You may have heard about the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, which would give the combined companies a 43 percent combined share of the mobile market. Were the deal to go through, AT&T and Verizon would control around 70 percent of the market for cell phone subscriptions. That’s a lot of power in not so many hands.
This merger is not just about phone service. Mobile handsets are fast becoming one of the main ways people connect to the internet, and this trend is only going to continue.
So why should musicians and music entrepreneurs care? Lots of reasons, actually.
We know that mobile access is becoming a main driver for music discovery, from “smart radio” services like Pandora to on-demand streaming platforms like MOG and Rhapsody. Then there’s the world of “apps,” which a lot of artists are using to create unique experiences for their fans. When we talk about the internet, we’re always reminding folks that all these innovations that musicians use in their lives and careers are the result of an environment where anyone can create the next amazing program, website or service. The mobile internet is no different. Or is it? Currently, there are few protections to keep mobile broadband access affordable and competitive. There’s a real worry that with greater concentration, just a few providers would be able to act as gatekeepers to an increasingly crucial marketplace for creative entrepreneurs. You know, like musicians.
AT&T doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to music, free speech and openness. You may recall an incident back in 2007 when the company censored a live Pearl Jam performance after singer Eddie Vedder made a few critical remarks about then-president George W. Bush. AT&T had the exclusive right to webcast the Lollapalooza festival where PJ was performing, which shows what can happen when big companies have the sole authority to decide what should and shouldn’t be communicated online. AT&T hasn’t — to our knowledge — done anything like this on the mobile internet, but you can see how it might be an issue if a company with that much market power were to do so.
Another consideration is affordability. The non-mobile broadband marketplace is dominated by the phone and cable companies. This so-called “duopoly” hasn’t done much to lower prices or increase speeds, despite promises made by Internet Service Providers more than a decade ago. Why should anyone expect that greater concentration in the mobile marketplace would result in cheaper, better service? Working musicians know the value of a dollar, especially in these uncertain economic times. Having to pay more for mobile access would definitely impact how creators grow their businesses. (And what is today’s working musician, but a small business?)
Alas, the courtship is well underway, and AT&T and T-Mobile have officially filed their marriage proposal with the Department of Justice and the FCC. Does the merger have a chance to go through? Too early to say, really. One thing we know for sure: FMC and our artist friends will be looking for opportunities to describe how this merger might affect musicians. Stay tuned…