From the beginning, the story of independent music in the U.S. has been about a struggle to level the playing field for creative expression and entrepreneurship—about finding ways for a more diverse array of creative voices to be heard above the noise of a handful of massive companies using the combination of technological control and economic domination to drown them out.
When I say “from the beginning,” I’m not talking about Our Band Could Be Your Life. I’m talking about independent labels as far back as the late 1910s and early 1920s; Black Swan Records, for example, one of the first African-American owned & operated labels, was founded out of dismay over major record companies’ mistreatment of black performers and audiences. But stuck in a system where major companies controlled pressing plants and distribution networks, the label was ultimately unable to compete, and Black Swan went bankrupt in 1923. It wasn’t until after WWII, when more independent pressing plants opened and access to technology was democratized, that independent labels were able to start to really take off.
Over the years, this dynamic has been repeated across evolving technologies; a flourishing of indie upstarts ultimately reined in by waves of consolidated corporate power. When the 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted the ban on the number of radio stations a single company could own nationwide, companies like Clear Channel could expand their ownership from 40 radio stations to over 1200. Local DJs and programmers were fired and replaced with automated systems playing nearly identical playlists across every market.
Bands like Fugazi once warned of the influence of an industry principally controlled by “Five Corporations,” of a dystopian mass society where fewer and fewer voices speak to an ever larger and more passive audience. Now we’re down to just three major labels, and despite payola laws, those three companies keep a firm grip on what gets played on commercial radio.
To reach audiences, independents have had to focus on alternative infrastructure that allows gatekeepers to be bypassed, like independent record shops, college radio, and especially the Internet. The online sphere hasn’t turned out to be a panacea—it’s disrupted traditional revenue streams and is prone to the same corporatization as legacy media; but nonetheless, it’s offered fans access to and information about a greater diversity of music than ever before. What makes this possible is Net Neutrality, the principle that all traffic should be treated equally, regardless of who made it; meaning your favorite cassette label’s website, music videos, or other data can flow just as effectively as OneRepublic’s.
But now a new class of potential gatekeepers has emerged in the form of Internet Service Providers, the companies we pay for online access, and what’s being hoarded is attention and access. Big ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T would like to be able to charge big content companies extra for faster speeds and preferential treatment, while those who can’t pay-to-play get left behind. And in the same way that Clear Channel and friends bulldozed local radio, consolidation in the telecommunications sector has run rampant. This year, fresh off its recent purchase of NBC/Universal, Comcast announced its plans to acquire Time Warner Cable, an unprecedented concentration of power that spells more bad news for music.
Musicians have been active in this fight before the concept of net neutrality even had a name, and this year, as the issue came to national attention, musicians were again among those leading the charge. At a November rally at San Francisco’s City Hall, Thao Ngyuen of Thao with the Get Down Stay Down put it this way:
… for our next release, downloadable songs, videos, whatever intriguing content we’ve come up with and whatever platforms they find, might end up bottle-necked, relegated to the gutters of the Internet highway because the trajectory of my career does not benefit Comcast or Verizon. What happens to content that is made by anyone – that is, most of us – who is not affiliated with a provider powerhouse?
Many independent labels understand the threat as well; this year, the American Association of Independent Music told the FCC:
“Open Internet structures are our best means through which to do business, reach listeners and innovate in the digital realm. The adoption of Net Neutrality rules that will ensure that Independents would continue to have this direct access to the marketplace is crucial to our livelihoods.”
But an Internet that works better for those with deeper pockets is bad news for fans too, particularly if your horizons extend beyond the Billboard 200. Whether your interests run to queer punk or Spanish-language hip-hop or German jazz-flute microhouse, you’re probably finding out about it online, and if there’s money to be made by standing in between musicians and music fans, we know the ISPs are going to try and find a way to do it.
The absence of strong net neutrality rules could also mean fewer choices for how you listen. Rather than competing to better serve artists and fans, digital music services could be forced to compete over who can make the best deals with ISPs and wireless providers, resulting in data cap exemptions and other deals that manipulate the market to favor big corporate players. And independent-focused options, from Bandcamp’s interactive streaming app to non-commercial online radio services like Hollow Earth Radio, aren’t going to be able to compete against deep-pocketed companies like Spotify or I Heart Radio.
Now we’re relying on the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that governs our nation’s communications infrastructure, to step up in our defense. The current rules review was triggered because Verizon sued the government, and now the FCC has to come up with a different legal rationale for net neutrality rules. Regardless of what happens next, the ISPs are likely to sue the FCC again, so the point is to find an approach that will hold up in court, while dodging possible interference from Congress, where there seems to be an ongoing game of who can most entertainingly misunderstand basic technology (Ted Cruz just took the lead with “Obamacare for the internet”, besting Ted Stevens’ “the internet is a series of tubes”). The cleanest and simplest solution is to invoke Title II of the Communications Act, an approach favored by everyone from President Obama to tUnE-yArDs, though vehemently opposed by the Koch Brothers (ever wonder what’s on their iPods? Wagner? Xasthur? Starland Vocal Band?)
The FCC’s final meeting of the year happened last week, but net neutrality rules weren’t even on the agenda. Having scrapped the initial weak proposal after unprecedented public outcry and apparently reconsidered the deeply flawed “hybrid” plan that was floated this fall, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to reveal his proposed revised rules in early 2015. What he proposes may determine whether he’ll be remembered as a telecom lobbyist dingo, or as the guy who proved his critics wrong and saved independent music. Whether you care about music for its entertainment value, for its cultural vitality, or for its ability to resist representations, respond in protest and elevate voices of cultural dissent, it’s time to listen closely.
[ article by Kevin Erickson, narration by TBA ]