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Clip: David Lowery discusses teaching at the University of Georgia

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  • Carl Z.
    Lowery s http://300songs.com/ blog is a fascinating journal of the history of CVB and Cracker.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2011
      Lowery's http://300songs.com/ blog is a fascinating journal of the
      history of CVB and Cracker.


      David Lowery means business

      BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic / tconner@... Jan 30, 2011 02:41AM

      “As an artist, you have to really learn this stuff in order to make a
      living,” David Lowery tells aspiring musicians.

      David Lowery has a way with the college kids. A quarter century ago,
      his first band, Camper Van Beethoven, kept ’80s college radio stocked
      with smart stoner songs (“Take the Skinheads Bowling,” “Good Guys and
      Bad Guys”). He capitalized on that formula for the upper classmen with
      his next band, Cracker, dipping a toe into the mainstream (“Teen
      Angst,” “Low”). He still tours — with both bands, frequently at the
      same time — and this week he releases his first solo album, “The
      Palace Guards,” out Tuesday.

      But now he’s back talking to college kids again — only this time,
      there’s going to be a quiz.

      This spring, Lowery is teaching a class on pop music business at the
      University of Georgia. He previously had been a guest lecturer in the
      school’s music business certificate program. When we caught up with
      him, he was making his lesson plan, and he said something that’s
      pretty much all an aspiring musician or label exec needs to know: “I
      can make more money teaching than playing live shows, in general.”

      Even as concert ticket prices have begun to approach the levels of
      college tuition, Lowery has written eloquently on his own blog
      (300songs.com) and others in recent months about the real struggles of
      working musicians. Sure, as was recently reported, Dave Matthews made
      half a billion dollars during the last 10 years, much of it from
      constant touring. But, as Lowery points out, not everyone is Dave
      Matthews, nor do they want to be. The valid and valuable musicians
      playing for fewer than a guaranteed several thousand ticket buyers
      each night still have to crunch the numbers to make it work.

      “As an artist, you have to really learn about this stuff in order to
      make a living. But I tell students, the model doesn’t really work
      based on live stuff. First, there are not enough slots for people to
      go out and play live — everybody can’t be on the road at once — and
      expenses are really high. There are a lot of holes for the money to go
      down. There are buses and hotel rooms, and you figure that — we don’t
      do this, but a typical artist does — you’re giving 20 percent to a
      manager, 10 percent to an agent, and 5 percent to a business manager.
      That’s 35 percent of your gross to start with. The actual cost if you
      go into a theater starts out around $10,000 just for the staff and the
      PA and the security. … When we go out with Camper, we’re taking 10
      people with us every night. You do make money, but you’ve got to be
      smart about it.”

      Lowery is smart about it. His California college career focused on
      math and business. This isn’t the first time he’s explained his
      independent music business strategies to college classes. He’s got a
      head for business all the way around, in fact — Lowery was on the
      board of advisors for the company that eventually became America’s
      newest online buzz word, Chicago-based Groupon.

      In December, Lowery explained how it began in a letter to Bob Lefsetz,
      who writes a popular online column about the music business: “In 2008,
      I was appointed to the board of advisors of a small web startup called
      thepoint.com. The site, the brainchild of Andrew Mason, was a ‘tipping
      point’ mechanism, a social networking site that allowed people to
      ‘commit’ to taking group action. In particular the hope was they would
      take group action for social change. The investors quietly noted there
      was not a clear way to monetize Andrew’s experiment. However, they
      hoped that by watching the way users used the tipping point mechanism,
      a viable way to monetize this website would present itself.

      I was asked to start a campaign on thepoint.com, ‘to get a feel for
      it.’ Not being very socially conscious, I decided that I wanted to use
      The Point for my own narrow self-interests.”

      He used it to gauge fan interest in a festival that the two bands,
      Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, put on each year in a remote part of

      “I was in the right place at the right time. That’s the case with my
      music career, too,” Lowery said. “I mean, here we are talking about
      all this business, but it’s inevitable. It’s also fine to drive around
      in a ’78 van eating mushrooms outside the university in Columbia, Mo.,
      but eventually you have to figure out what’s going on and make a
      business. I got more serious and learned about these things. I still
      find time to smoke pot.”

      Lowery describes “The Palace Guards” the way most bandleaders do of
      their solo albums. It’s just a batch of songs that didn’t feel like
      they fit with the band. Each member of Camper Van Beethoven has made
      his own solo record over the decades, but Lowery’s been building up to
      it gradually. Even with two bands, Lowery said, “eventually I stopped
      trying to fit songs that didn’t naturally work with either of them
      into the box.” The leftovers collected until they looked like an

      One of Lowery’s other business moves years ago was to establish his
      own studio, called Sound of Music, in Richmond, Va. He has a base of
      musicians there that help with the studio’s projects, which have
      included the Sparklehorse debut. Some of the same players were
      recruited to be “The Palace Guards.” The title song sounds like an
      Elliott Smith nursery rhyme. “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to
      Me” could have fit into the Cracker box just fine, save maybe for its
      soft, psychedelic refrain. “I Sold the Arabs the Moon” might have been
      a nice foil to Camper’s “Sweethearts.”

      “The songs here are softer, a little more mad — as in crazy,” he said.
      “I mean, not always softer, because I do a lot of screaming on ‘Palace
      Guards’ and ‘All Those Girls,’ but softer as in sort of introspective
      in tone. More Skip Spence than Syd Barrett.”

      The bands have fallen prey to the concert industry’s latest gimmick.
      At a recent joint show, Camper played the “Key Lime Pie” album in its
      entirety while Cracker played “Kerosene Hat.”

      “We just wanted to do something different on these dates we
      traditionally play in the Northeast in the dead of winter,” Lowery
      said. “People have been calling for Camper to do ‘Key Lime Pie’ for a
      while. Cracker’s played ‘Kerosene Hat’ before. We tried to figure out
      if there was an anniversary with it. I think it was the 21st for ‘Key
      Lime Pie.’ That doesn’t sound as good as the 25th. But the band used
      to have this obsession with the Illuminati [a legendary secret
      society]. On the blog, we were joking about the formula that makes a
      Camper song. It has to refer to the Cold War, or communists or a
      dictator, or acid and psychedelic drugs, or a conspiracy theory of
      some kind like the Illuminati. Their number was 23, so maybe we should
      tour on the 23rd anniversary. That would be a very Camper thing to do.
      Great business move, don’t you think?”
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