Washington is known for encouraging and celebrating innovation. From the music scene that’s become a beacon to America and the world, to the state’s thriving technology sector, innovation is the driving force behind Washington’s economy and its music culture.
In the last decade, digital technology has changed the face of music. Seemingly overnight, we transitioned from an old-school retail environment to a landscape where artists can connect directly with audiences and fans can access vast catalogs of music. Because of innovation, we now see legitimate, licensed services that compensate artists while satisfying fans’ desire for music, on-demand and on-the-go.
Music and technology continue to merge in exciting new ways, with the mobile Internet helping fans discover new music on all manner of devices.
On any given night, a band can play a show at the Showbox, upload the performance to a mobile music or social media service, and within hours it can be accessed on a fan’s mobile handset. This spirit of creativity and innovation is crucial to artists’ ability to thrive in the digital era.
But what if the national wireless carriers decided to exclude certain mobile music services on their handset device? What if high prices and restrictive data plans foreclosed participation in this emerging marketplace?
Unfortunately, this scenario is a real possibility if AT&T is allowed to take over T-Mobile. This deal would give AT&T and Verizon control over nearly 80 percent of the wireless market.
In turn, AT&T would have the ability to exert tremendous control over what music, video and apps can be accessed on their network. And without meaningful competition between wireless providers, musicians – particularly independents – could find it difficult to get their music out to the masses.
A competitive marketplace built on access and innovation is the reason we have so many powerful tools for information exchange and expression. If the wireless market is reduced to just two dominating players, the ever-evolving world of smartphones and mobile Internet could become a world of pay-to-play arrangements and restricted access. In fact, AT&T has a history of locking down technology such as the iPhone and blocking applications such as Google Voice and Slingbox.
If this takeover is approved, the company will be able to leverage its market dominance to ink exclusive deals with its well-heeled business partners. The result will be limited choice for consumers and less innovation in mobile devices and apps. This would frustrate the development of a legitimate digital music marketplace that the music community has long hoped for.
Moreover, AT&T has a troubling track record with censorship. In 2007, the company cut the sound on a live webcast of a Pearl Jam concert due to some innocuous comments made by Eddie Vedder about then-president George W. Bush.
That incident took place on the wireline Internet, but what’s to stop a company with that much market power from doing something similar on mobile? Future of Music Coalition is hardly alone in preferring a world where your wireless carrier isn’t able to dictate the terms of free expression.
Additionally, this merger will lead to higher prices for consumers, as well as artists who want to reach their fans online. Not only will AT&T be able to raise prices, it also will be able to cap how much data customers can upload and download on its network and enforce exorbitant fees for overages. Higher costs and download restraints will restrict the ability of music entrepreneurs to reach fans and deliver content over the mobile Internet.
Artists and fans should applaud Attorney General Rob McKenna for opening an investigation into the takeover. We also encourage Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to take a close look at what this deal would mean for local creators and other small businesses.
Washington’s vibrant and diverse music culture has changed the world before. Preserving competition in wireless will ensure it does so again.
Casey Rae-Hunter is deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition, a national, nonprofit research education and advocacy organization for musicians (www.futureofmusic.org).