$17 for 1 Million Streams – Songwriter Says Digital Access has Devalued Content, Creativity

“Creatively music better today, because gatekeepers going away was helpful,” says singer-songwriter David Lowery,” but I think that largely it’s a much worse environment for most performers and songwriters.”

Lowery ought to know. He’s been lead singer for the beloved band Cracker and its predecessor, Camper van Beethoven, still touring after 38 years. Lowery is a mathematician, writer, musician, producer, and serial entrepreneur. He has written more than 300 songs and his groups are responsible for more than 15 albums and four gold records.

Listen to the latest episode of Understanding IP Matters to hear
Lowery’s take on the music business today, and what songwriters and musicians can do to improve their future and listeners’

Lowery, who holds a PhD and teaches the business of music at the University of Georgia, is critical of streaming services like Pandora radio for shorting writers on royalties. He calculates that he earned less than $17 from 1 million streams of his song, “Low,” less than what he makes from the sale of a single t-shirt.

“As a songwriter Pandora paid me $16.89* for 1,159,000 play of “Low” last quarter. Less than I make from a single T-shirt sale.  Okay that’s a slight  exaggeration.  That’s only the premium multi-color long sleeve shirts and that’s only at venues that don’t take commission. But still.”

In 2017, Lowery settled a class action lawsuit he had initiated against Spotify for unpaid royalties. As part of the settlement, Spotify agreed to establish a fund worth over $40 million to compensate songwriters and publishers.

The New York Times said that “Lowery has come to represent the anger of musicians in the digital age.” He says he has nothing against streaming services, he just wants to make sure they pay musicians and songwriters.

Creatives and the Digital Universe

To Lowery’s bold statement about the travails of performers and recording artists subject to copyright, you could easily add inventors and small businesses that rely on the protection of patents.  This group is subject to licensing rejections, new legal hurdles and even theft even if they offer fair and reasonable terms. Their work is frequently either stolen or not recognized as legitimately new because copying is easier today, frequently unnoticeable and expensive to prove.

From Episode 4 of Season 2 of Understanding IP Matters:

Leading performers like Beyonce and Rihanna, for example, benefit from visibility they’re paid minimally for, such as on YouTube. They have the leverage, however. They can negotiate separate deals with some of the streaming services that other acts can’t. How has that affected the music business?

“If you look at the overall rates for all the sources of streaming per song, you’ll see that YouTube is the lowest, partly because they benefit from the DMCA safe harbor provisions, whereby your track can go up and it can stay up and people can watch it until you tell YouTube to take it down.

“It can go right back up again though. So, basically, most small artists have given up trying to police their work on YouTube. And even when they do, you’re opting into a licensing scheme that pays you very, very little.”

Is the environment worse today for small acts than when vinyl record sales and CDs were the media of choice and groups relied on record company advances, or is it better today?

Mixed Blessing

“Creatively [the Internet] has been better, because gatekeepers going away was helpful. But I think that largely it’s a much worse environment for most performers and songwriters.

‘It was always B.S. That was the sugary coating
that they
put on top of some rather regressive policies
that were designed to rip-off the little guy.”

“If you were a niche artist, you essentially had pricing control over how much you wanted to sell your vinyl for. You didn’t have to discount it. You could not release singles and just sell albums. In that way you could kind of adjust the price and how you released your products to sort of cover your fixed costs, which you can’t really do today because everybody gets the same rate from streaming services.”

That is, everyone except a handful of celebrities, who have the leverage to negotiate separate distribution deals for their most in-demand work.


Listen to the latest episode of Understanding IP Matters to hear more of Lowery’s take  on the music business today, and what songwriters, musicians and recording artists can do about it. Below are highlights.

  • Why non-ensemble acts are so popular today;
  • How the risk and revenue sharing structure of record labels benefitted smaller acts;
  • The challenges and opportunities that the contradictions of the digital era present for artists;
  • The history of popular artists like Sonny Bono and Taylor Swift advocating on behalf of smaller acts;
  • And what copyright advocates learned from the failures of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

For the complete story on IPWatchdog, go here.

More about David Lowery can be found at https://davidlowerymusic.com/home.

Seasons 1 and 2 of ‘Understanding IP Matters’ can be found here.

Image source: spin.com; CIPU for Understanding IP Matters


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