The recent announcement from the FCC that it plans to loosen internet regulation and allow carriers to create a so-called “fast lane” for certain data and sites has serious implications for the music business. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what this shift will mean. And even more unfortunately, the change seems likely put independent artists, new services, and small labels at a great disadvantage.
The end of net neutrality promises to destabilize the broadband and fiber markets, leaving US consumers with fewer, worse choices than before--and the US already lags behind other developing countries in high-speed internet access. Some rural and poor communities have taken matters into their own hands to address the deep inadequacies and frequent monopolies facing American consumers.
The big cable and telecom companies have made a habit of complaining that net neutrality puts the brakes on investment but have still found ample financial incentive to improve infrastructure via a spate of recent billion-dollar projects. Will they have the same motivation once they can effectively corner the market? Or will we face a repeat of the boom-and-bust of telecoms in the 1990s, when dozens of little players leaped in and caused chaos?
Is this kind of chaos really what we want for the main force powering our business and creative lives? How can this market churn be good for music professionals?
Mozilla Digital Director Jesse von Doom laid it out in pretty stark terms in a Medium piece: If the web loses net neutrality, independent musicians will lose their careers. The main point: big ISPs will throttle the kind of direct-to-fan traffic and thus the online relationships that can make or break an emerging indie artist’s business. Fans will be funneled to “fast lane” services like Apple Music/iTunes (and possibly Spotify, though how the streaming service would fare is unclear) and away from more artist-friendly places like Bandcamp and artist sites, where musicians earn more and gain direct access to their fan base.
Larger companies and players in the music tech space like Sonos and Vimeo also see the changes as potentially harmful to their businesses. Billboard reports that dozens of tech companies sent a letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai condemning the move: Twitter, Vimeo, Reddit & More Appeal to Save Net Neutrality on Cyber Monday
Some commentators think this is a bit of a shell game on the part of Pai and the FCC, a way to loosen regulation to benefit the likes of Verizon and Comcast, but to back down from complete elimination of Title II regulation. The problem is there is no real public-oriented policy in play, only lobbying and cronyism. Susan Crawford makes this compelling argument in her recent Backchannel piece: Ajit Pai’s Shell Game
She writes: The real problem is a complete absence of leadership and policy aimed at making sure that low-priced, ubiquitous, world-class fiber optic services reach every home and business. Left to their own devices, the giant US companies Pai is determined to protect have every incentive to divide markets, avoid capital investments in upgrades to fiber that reach everyone, charge as much as they can get away with, and leave out poorer and rural people.
None of this sounds likely to support a healthy tech-driven music ecosystem in the US.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash