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," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). 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 California.
"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 album.
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?"