it does genuine insight.

Data is meaningless without context, so we need to build a picture around this figure of $16.89, attention grabbing in its miserliness, to figure out whether this particular artist really is as hard done by as he makes out.

And I’m not at all sure that he is.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, David plays in a band called Cracker. The song “Low” he references in his blog is the band’s biggest hit, which enjoyed all the renewed attention guitar bands were getting from the industry and the public alike in the wake of the grunge explosion. “Low” was originally released in 1993.

As I say, the quoted amount is arresting, but David has quite artfully presented it to be as shocking as possible. When you put back the additional context he either glosses over, or ignores completely in his obvious quest to make Pandora’s royalty payments appear as paltry as possible, it changes the picture somewhat.

The amount is only 40% of the songwriting royalty paid, for starters. This is particularly interesting, considering there are four guys in Cracker. So is that a 40-20-20-20 split? 40-40-10-10, maybe? Either way, its highly likely that no member of Cracker makes more than David does.

The last line of the article mentions that he receives a performance royalty separately as well, which is a higher amount. There is likely to be a third revenue stream as well, from the publishing rights. So we see straight away that $16.89 is less than half of what Pandora actually paid him.

Then we should also remember that the quoted amount is for plays during a single three month period.

I’ve done some quick sums, based purely on all the quoted royalties he received for “Low” in that quarter. I’ve included, but rounded down to be charitable, the performance royalty and excluded anything he may get from publishing to arrive at a total for the three month period of $3,500. That’s extrapolating from the $1,600 or so detailed in David’s published statements. So those royalties come largely from ‘passive’ radio plays, with a small supplement from more elective services like YouTube and Spotify. Nothing else.

$3,500 is, with a certain pleasing symmetry, roughly what somebody earns if they have a regular job that pays the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and work forty hours a week, for 12 weeks. Or three months.

Flippin' Burgers

A noble profession

I’m all in favour of musicians being properly rewarded for their work, but when you are earning the same amount as someone slaving over a McDonald’s grill all week through the radio plays of a single song you recorded two decades ago, I’d say you’re already being pretty well rewarded.

We should also remember, particularly, that this figure excludes any royalties earned via iTunes or Amazon downloads, or even good old-fashioned CD sales. “Low” is sitting at 2,658 on Amazon US’s bestseller list as I type. With somewhere in the region of 28 million mp3′s available, this means it is selling more copies than 99.99% of the entire catalogue.

All of this is for a single song. David gets royalties on considerably more than one song. Granted, “Low” was by far his biggest hit, but when the royalties for that one song provide enough to fulfil basic living costs, I’m not sure he is in a place to complain.

I am all in favour of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, but in reality, what did David actually do to generate a million plays on Pandora? Nothing. Pandora selects its playlists on the basis of stated listener preferences. All of David’s work, in this instance, was done years before Pandora was even a viable proposition.

And how much are Pandora’s owners and investors making on the back of his historic efforts? Nothing. Recently filed accounts show that Pandora Inc. made a loss of nearly $40 million in the year ending January 2013. This medium, which has put his music into a million ears in three months without him lifting a finger isn’t even covering its own costs. The biggest single cost, incidentally, is royalty payments at $259 million.

empty bank vault

Pandora’s accounts right now

So what is his prescription? Pandora should increase the amount of airtime the station gives to commercials. That’s right kids, what we have here is a musician saying that a music channel should play less music so he can get paid what he considers to be an acceptable amount. That’s pretty nauseating in my book.

If Pandora was his one and only revenue stream, then I would have more sympathy – but it’s not. So I don’t. Indeed, how many of those Pandora plays translated into paid download sales via iTunes or Amazon?

To expect sizeable revenues from streaming services is either greedy or naive. Probably both. They are mediums through which listeners can discover new music. In short, they are advertising. But, unlike normal advertising campaigns, they pay the artists rather than the artists having to pay for them, as they would for an advertisement in a print magazine, for example.

Anyone who is in music for the paycheques should go out into their back yard and burn their guitar. The only reason to make music is that the alternative – NOT making music – is simply not an option for the individual concerned. If you do happen to make any money from it at all, you are part of a fortunate and tiny minority.

David is already doing better than the vast majority of musicians, basically on the back of being a one-hit wonder. I would suggest that he was more than amply recompensed for “Low” when it was released two decades ago. As he is so keen on disclosure, perhaps he would like to share his royalty statements for 1993 and 1994? No? Thought not.

If David expects to make money from his music in 2013, then perhaps he should actually make some music in 2013. Cracker’s wiki page notes that the band announced that they would be working on a new album in 2012 but, “as of April 2013, little progress had been made”.

Perhaps David should write and record a new album, retain all the rights and release it on a platform like Bandcamp. Then, he will get to keep whatever it makes…but without the help of the companies that he fat-headedly describes as ‘The Enemy’ he may find that his reach is somewhat curtailed.

This is the reality faced by modern musicians; most of whom have to make do without a baseline of royalty revenue from an ageing hit single. David is one of the lucky ones, but he is choosing to squander that good fortune under a cloud of bitter resentment at the size of one of his many payment streams. What a waste.

Making music is one of the purest forms of joy anyone can experience. Making money from that music, any money at all, is a tremendous privilege. It is manifestly NOT a right. Nobody owes you anything.

It seems particularly churlish and over-entitled to so pointedly attack a service that is bringing your music to a whole new generation of audiences, and doing so in a manner that is costing the investors $1.25 EVERY SECOND in operating losses.

If he still retains his passion for music after all these years, he should push away his computer keyboard and pick up his guitar. If people like what they hear, good things may well follow. If he is more interested in the dollars flowing into his bank account every month, he should do us all a favour and just give up now.

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