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Pandora radio "just grasping for money" according to Cracker frontman and UGA professor David Lowery - The Red and Black : Variety

Pandora radio "just grasping for money" according to Cracker frontman and UGA professor David Lowery

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Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:42 pm, Tue Nov 18, 2014.

$16.89.

That’s how much David Lowery, University of Georgia music business professor and lead singer of alt-rock band Cracker, got for more than 1 million plays of Cracker’s 90’s hit “Low” on Pandora Radio.

That’s .00001689 of a penny for each play. Over 100,000 plays are required for Lowery to see even a dollar off of a song he wrote that went on to become one of the more enduring hits of the late 90s.

And Lowery is better off than the rest of the band – he owns 40 percent of the song, while the remaining three members divide 60 percent of the ownership between themselves.

Lowery recently posted these figures on a musician’s rights blog, The Trichordist, in an attempt to show the world just how little he and others make from their songwriting payments. It’s a shocking thing to see in stark numerical form; while most Pandora users are at least subconsciously aware that the artists they hear may not be properly compensated, seeing exactly how little they’re given for providing this music is a harsh reminder of the decline of the music industry as a whole in the digital age.

So just how does Pandora get away with paying so little to the songwriters and performers who make up the entirety of its product?

“Essentially, Pandora has two sticks, one for performers and one for songwriters,” Lowery said. “I’m against both of them – I think they’re both s****y.”

There’s a lot of complex legalese, but the gist boils down to this: terrestrial radio stations are allowed to play songs without paying performers, but are required to pay a licensing fee to the songwriter (often but not always one and the same).

However, Pandora’s status as a web caster (versus a streaming service like Spotify) allows them to broadcast anything by any performer or songwriter that they are in negotiation with, even if a deal hasn’t been reached.

Pandora’s bizarre legal status allows it to negotiate rock-bottom rates for the performers it’s negotiating with since it will be allowed to play the music regardless.

This arrangement is unlikely to change.

A recently reintroduced bill known as the Internet Radio Fairness Act is an attempt by Pandora to renegotiate the percentage of royalty fees being paid to artists, said to be up to an 85% drop. While Pandora spokesmen insist that they’re simply trying to get on an equal footing with terrestrial broadcasters, many members of the music industry disagree.

“Go to any member of the National Songwriters Guild and ask them what Pandora’s doing, and they’ll tell you that this is essentially a big 'f*** you' to songwriters,” Lowery said. ““This would be like the government coming in and telling Netflix and Hulu ‘Hey, we’re gonna set a certain price you have to pay for every TV show.’ It’s crazy.”

While terrestrial radio is somewhat of an improvement in that it at least pays songwriters, refusal to pay performers is something of a sticking point for members of the music industry.

“Here’s the countries that do not pay performers: Iran, Syria, North Korea, Rwanda and the United States. That’s a hell of a group to be in,” Lowery said. “The U.S. has become an exporter of cheap music because other countries don’t have to pay the same fees they do to homegrown artists.”

So what’s the solution?

Many have turned to Spotify, whose status as a streaming service requires that it negotiate fair deals with both songwriters and performers.

While artists are cut a better deal with Spotify – Lowery’s released records show that he receives .0001364 cents per play on Spotify, an astronomically low number but one that’s still a 100% increase over his Pandora earnings – many artists doubt the service has any effect on helping new bands gain exposure.

“With an old band like Pink Floyd, they can just toss their catalog up [and] there no trouble, but a new band?” Lowery said. “One that has to put their entire album up right from that start? That’s not gonna work.”

Many artists – including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke - have chosen to remove their music from Spotify outright, a move that Lowery encourages. He remains convinced in his belief that streaming music services are not viable in the long term.

“There’s this long history of these things failing, and then they point at us songwriters and put the blame on us. Do you understand how funny that is?” Lowery said. “To hear people who have never made a profit in their industry to point at us performers, who have to at least break even to pay the bills?”

While there may be no easy solution to the quandary the music industry has found itself in, Lowery remains convinced that the proposed changes could cause irreversible damage to both new and long-running artists attempting to make a living in the always-fragile music business.

“You don’t see Spotify running to court and asking for lower rates. Why is that?” Lowery said. ““Knocking a percentage point or two off their expenses is not gonna change anything. They’re just grasping for money.”

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