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Cracker’s Tale Of Two Cities

06:04 PM Friday 11/7/14 | |

Cracker co-founder David Lowery goes into detail on the band’s new album, the price of songs in a free market and why everybody in the music business should have at least two jobs.

Formed in the early ’90s by Lowery and Johnny Hickman, Cracker will release its 10th studio album, the double-disc Berkeley To Bakersfield Dec. 9.  The band’s well-known punk sound rocks the Berkeley disc while the group’s roots-rock side twangs away under the Bakersfield title. 

But Lowery had more on his mind than the new album.  The Camper Van Beethoven founder/mathematician described Cracker’s business side, something he is especially close to considering that the group’s manager is also his wife – talent buyer/promoter Velena Vego.  Hardly a fan of online streamer Pandora, Lowery voiced his discontent regarding current online royalty rates for songwriters, saying that one of Cracker’s songs generated less than $50 for more than one million plays.

Lowery also talked about his role as a lecturer about the music industry at the University Of Georgia in Athens, and why he’s always in control of his own destiny.

Oh, and he and he gave us the rundown on why he’s a bigger Monkees fan today than in years past.

The new album, Berkeley To Bakersfield, features one disc of punk-garage band songs and another showing off Cracker’s alt-country side.  Was either set of songs more difficult to write and record than the other?

The Bakersfield songs took longer. … We sat down in a room, came up with an idea and then we worked it out into a song.

Whereas the Berkeley side was a lot more collaborative.  We went to Berkeley, to [East Bay Recorders] and we got the old lineup back together.  We jammed for three days and basically came up with that album from that.  We came up with the music.  I had to write the lyrics. I spent a lot of time walking around in Berkeley and the East Bay getting the lyrics.  The Berkeley one was easier.  We did it really collaboratively.  I think both work good.

The Bakersfield one, partly I wanted to embrace the process.  Rock music, you can be pretty collaborative.  You can get everybody in the studio at once and knock this stuff out.  Country music has a tendency to be one or two songwriters with acoustic guitars and a notepad.  Or a piano, guitar and a notepad.  That’s why the process makes the songs different.  They become real storytelling [songs].  I wanted to do the album that way.

A couple of tracks are written in Nashville … sitting in a room with another songwriter.  Just trying to work it out.  A lot of the other stuff I wrote on my own at home or with Johnny and stuff like that, within that process. 

This wasn’t intended necessarily to be two different albums.  As I sort of started getting these songs finished, we started recording … with the original guys in Cracker, the Berkeley stuff.

Me and Johnny were working with our friends here in Athens, Ga., and [the songs] were sort of related but in some ways were like two different records.  So we did them as two discs.  We thought that was the best way to do it.  That they would tell the story best that way. In a lot of ways this really sums up what Cracker is.  We always had a punky-alternative rock side to what we do and we have a more rootsy Americana country side.  The things have generally sort of intermingled.  This time we pulled them out into two discs. … We did a diverse range, everything from almost straight up punk rock, like a song called “Beautiful” over to something like “California Country Boy” which is full-on Texas shuffle style, Bakersfield country music.

I think, in some ways, if you listen to the first Cracker album, you can hear [the new] album in it.  There’s punky alternative stuff like “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” and “Don’t Fuck Me Up (With Peace And Love)” and you have tracks like “Mr. Wrong.”

 Did you ever think Cracker would last this long?

No, not really.  Honestly, any band that thinks they can get a good five years out of it – that’s pretty optimistic.  Most bands don’t survive very long.  One of the things about Cracker that we did differently, and a lot of people looking at the liner notes, go “There’s a lot of different people playing on these records.” That’s the way we set up Cracker.  Most bands, there’s a songwriting core.  There’s the John and Paul who write songs.  Sometimes there’s a George in there, too. … That’s sort of how a band naturally works.  Then you have the people who tour with you and do most of the recording with you.

But there’s also a second circle and those two things aren’t the same.  What people really don’t know is that there is always a third circle, like your peers and the people that you’re around, the other bands you know and the other musicians you might co-write with who come in and play a track.  Bands are not as formal as you think you are.  There are these three circles.  Often, what we do as bands, we try to deny that.  We’re like, “Everybody who is on stage – that’s the band.  We’re going to make all our decisions together.”  You go from one extreme where you have a band-democracy consensus situation [and] you go to the other extreme where you have somebody who’s like, “I’m just a solo artist.”  Bands live in that middle area where they have the three circles.

So when me and Johnny set up the band we set it up to be like that.  There’s me and Johnny, there are other people that play with us, there is a live band but we’re never going to have this formal live structure.  I think that fairly enlightened what we did because it’s kept the band together over the years.  [People] coming in and out, it’s worked for us.  I think it adds to the creative process … this greater diversity of where we go with our songwriting and where we record our records and the songs that we create.  It’s the natural way of writing.

Breaking band composition and the songwriting process into circles and then describing how they intersect – does that come from your mathematics background?

Yeah, sort of.  To break something down and model it, right?  That’s mathematical in that way.  “What’s really happening here?  Let’s stand outside of this and look at what is happening.”  But it’s kind of easy to do if you’ve been in a band. You list what the fights are about and make a list of how we came up with songs – you can pretty clearly see it’s like, “If you form it this way, you’ll eliminate these fights.  This is creative if you form it this way.”

Are there songs where you and Johnny fought about whether they should be on an album or perhaps how they ended up sounding?

I don’t know if we fought about them.  “Friends” was on his solo album and my take on that was, “That should be a duet, dude.  If you divide those verses into two different people.”  That was my take on that, and finally he’s like, “All right. Let’s do that on a Cracker record as a duet.  If you think it’s a duet, let’s do it.”  That’s about as close as we come [to fighting].   Musically, we don’t have many issues that way.  The process of how we create the songs sort of minimizes all of that.  If anything, we have more of an issue over how the T-shirts are designed or what the album looks like.  That’s harder than the music.

Is merchandising handled in-house?

It’s more or less handled in-house.  Sometimes it’s our tour manager, sometimes it’s Johnny, sometimes it’s me.  Sometimes it’s my wife who is also our manager.  I know that sounds weird but my wife is a pretty well-known concert promoter and has been a manager for a long time.  We figure this stuff out.

Is it easier when your wife manages everything versus paying a person to do that work?

We’re never really on vacation so it’s kind of hard, sometimes.  She was managing us before we were married so it’s kind of all the same to me.

Is managing Cracker a full-time job?

Nobody has a full-time job in the music business.  Everybody has four different jobs.  She promotes concerts, manages venues, manages artists.  It’s all music business stuff.

What about your other jobs, such as your gig as a lecturer at University of Georgia in Athens? 

I’m sitting in my office right now. I taught a class today and tomorrow I’ve got a couple of classes. They’re getting a test tomorrow. … It’s on music business finance and economics.  It’s not a breeze at all.  There’s a little bit economics, management theory, finance … as applied to the music business.  People think it’s going to be an easy class but it’s not.

Would your students say you’re a tough teacher?

“Interesting.” There’s a lot of laughter in my classes.  A lot of jokes. But I don’t think they would say it’s easy. These classes are electives for the business majors as well. I think they get in there thinking, “This will be easy.  I’ll do a music business class.”  Then they’re like, “Holy shit!  I didn’t know he was going to make us do this.”

And because no one knows everybody in music, do you get students who don’t know about Cracker or Camper Van Beethoven?

Sometimes they don’t even realize that until halfway through the year. Also, it’s a pretty hard university to get into now.  We have students from all over the world here.

You’ve been pretty outspoken about some of the online streaming services, Pandora in particular.

Absurdly, we set [royalty] rates with a political process. How songwriters are paid in this country for the majority of stuff, is set by a process that takes place in Washington, D.C.  There’s a great quote from James Madison who was basically warning that once you set up a temporary process where you need to petition the government, it’s never going to end and people will constantly petition the government.

The complex thing about songwriting [royalties] that people don’t understand is that this is a political process.  It takes place through lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.  It doesn’t take place in the free market.  When you have rich and powerful broadcasters or when you have big Wall Street money backing your Silicon Valley firm, you are able to manipulate the political process with lobbyists, campaign donations, etc., etc. much better than artists and performers.  We, unfortunately, have been pretty severely victimized by this.

I just gave a talk as a keynote [speaker] for the legal part of the CMJ [convention] and made the argument that the whole thing now is basically unconstitutional. … If it doesn’t change the way, especially the way songwriters are paid through this arcane licensing process, I think we’re going to get together with other songwriters and sue the federal government.  Actually I’m thinking we would have to sue the Attorney General.

