Back in December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; many commentators predicted that the commission, comprised of a 3-2 Republican majority, would overturn the hard-fought Title II neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015. The vote went through as expected, and it felt like a devastating blow; the online world had spent the previous weeks breathlessly campaigning against the repeal, touting doomsday visions of the post-neutral net.
Amid the panic of public discourse, it’s important to remember that the fight for neutrality isn’t new, and it’s certainly not over yet. While the stretch leading up to December’s decision saw a ramped-up deluge of conversations on net neutrality, the issue has been forwarded by musicians and music industry personnel for over a decade.
In 2007, the Future of Music Coalition helmed their Rock the Net campaign, which partnered with artists like Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Ted Leo, to defend net neutrality. (Leo is still advocating loudly today.) Proponents for net neutrality existed before Rock the Net, but the campaign forwarded new concerns. Their opposition was formidable, thanks to the sway and spotlight those artists lent to the issue, but also because the movement evinced a broader, unconsidered truth: a fair and neutral Internet was vital for musicians.
If that maxim is true for the likes of Eddie Vedder, then it’s true for independent labels and the artists they represent. A neutral Internet is a baseline necessity for an already-institutionally disadvantaged musical demographic. The neutral web maintains a structure that, while not unequivocally neutral, per se, affords relatively similar access to major labels and their rosters and independents and their signees.
That’s an oversimplification, but the fact is a neutral Internet means that whether you’re visiting Warner’s website or the online merch store for an obscure tape label, they’ll both load at the same speed. If net neutrality’s Title II protections are repealed, that might not be the case, and the implications of that imbalance could be disastrous for independent labels and the artists they support.
Kevin Erickson is the national organizing director for the Future of Music Coalition. He fears that without net neutrality, the music industry will be slanted more explicitly towards the financial and ideological biases of Internet service providers [ISPs] like Comcast and Verizon, who would become discretionary “gatekeepers” between online content and the public.
“What we want is for digital services to compete to better serve the needs of artists and music listeners,” Erickson says. The governing fear is that, without net neutrality, ISPs could squeeze or accelerate speeds based on financial and ideological preference, meaning music providers would be incentivized to pay ISPs for better speeds while others suffer slow connections. “If digital services are forced instead to compete to better meet the needs of ISPs, the consumers lose out, and the artists lose out in terms of their ability to make their own choices.”
Andrew Sullivan, IT director for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, thinks the full gravity of net neutrality has suffered from what he calls “bad marketing.” “Net neutrality isn’t exactly a flashy phrase,” he says, noting there are barriers to cognition around what is essentially an issue of equality. “It’s a kind of technological discussion, which I think rules a lot of people out from understanding it.”
Erickson accentuates the problem of obfuscating language. He explains that opponents of neutrality have taken advantage of the confusion by packaging anti-neutrality policy to appear as if it supports it. “You see that from Comcast taking out ads saying that they support ‘the open Internet,’” he says. “The most recent one is [Rep.] Marsha Blackburn’s ‘Open Internet Preservation Act.’ It’s really an anti-net neutrality bill pretending to be a pro-net neutrality bill.”
Given the stakes, clarity on the issue is essential.
The neutral net provides, in some capacities, a “level playing field” between all competitors. Erickson notes that the indiscriminate structure has facilitated crucial connections between artists and communities, especially ones that are underserved by corporate media: “[Independent artists and labels] have been able to build their own channels of communication, and underpinning that [is] the idea that the Internet works the same for everybody.”
At first, that approach served independent labels and bands well. Internet 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provided avenues that were accessible and, for a time, free, allowing bands to develop new and open lines of communication with fans. Mike Park, who operates Californian punk label Asian Man Records, notes that the spread of non-traditional routes for dissemination allowed a sense of agency and choice for artists. “You don’t even have to be on a record label,” he says. “I tell bands all the time to just put out their records themselves.”
