The Digital Skeptic: David Lowery Wants the Maoism Out of the Music

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- David Lowery knows exactly why nobody's writing the much-needed funeral march for today's dysfunctional music business.

"We are all afraid of being turned into the next Lars Ulrich," Lowery told me, referring to the drummer for heavy metal band Metallica, who was essentially run from the business back in 2000 when his band sued music-sharing service Napster for stealing songs online.

Lowery has reason to fear: He is a musician with a top hit or two with a band called Cracker, and also a music business professor at the University of Georgia and math geek who has done financial models for derivatives traders.

"It's this survivalist thing," he said. "When you try to have anything close to a rational discussion about how the music business doesn't work, you'd be surprised what starts happening."

When I assured him he was among friends -- that, yes, skeptics of the modern economy really do openly huddle up around these pages for some warmth and common sense -- he figured, what did he have to lose?

"The truth is, the old system was goofy. But the successful bands -- and really the successful music companies -- were built on the shoulders of the failures before them," he explained. Lowery says that early 1990s Seattle grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, for example really came out of the work of bands such as Mother Love Bone. And for all its flaws, the old music business's full catalog of artists spread the risk of those failures among the successes.

"You would throw 10 records against the wall and see which ones stuck," he said. But today, that model is gone. "I wish I could figure out a new way to divide that risk, but now each song lives and dies on it own. And pretending that what we have works is so messed up I can't even say."

The biggest issue? The digital economy struggles to value content it supposedly its based on.

"It commoditizes the content but it is not actually a commodity," he says. "I am not sure if Pandora or Spotify ever will be profitable, but I do know it only pays off for the Rihanna-scale artist." For the average musician, the streams are too few, so it is still sales of old-school plastic compact discs that puts food on the table.

"Trust me, nothing could be a stupider way to get paid -- dragging those dumb discs around to concerts" he said. "But the $15 I can get at a show is a better payoff than waiting for my Spotify royalties. And I'm not the only one considering pulling my stuff from these streaming services. It's crazy."

"The Web was supposed to be a vastly more efficient way to do business. But my question is, why aren't those efficiencies being transferred to musicians? Where is that money?"