What would be the argument backing your statement that it’s unconstitutional?

Songwriters – 97 percent of them, so virtually all songwriters – are either members of ASCAP or BMI [which have] been under [Department of Justice] consent decrees, basically since the 1940s when World War II was happening and radio stations were owned by individuals.  There weren’t conglomerates and market power was clearly in the favor of ASCAP and BMI.  They dominated the market.  So they were put under a consent decree.

So here it is in 2014 and we’re still under [the] consent decree.  As soon as I write a song, I’m under government supervision, antitrust supervision, and my rights for participating in the free marketplace are limited.  That action occurred before I was born, so where was my due process?  You can make this argument, not only there, but you can also show objectively that the value of a song in comparison to a sound recording, has been pushed down as a result of that consent decree.

Songs are property and it’s totally different when it’s property.  You’ve got your 14th and 5th amendments, basically, is the way I see it.

It’s not a popular view. If I did that and we won, it would kind of blow up the songwriting licensing system. 

Look, I got $17 and all three songwriters got $42 for 1,159,000 plays of “Low” on Pandora.  That’s a four-minute, forty-five second song.  That’s 11,000 days, 24 hours a day, of music.  That’s 29.9 years of music all day long, day after day, is worth $42.03.  That is not right.

But those spins on Pandora were one to one.  Every play is for only one person. How much should one person pay to hear one song?

I don’t know because there’s not a free market for songs. I don’t know what my songs are worth.  Nobody knows what their songs are worth.  Until there is a free market for their songs, nobody will ever know. It may be worth $42.03, but I doubt it.  A sound recording gets close to $600. … The only place where a songwriter can ever ask a price for their song and set a price is if it’s used in film, television or in commercials.  And, not incidentally, a single broadcast.  If it’s incorporated into a film, television show or into a commercial, then you can ask for a free-market price.

Do you do your own song placement in other media or do you have a person or company pitching your songs?

Apparently Judd Apatow is licensing all of our songs (laughs).  He’s apparently placing our songs in films for us, which is a good thing. It looks as if he’s used a lot of our songs.

There are a lot of directors who were influenced by Cracker or liked Cracker music, and they seem to put them into films.  Warner Music Group, probably, in some ways pitches our songs.  We do some work ourselves. … I’ve come to believe that you can pitch your songs but most of the time people just find your music.  That’s how you get the licensing.

When you look at the history of songwriters who have been in the business for decades, it appears there were periods when they were extremely prolific.  For example, Peter Townshend work beginning with The Who’s Tommy and going up through Who Are You, Led Zeppelin during that same time period or Elton John and Bernie Taupin during the early 1970s.  Did you go through a similar period?

I think if you look at the frequency of albums … between 1985 and 1987 [Camper Van Beethoven] made four albums and an EP.  Then 2009 to now there’s Sunrise In The Land Of Milk & Plenty, there’s my solo album, there’s two Camper Van Beethoven albums and there’s this double Cracker disc. … Probably almost 70s tracks from 2009 to now.  Somebody pointed that out, I never really noticed that, but between my bands and all the people we were working with, we’ve been writing a lot of stuff lately.  Between Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker that’s four discs of music in two years.

But it varies depending on what is going on.  Camper did an album in 2004 and there was a lot of pent-up energy in songs and stuff like that.  So when we started working again in 2011 there was a lot of material.

Trying different things or being a little more thematic at times, did you ever get hassled by the label with execs saying that wasn’t what they were looking for?

We’ve had people say, “Well, you know, let’s try writing a couple of more songs.”  Generally, the albums were what we wanted to put out.  I think Key Lime Pie was interesting because it was a little shorter and we sort of got that rap but it just ended up making it darker, the extra songs.  It wasn’t more commercial.

I remember the first Cracker album. … “[The label said], “It’s the explosion of grunge music and you’ve just given us a roots-rock record.  We just want to be sure you’re aware of what you’re doing.”  They didn’t tell us we couldn’t do it, but they pointed out, very accurately, how rock music had changed. It got to be kind of OK because people forget that along with the grunge sound, the big alternative rock explosion, there was a lot of neo-classic stuff at that time, too [like] The Counting Crows. 

