Even for those not living at the intersection of music and technology, the impact of the tools created in the last decade — even just in the last few years — is profound. High quality recording is cheaper and more mobile than ever. Digital distribution greatly reduces packaging and mailing costs for physical CDs. Indeed, not knowing where to go in your city to purchase the latest Kwaito record is no longer an issue in a networked world. Today, in the span of five minutes, a music fan can read an article online about Aboriginal country music, do a google search, find the “Koori King of Country” Roger Knox, hear his music and buy his latest record. A week later, this fan could start a wikipedia entry about “Aboriginal Country Music”. Online, new channels for discovery of music you cannot hear performed in your city, region — or even your country — are being added every day.
But could much of this openness disappear?
The Internet we have grown to love may be in danger. A new concept is getting a lot of attention in the United States among an unlikely grouping of civil rights activists, consumer advocates, gun owners, Christian groups, technology businesses, politicians and — most importantly for the Future of Music Coalition, with whom I work — musicians. This concept, which has been called ‘open access’ in the past, ties to free speech issues, and when applied specifically to internet rules is usually referred to as ‘net neutrality’.
While the battle over net neutrality is currently US-based, its effects will go well beyond US borders and will reach all of us working in music. To be more specific, international musicians should be aware of the implications of this fight for two reasons. Firstly, any stakeholders and businesses you work with in the US will be impacted by this profound policy change. Secondly, as the US internet infrastructure changes, it will impact the larger fabric of the internet worldwide. It is not uncommon for changes to the US media infrastructure to influence media infrastructure in other parts of the world.
For Americans it’s important to bring this discussion to international audiences, because we can learn a lot about what a non-neutral net would be like by considering examples of countries, like China, that do not have net neutrality protections.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that you can go where you like on the Internet, without undue interference from the companies or entities providing your broadband (cable, DSL or fiber) service to you. With net neutrality, your broadband provider has to remain a neutral carrier and cannot interfere with the content that runs along its wires.
Now some ISPs want to fundamentally change their role from providing Internet service to becoming gatekeepers of Internet content. The ISPs want to create what is essentially a fast lane on the Internet and charge web sites extra to use it. Those that can’t afford the fees will be relegated to a slower lane. The Internet as we know it will be irrevocably changed.
Before the Internet, the music business was built on the model of scarcity. There were more artists than there were record companies, more artists than recording studios, more artists than shelf space at the record store, more artists than radio stations that could play them. To get access to audiences, artists would sign an exclusive contract with record companies. These record companies were the first gatekeepers, with potentially large production budgets to get the artist into a recording studio, and, when warranted, large promotional budgets to get the resulting record into stores and on the radio.
Over the years the cost of recording has gone down, and it is now possible to make high-quality recordings for a fraction of what it used to cost. Couple that with the Internet, which is based on the model of abundance, and artists and small record labels are now empowered to reach larger audiences than ever before. Shelf space is unlimited. There is also no limit on how many radio stations there can be on the Internet. The gates of the gatekeepers have opened.
The Internet, by design, offers us a democratic, open infrastructure. New sites and services are added to the web at a breakneck pace and one site can be accessed just as easily as the next. As YouTube has proved again and again, there will always be an audience for the most unexpected, wondrous, and mundane subjects. And when talking about music, here is another concept to consider: without physical inventory, it becomes theoretically possible for a single destination to access every piece of music ever recorded. There are a number of companies that are working towards that goal. Rhapsody Music, for example is finding that as the number of available recordings increase, music fans are going deeper and deeper into their catalogue. Much more so than at large major retailers like WalMart or Best Buy; much more than on iTunes; and surprisingly, much more so than on peer-to-peer networks.
This is good news for international artists. With over one billion people connected to the Internet, there is an audience for what you do. This is why it is so important to protect the openness of these systems and their potential for expanding and connecting cultural communities.
What does a closed network look like?
It’s hard to know what the Internet would look like if net neutrality was taken away. But here is an example of a limited network.
Imagine getting onto the Internet and looking for the latest from the Tuareg band Tartit. But you are unable to get onto CalabashMusic.com. Oh well, I guess you’ll go to iTunes to get the record. But their site seems to be down as well. Finally you find them at Amazon.com and purchase ‘Abacabok’. What you don’t know is that Amazon has a special agreement with your Internet provider, but CalabashMusic and iTunes don’t, so their sites are blocked.
Obviously this and other examples range from egregious and dangerous to the only moderately disturbing. When we come to whether or not this could happen in your country, the first question to answer is: who controls the Internet in your country? In most situations, broadband networks around the world are built by governments and are treated as neutral carriers or public utilities. But there are a few governments that choose to use the Internet, as some choose to use radio, as a propaganda tool.
The situation in the United States is a little different. Our broadband is generally financed and provided by private companies, not the government. Our government hasn’t yet decided to codify the principle of net neutrality into law. And with a recent race of mergers and acquisitions in the broadband provider market, we now face a future with a handful of large corporations controlling access to the Internet.
While these corporations may not be interested in fighting other people’s political or partisan battles, history has shown they are very, very interested in making a profit by serving as an Internet content gatekeeper.
No one can argue the Internet as we know it is not vulnerable.
It’s very hard to predict the future. But it’s easy to look back at similar models and see what happened there. Take radio in the USA, for example, a reasonable comparison since the airwaves are essentially a public good that is widely accessible. The airwaves are traditionally a driving force in many musicians’ careers; and they have recently undergone massive corporate consolidation.
In 1996 the United States Congress removed the cap previously limiting how many radio stations a single company could own in the USA. Previously a single company could only own a maximum of 40 stations. The period that followed is easily characterized as a feeding frenzy, where national corporations bought up as many radio stations as they could. Clear Channel for example, a billboard company that owned only 40 stations in 1996, ballooned to owning 1,240 radio stations a few years later. In this inflated market, many companies found they ended up overpaying for stations, and sought to remedy that by changing the formats to maximize the potential profit from these new assets.
In the years that followed American radio underwent a transformation. Local programming and niche formats such as international, indigenous and art music disappeared from the airwaves. Payola, or pay-for-play, reemerged as an industry-accepted practice for getting new artists on the radio. Artists wanting national exposure on the radio had to sign with a major label to get promotional support, which would then buy access to a coveted spot on a very narrow and frequently national playlist. This practice has recently come under legal scrutiny, and fines have been levied against the largest and worst offenders.
For musicians, the concentration of radio station ownership, the elimination of niche formats and narrowing of playlists, and the return of payola have demonstrated that radio station owners will easily pursue profits over the best interests of musicians and citizens. If you think this sort of scenario only applies to the US, think again. Sadly, this picture of radio is increasingly prevalent worldwide, as is the corporate media model in general — just look at Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch.
For us in world music whose artists are being shut out of radio, sanctuary has been found on Internet radio or through the online niche communities that have become a crucial outlet to reach fans. It would be tragic if this new and promising avenue for world musicians and their fans were to go the way of radio.
Now in the United States, musicians are banding with others to fight to protect the democracy and openness of the Internet. FMC, for example, has launched a campaign called “Rock the Net” to document support by US musicians of the basic principle of net neutrality. But this isn’t enough. This needs to become an international concern. We’re working in an imperfect system, one where the pursuit of profit has powerful friends. But the Future of Music Coalition believes this may be our most important fight yet. And just as progress has been made to fight payola on the radio, we must make sure progress in the fight to ensure the promise of the Internet will remain unbroken.
Jean Cook, FMC Outreach Director, wrote “Untangling Net Neutrality: A Music Advocate’s Perspective” for WOMEX 07.