David Lowery, Frontman of Cracker

The Indie Rock Legend Who Changed How Musicians Get Paid

David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven
Jason Thrasher

Humbleness is not David Lowery’s strong suit: In his biography on his official website he – or his publicist – credits himself as an artist who “helped jump-start the indie rock movement.” It’s this hubris, his cynical lyrics and his Merle Haggard style of country that made Lowery a beacon, as head of not one but two important alternative bands: Camper Van Beethoven (CBV) in the 1980s and Cracker in the 1990s.

Today, he performs concurrently in the two, holding an annual Campout festival with related groups and fans. Even more notably, Lowery soldiers on as the face of defiance in a business world that refuses to pay musicians what they are worth.

David Lowry: Southern California Boy

Lowery’s fiery wit was born in San Antonio in 1960 to an Air Force family, bouncing around throughout his youth until reaching the exurb of Redlands, California. The town is a dichotomy — surrounded by the poverty-stricken San Bernardino to the west, the conservative and tony mountain resort areas to the north and by the rural Yucaipa to the east.

These environments all contributed to what would ultimately be the Lowery sound: a gnashed Gram Parsons filtered through a Pixies sieve. It was here that he met future band mates Davey Faragher (CVB) and Johnny Hickman (Cracker).

Lowery’s championing of artists’ rights bloomed during his college tenure in Santa Cruz, California where he launched the crudely named Pitch-a-Tent Records. While massaging the psychedelic Camper Van Beethoven into existence with bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, drummer Chris Pedersen and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, he studied mathematics and computers — and later became an outspoken opponent of Silicon Valley.

In one 2012 speech given to the SF MusicTech Summit, Lowery decried the current music industry as “a sort of Cyber–Bolshevik campaign of mass collectivization for the good of the state — I mean the Internet.”

Two Bands, One Man

A professional piss-taker, Lowery penned with Camper catchy, curmudgeon anthems with Camper Van Beethoven such as “Take the Skinheads Bowling” off 1985's "Telephone Free Landslide Victory."

In it, he sang, “Had a dream last night, but I forget what it was," representing the impending attitude — or perception of attitude — of Generation X. Alongside Black Francis and Bob Mould, Lowery christened his music career by permanently lodging his tongue into his cheek.

His heralded grunt work continued with Cracker into the 1990s. The frustrated "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" became a surprise hit in 1992. It satirized the alt-country and grunge scenes, calling out mush-mouthed deliveries and the self-aggrandizing that somehow came from these rockers’ self-effacement. Lowery was the default anti-hero of alternative, a Rorschach of the Gen X Watchmen. The disenfranchised begged him to save them and he whispered, “No.”

With old pal Johnny Hickman and a rotating cast of backing members — that between 1993-1994 included Pixies’ David Lovering on drums — Lowery cracked the Top 10 rock charts with “Low.” This down-tempo allusion to heroin solidified Cracker’s place in the pantheon of 1990s royalty. Lowery went on to produce for contemporaries Sparklehorse and Counting Crows.

Still Taking on the Industry

As Cracker and Camper steadily sold units until Napster and other file-sharing companies popped up, Lowery fought the powers that be. He formed Sound of Music Studios and later ShockoeNoise to encourage self-sufficiency in the recording, licensing and marketing aspects of audio. He dedicated his time to organizations such as Four Athens, a “mentor to incubator companies,” according to his LinkedIn profile.

His activism gained widespread publicity in 2012, starting with his SF MusicTech Summit speech and continuing today as he battles streaming service Spotify in a class-action lawsuit. He is “seeking at least $150 million in damages against Spotify, alleging it knowingly, willingly, and unlawfully reproduces and distributes copyrighted compositions without obtaining mechanical licenses,” according to "Billboard" magazine.

Lowery, who is also a lecturer at the University of Georgia, similarly confronted "Rap Genius" and other sites in 2013 for allegedly publishing lyrics without obtaining proper licenses to do so. “Why would you support the company that doesn’t fairly compensate songwriters? Would you buy coffee from the company that paid it’s (sic) workers unfairly or not at all?” he said to "Digital Trends" that same year.

His efforts — including testifying before the House Judiciary Committee — resulted in Rap Genius coming to an agreement with music publishers to legally pursue the appropriate licenses in mid-2014, according to "The New York Times."

Cracker also released their double album, "Berkeley to Bakersfield," in 2014. Lowery’s victory against Rap Genius plus the unleashing of this impressive country-fried collection put his band back in the public spotlight. After more than 30 years in the business, Lowery still can hold an audience, speak his mind and make a difference.