Fiber and the future of music

The transition to a digital marketplace has been a bumpy ride for creators—especially musicians and songwriters, who experienced the disruptions early and often. A great deal is still being sorted out as our industry responds to new challenges and opportunities. Yet it has become clear that the Internet is an indispensable tool for artists from all backgrounds and disciplines. Back in the days of dial-up, it would have been difficult to imagine the array of innovations that creators now use everyday. From distributing and monetizing recordings to booking tours and engaging fans, broadband Internet has put powerful tools at our fingertips. It used to be that an artist would have to pack up and move to the big city to have a shot at reaching audiences. Now that audience can be both local and global. And the potential doesn’t stop there. That is, unless we let it.

Much has been made of the advantages of ultra high-speed Internet to economic growth and civic advancement. Broadband access can transform education, spur community development and even lead to higher property values. Wider deployment of gigabit Internet stands to unleash possibilities that are simply not possible with current broadband speeds. Swift and reliable connections are increasingly important to America’s global competitiveness. Faster speeds drive innovation that creates a ripple effect in both the private and and public spheres. The cultural sector—including the music community—also benefit, with opportunities to chart their own course through cutting-edge technology, experimentation and collaboration. Gigabit connectivity will further encourage this activity.

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Just like quality public transportation and vibrant arts spaces can enhance civic and cultural standing, so too does high-speed Internet burnish a town or city’s reputation. But it’s not just about bragging rights: robust digital networks will help America’s creative communities reinvent themselves for the 21st century. Meaningful support for the arts requires a holistic approach, including access to the tools of innovation and entrepreneurship. For America to remain a leader in music and media, our culture-bearers must be properly resourced. Globally competitive Internet access is now an imperative.

Gigabit connections—already available in some locales through municipal networks or commercial projects—are the difference between hearing a solo instrument and a broadband symphony. And the innovation can happen anywhere. Music hackathons can produce the next amazing app for artists and fans; civic tech can deepen ties between creators, local institutions and service organizations; and hands-on engagement with the latest technology can inspire up-and-coming media-makers. Some of the beneficiaries are at-risk youth who need these opportunities to stay on track.

Today’s broadband marketplace is woefully uncompetitive, with just a few telecommunications companies controlling access to the Internet for a majority of Americans. Where new fiber networks are introduced, old-school providers have responded by increasing speeds and lowering prices. This is good for consumers, and great for penny-conscious musicians. Also important is the accessibility of broadband networks. Creators and other innovators must have assurances that their content will reach audiences without discrimination. More competition in the broadband marketplace means we can vote with our dollar and not be subject to the whims of telecom and cable incumbents.

Music industry power centers such as Los Angeles, New York City and Nashville remain important, but we should also be looking to encourage new hubs of creativity and entrepreneurship. The good news is this can happen wherever there’s the necessary infrastructure and a desire to innovate. We can track outcomes and inspire other communities. In this way, America’s reputation as the place where creativity and innovation come together will sing out for years to come.

Today’s creators face many difficulties—a lagging economy, uncertain business models and angst about legal and policy structures. But we can’t disadvantage future creators by setting limits on what they can accomplish if provided the right tools. Policymakers at the municipal, state and federal level should nurture our creative communities by working to make access to high-quality, affordable broadband the status quo.

It’s time to start thinking of the Internet as cultural infrastructure. We’ve come a long way since the dial-up days, but we have a lot further to go. Like a great song, the thrill is in what comes next. But we can’t wait forever for the chorus. We need this infrastructure now, not in ten years. It’s time to call the tune for gigabit Internet today.

Rae is vice president for Policy and Education at the Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit organization for musicians, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter: @caseycontrarian.

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