In March (2006), the staff of the Future of Music Coalition made its yearly trip to Austin, Texas, for the 20th annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music convention — a spectacular gathering of tens of thousands of musicians, industry professionals, retailers, label owners, concert promoters and other members of the increasingly vast music community. Every day we’d drink margaritas, eat barbecue and witness sets from some of the best bands in the world.
It was the biggest SXSW yet, with more than 23,000 attendees, including 12,002 musicians. Of those musicians, only 5.5 percent of them were affiliated with major labels.
Over the past several years, the independent music community has flourished. It now represents over 80 percent of music released in this country and nearly 30 percent of the overall music marketplace. That’s no surprise to those who have been living at the intersection of music and technology. While many argue the Internet has had a negative impact on traditional record sales, it has also helped artists to tear down the walls between themselves and their fans and created the foundation for an unparalleled musician-powered renaissance.
If this transformation continues, musicians may leave behind the long-standing imbalance that requires them to sign away their copyrights as a condition of gaining a major-label contract. If they do so, artists’ gratitude should flow to the principle of network neutrality.
For musicians, net neutrality means they should have the unfettered ability to make their work available to potential fans without undue interference from corporate gatekeepers. Similarly, music fans should have the ability to access this music via a range of legitimate business models. Net neutrality also ensures the continued innovation that has spurred the growth of the indie sector, the transition to a legitimate digital economy and, more widely, consumer adaptation of broadband services.
To understand the importance of net neutrality for artists, look at the lack of a similar principle in modern commercial radio. When informally polled as to why they sign away their copyrights to major labels, most artists explain that they need to be on a major label in order to have a shot at commercial radio airplay. And, sadly, these artists have a point.
Whether it’s an outgrowth of the massive consolidation of the radio industry and the resulting loss of localism, the payola being investigated by New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), or simply commercial radio ignoring the independent sector for its own business purposes (or, most likely, a combination of all three factors), music released by independent labels is virtually absent from commercial airwaves. Further, entire genres of music, including, jazz, classical, bluegrass, gospel, big band and folk, are increasingly absent from the dial.
What can we learn from this? Most obviously we learn that concentrated control of valuable pipelines — the AM and FM spectrum — leaves them vulnerable to corruption, particularly when huge sums of money are at stake. No wonder musicians are so concerned about an Internet without net neutrality.
What would happen if Sony paid Comcast so that sonymusic.com would run faster than iTunes or, more important, faster than cdbaby.com (where over 135,000 indie artists sell their music)? Would a new form of Internet payola emerge, with large Internet content providers striking business deals with the dominant Internet service providers? How would that affect indie artists? Would it shut down the burgeoning new economy and replace it with one that looks a lot like our closed media market?
The large broadband providers insist these concerns are based in paranoid fantasy. What they have to realize, and what Congress has to address, is that the connection between radio consolidation, payola and these debates is real. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, Congress essentially handed the radio industry over to huge corporations focused solely on the bottom line, with particularly devastating results for local music communities across the country. Now some of the same congressional leaders who oppose strong network-neutrality provisions are also calling on the FCC to lift local radio-ownership caps, which would allow Clear Channel and others to purchase even more stations.
Musicians understand that Congress must expressly state the historic principle of net neutrality, as anything short of that will simply lead to a de facto form of Internet payola. But that’s not enough. We also need representatives who are willing to enforce the law, not representatives whose response to the most egregious flouting of existing payola laws is to call on the FCC to allow further consolidation which rewards the wrongdoers with opportunities to own even more stations.
In Austin, Future of Music Coalition spoke on a panel about the power of artist activism. Even though it was the last panel of the last day, after a week of barbecues, rock shows, and late nights, it was standing room only. Musicians are not spoiling for a fight. But they are not afraid of one. Radio taught us what it was like to live in a world controlled by payola. We will never trade the emerging promise of the open Internet for one that is narrowed by Internet payola.
Toomey is a recording artist and executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, which seeks to educate the media, policymakers and the public about music and technology issues. Bracy is policy director of the Future of Music Coalition and a partner in the Washington firm Bracy Tucker Brown & Valanzano.