But that strategy only works if they have the same access to audiences as everyone else. Eventually, these services started monetizing their communications, pricing out less economically advantaged artists. Sullivan considers Facebook an essential tool for music promotion, and he’s tracked the effects of the platform’s change on his label.
“In 2012, we were able to have an audience of, say, 100,000 who liked Sub Pop [on Facebook],” he says. “We would send out a message, and it would reach all of those people. That was what we were accustomed to.” Facebook, then, was neutral; they didn’t restrict what posts people saw, so if Sub Pop made a status update, it would show up in everyone’s News Feed. Now, things are different.
“They made a change that said, ‘We’re going to throttle the amount of people your messages go to. We’re going to make it so if you want to reach more people, you have to pay more,’” Sullivan explains. It was a significant change for Sub Pop’s marketing. “We’d invested a lot in the infrastructure of being able to promote to people on Facebook.” If net neutrality is repealed, Sullivan worries that the same effect will happen across the web. “We’re weakening an already quiet signal.”
Angela Lin, a marketing and project manager with Los Angeles-based independent label Stones Throw, notes that even in the realm of neutrality, advertising on social media is costly, creating a world where “whoever has the deeper pocket” gets seen more. While major labels can afford the added cost, extra advertising and placement fees across various platforms could be the straws that break the indie camel’s back.
“Independent labels thrive on being creative with a shoestring budget,” she explains. Repealing neutrality would be a function of accelerationism. “It could create two worlds on social media: one for big artists, labels, and business, and a dark age for those who can’t keep up.”
Erickson explains that service providers could actively widen that gulf with a spread of preferential deals and paid incentives. He likens it to the effects of payola on radio: “We’ve seen the way that commercial radio, which was once a very vibrant and localized medium that allowed for the flourishing of regional sounds, has moved more towards platforms that elevate the voices that already have a lot of influence, rather than the needs of the community. We’ve seen what payola looks like offline, and it’s not going to be any better online.” He notes that platforms like Spotify, which is already structured to privilege paid content, are emblematic of the possible imbalance that could characterize the entire web.
To demonstrate the dangerous dynamic of paid preferential treatment, Sullivan iterates the circumstances surrounding the deal that Netflix struck with Comcast in early 2014. Upon realizing the amount of traffic that Netflix customers provided, Comcast decided to negotiate to make the online stream platform pay them for access. When Netflix refused, Comcast throttled their Internet speeds until movies and shows were virtually unwatchable. Netflix soon acquiesced, agreeing to pay Comcast. Sullivan sees a not-so-distant parallel with streaming music, in which songs become unlistenable if labels and artists don’t pay ISPs for premium speeds.
The ancillary effects of barriers to access erected in a pay-to-play system manifest in many ways. Park notes that if speeds for his label’s Limited Run webstore are throttled, that could adversely impact sales. “If the store is slow for people to load, that could be a problem,” he says, emphasizing the importance of Internet speed for users. Uploading music to digital vendors is another concern. “What if that takes forever?” Park worries, adding: “It already takes forever to upload that stuff.”
Sullivan observes that attendance at shows could also decline if algorithms prevent web-posted tour dates from showing up on people’s social media. “If you can’t reach the fans in the city to promote your tour, then there might be 15 fewer people there. For a band that’s maybe making $200 a night, that’s a big deal.” The gravity of that is compounded by the substantial role that touring plays in the success of a modern independent band. Park says bluntly, “The only way you can survive is you gotta tour.”
For most independent label owners, these fears are nothing new. Net neutrality is just the latest feature of imbalance in the industry. Joe Steinhardt runs New Jersey’s Don Giovanni records, which he co-founded with Zach Gajewski. Steinhardt, a communications professor at Michigan State University, emphasizes that the idea of a neutral Internet being a “great equalizer” for independent labels is fallacious.
“Even on a neutral Internet, things were never fair for independent labels,” he says. “We couldn’t compete fairly. Since we couldn’t compete fairly on a neutral Internet, I don’t think things are going to actually change that much for independent labels on a non-neutral Internet.”
