Net neutrality: The sound of the Internet

Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet and the telecommunications and cable companies don’t own it, but musicians like us use it every day to book tours, sell merchandise and communicate directly with our fans. Best yet, we don’t have to ask permission to do so.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about “net neutrality,” and whether it’s worth preserving. We say without a doubt.

Artists like us depend on an open Internet to manage our careers, reach fans, sell music and much more. It’s hard to imagine returning to a time when letting people know you’re coming to their town took a dozen people and even more dead trees. We used to have to hope that the club promoter stapled the show flyer to a record store bulletin board. Now we can email our fans directly. Progress!

The old version of the music industry was built on a system of bottlenecks and gatekeepers. To do much of anything you needed the backing of big companies who required that you sign over your copyrights (and often your autonomy). If you played music that was for one reason or another outside the label and commercial radio comfort zone, it was difficult and expensive to get your stuff out there. By contrast, the open Internet lets the biggest companies and the smallest bedroom recording artist compete on an equal technological playing field.

That’s pretty amazing.

There’s no doubt that the web has upended some long-standing music business models and there are legitimate questions about how to build a 21st century music industry that makes sense for artists and fans. One thing is certain: today’s musicians need access to the new marketplace or else we might as well pack away our instruments.

Net neutrality means that everyone can access the lawful content of his or her choice and surf where they please. It also gives musicians like us a way to reach their fans directly, without interference from gatekeepers and middlemen. Unfortunately, companies like Comcast — who recently won a court case overturning an FCC order to stop messing with certain types of web traffic — want to control the lanes on the information superhighway. This could impede the very innovation that is helping us transition to a legitimate digital music marketplace.

The short list of fully licensed music services is no longer so short. There’s iTunes, eMusic and Amazon MP3 store for downloads; Pandora, Rhapsody, and MOG for streaming. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also a growing subset of services that help musicians do everything from managing fan data to booking shows to distributing digital music. None of these sites and services existed before broadband came along, but all of them needed the open internet to get off the ground. If we lose net neutrality, we might never see the next amazing innovation that wows fans while compensating creators. Worse yet, we won’t even know what we’re missing.

But it’s not just about our industry. It’s about your free expression.

In 2007, Pearl Jam performed at the Lollapalooza festival, which AT&T had the exclusive right to broadcast via the web. When singer Eddie Vedder improvised lyrics criticizing then-President Bush, AT&T cut the sound on the webcast, unbeknownst to the band and attendees. If big-name rockers can be silenced at the whim of a corporation that exclusively controls the flow of information, what does it mean for everyone else?

It’s important to remember that net neutrality only applies to lawful content. We believe strongly in the concept of intellectual property and respecting copyright — it’s our bread and butter. Yet we believe just as strongly that artists and the public need to be able to create, collaborate, and innovate online without interference from gatekeepers.

Being able to make music is amazing. Being able to get that music to fans is essential. The open Internet lets artists like us keep doing what we do, and that’s why we sound off in support of net neutrality.

Erin McKeown is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

Hank Shocklee is a Grammy-nominated producer, DJ and president of
Shocklee Entertainment.

Martín Perna is a bandleader and composer with Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds.

Johnny 5 is the vocalist of the hip-hop crossover act Flobots.