It wasn’t a bad move but we did have to make that decision.  It was like, “Do we make this more alternative or do we just leave it like it is?” Ultimately it was like, “We’re out of money.  Unless you want to give us more money, this is it.”

And “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” seemed to fit right in on the modern rock stations at the time.

It did.  That song did work in that way and we’re thankful that it did.  The rest of the album was pretty rootsy. … By the next year we were in the right spot with people like Counting Crows out there.

Do you feel more in control of your destiny than when Cracker first started?

I’ve always been in control of my destiny (laughs).  Part of the reason you have multiple jobs in the music business is you gotta be able to say no.  When I look around at my friends who are miserable in the music business, I know why they are miserable is because they can’t say no.

Do you believe in luck?

Absolutely.  I think you’re in the right place at the right time.  Did you know this book “Adventures Of Mixerman?” ... There is so much risk in the Mixerman diaries. … I make my [students] read the first six weeks because he explains music very well, basically saying “The music business is a controlled lottery and the more lottery tickets you have, the more likely you are to win.”

My approach to this has been to persevere and to write and record as many songs as  possible because I don’t know which ones will be hits.  Nobody knows which songs will be hits. They can say  they do but it’s not true.  I remember I even thought that with Kerosene Hat we knew “Low” was going to be a hit when we recorded it.  I was pretty convinced of that. But the great thing about email, and me being sort of a scientist, I had already adopted email by the point we did that album.  I actually went back and looked at the email and there’s not a discussion anywhere about the song “Low.”  We were obsessed with two other songs that weren’t hits.  “Euro-Trash Girl,” which was also a single, the only time we mentioned it was whether to put it on the record.

The story about that was, basically, it was sort of decided [Kerosene Hat] was going to be too long with the eight-minute “Euro-Trash Girl” song on there.  We wanted to do it, so when we mastered it, we just didn’t list it. We didn’t tell anybody we put it on there.  The album comes out and it’s not listed. How many unlisted singles are there?  We wouldn’t have done that if we thought that was a single.  So it’s all luck.  Nobody knows.  It’s a controlled lottery.

What advice could you give a teenager who is just beginning his/her own music career?

First of all, you should always record songs that you personally like, that you have a personal connection, with too.  Because you could end up playing them for the rest of your life.

That seems to be lost on so many people. I find so many people [are] not really recording the kind of stuff they listen to or what they like.  Make the album you like.

I was in a bar in Greenville, S.C.  One of the Monkees came into the bar.  They had just played a show.  I was hanging out with a friend of mine who now works for Live Nation, who’s a rock manager or whatever like that.

And he comes up to the bar next to us and orders a [drink] and we start chit-chatting with him.  He’s fairly nice. And these two older women keep coming up to him and bugging him.  They’re asking him to go to this other bar and do karaoke with him.

Finally, he turns around, looks at them and says, “Ladies, my whole life has been karaoke.  Why the fuck would I do that?”

It was incredible.  I was a [Monkees] fan before then but now I’m like, “Man!  That was some brutal honesty.  That was awesome.”

Upcoming Cracker shows:

Nov. 28 – Tampa, Fla., Skipper’s Smokehouse
Nov. 29 – Atlanta, Ga., The EARL
Nov. 30 – Atlanta, Ga., The EARL
Dec. 2 – Ferndale, Mich., The Magic Bag
Dec. 3 – Madison, Wis., Majestic Theatre
Dec. 4 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater
Dec. 5 – Chicago, Ill., Old Town School Of Folk Music
Dec. 6 – St. Louis, Mo., Blueberry Hill's Duck Room
Dec. 27 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent
Dec. 28 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent
Dec. 29 – Santa Barbara, Calif., Lobero Theatre
Dec. 30 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Dec. 31 – Denver, Colo., Soiled Dove Underground
Jan. 2 – Carrboro, N.C., Cat’s Cradle
Jan. 3 – Nashville, Tenn., City Winery Nashville
Jan. 14 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
Jan. 15 – Toronto, Ontario, Lee’s Palace
Jan. 16 – Cambridge, Mass., Middle East Downstairs
Jan. 17 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Jan. 18 – New York, N.Y., B.B. King Blues Club

Camper Van Beethoven appears Dec. 27-31 & Jan. 14-18.

Please visit Cracker’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel for more information.