Steinhardt is still an advocate for a neutral Internet, though: “From a social standpoint, [the repeal] is terrible as far as freedom and culture and increasing dominance of multinational corporations.” But he also points out the sometimes-duplicitous nature of the net neutrality campaign; companies like Facebook and Google have provided vast chunks of funding for pro-neutrality efforts, and Steinhardt sees it as less than benevolent.
“A neutral web benefits companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google,” he explains, “and that’s why those companies are sinking a ton of money [into fighting for it]. [Neutral Internet] means more power to Spotify, more power to Apple, and those are all the companies that have been partnering with major labels to crowd out independent labels the whole time anyway. It’s not David vs. Goliath. It’s Goliath vs. Goliath, and the Davids of the world are gonna get fucked either way.”
Steinhardt is adamant that for concrete institutional change to happen, music consumers have to become active and conspicuous participants in listening and consumption habits, rather than passive recipients.
“Fans have to realize they’re getting the illusion of choice,” he says, stating that streaming platforms, curated by corporations, limit freedom of choice. Statistics highlight that claim; it’s estimated that just three labels control 80% of the American music industry. That fact is doubly concerning given their social and political ambivalence. “Fans have to realize that and stop using this stuff.”
There are more than just financial considerations at play. The ideological implications of an increasingly centralized and homogenous presentation of art are complex and multiplicitous, but it can be squarely claimed that less choice and access would likely undermine artistic freedom and limit voices. This too is rooted in the economic concerns of a repeal; the stark class lines along which the industry is drawn would be further stratified.
Erickson notes that independent labels are crucial in elevating critical, alternative, and countercultural music. Those elements are rarely tailored for or aligned with corporate interest; in fact, they’re often the opposite.
“Both in terms of the diversity of expression that they bring to the marketplace, and the scale at which they operate, the independent label community is so crucial to the health and sustainability of the music industry,” he says. “The content [independent labels] are putting out in the world is less likely to meet the needs of corporate advertisers and what’s likely to be attractive to big corporate partners.”
Despite the spread of threats posed by the potential repeal, Erickson isn’t fretting over worst-case scenarios. He’s confident that Congress, employing the Congressional Review Act, can overturn the FCC’s decision.
“We expected to lose [the FCC] vote,” he says, seeing the issue more as a back-and-forth struggle as opposed to a static decision, positing neutrality as analogous to the industry itself. “There’s something sort of structurally similar between the way that musicians’ careers are oriented to think about the long-game approach and the way that policy change and organizing works. To get to where we are on net neutrality, we had to lose several times before we won … in 2015. And then when you win, the story’s still not over, because you have to fight and defend that win.
“The amount of progress I’ve seen on this issue gives me a lot of hope for our ability to make progress on a whole range of issues that affect musicians and their lives.”
For those looking to participate in the fight for net neutrality, Erickson and Sullivan both suggest calling your representatives in Congress.
“It’s an appropriate time to be doing that. We’re going to have to hold policy makers accountable,” Erickson says. Even now, Democrats are close to forcing a floor vote on the issue. Sullivan says coordinated efforts with Washington’s state government have seen measured success, even though the state’s decisions are still at the mercy of federal rule.
Erickson’s optimism isn’t necessarily shared by independent label employees and artists who, even on a neutral net, face innumerable challenges to stay above water. Of thriving in a future with or without neutrality, Sullivan says simply, “I definitely have hope for survival. Thriving is relative.” Steinhardt remarks that even if the net stays neutral, “[independent labels] are still going to be dealing with all the same problems.”
When prompted on how to help independent labels and artists, Sullivan, Lin, Park, and Steinhardt echo a similar chorus: go see bands when they come to town. “Put in the effort. Go out to shows. Support labels directly. Support the artist offline,” implores Lin. Sullivan adds to the imperative: “When you’re there, buy their record and their shirt. Pay for the music and pay to see the band, because then you’re putting your money where your mouth is.”