Music Groups Band Together to Oppose Rule Rollback

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back network neutrality regulations has hit a sour note with some musicians, music labels and producers, who have suggested that allowing fast and slow internet lanes could create the kind of payola scenario that once plagued the radio industry.

That came in a letter from more than 200 music groups, individuals and companies and organizations, which has been posted online so it can be submitted as an FCC comment by multiple parties.

“To truly make good on the remarkable democratic potential of the internet, the fundamental infrastructure underpinning it all must be neutral and nondiscriminatory,” they said in the letter, addressed to Pai. “Unfortunately, the FCC’s current proposal would amount to a sharp turn in the opposite direction.”

That, they argued, is because the move would allow pay-to-play fast lanes, “disadvantaging those who cannot pay for preferential treatment, and replicating the industry’s past problems with payola.”

The radio industry went through some difficult times when the widespread paying — some would say bribing — of disc jockeys helped secure airplay and potentially determined which songs were sold at record stores. The indie groups and smaller labels don’t want a repeat in the world of app stores.

“Pai’s plan to repeal net neutrality protections amounts to payola for the internet, elevating the voices of those lucky handful of companies who can pay for privileged treatment, while disadvantaging the rest of us,” Future of Music Coalition national organizing director Kevin Erickson said. “I know firsthand how impossible it is to compete in environments dominated by payola — we’ve seen it in commercial radio — and we’ve seen that as a result, consumers are left with less diversity of perspectives, more narrowing of choices. The ability to reach fans could depend on whether your work aligns with corporations’ needs.”

The musicians argue much more is needed to secure a healthy internet for music distribution, including fair compensation, consumer privacy and diversity, but network neutrality is a necessary foundation for competition.

“The FCC should maintain bright-line rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization on both fixed and mobile connections,” they said, all of which Pai has proposed to eliminate in his network neutrality proposal, which is to be voted on Dec. 14.

FCC Seen as Cop or Cop-Out

Pai has suggested that while paid prioritization would no longer be prohibited — there are potential pro-consumer business models, he’s argued — the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission would still be able to prevent anticompetitive prioritization through current antitrust law and laws against unfair conduct. That, however, will depend on discovering and enforcing that conduct.

“The notion that antitrust laws or other consumer protection laws prevent prioritization is laughable, and attempts by Pai and his uninformed allies to squeeze this into a competition frame miss the point entirely,” said Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press, one of the lead groups opposing the net neutrality regulation rollback. Free Press also wrote the FCC to push back hard as the vote approaches.

“Take cable TV, for example,” Wood began. “I can argue that it’s anti-competitive when it allows cable operators to pick and choose which content to carry and how to bundle channels together and charge different prices for them. I can even argue that such practices are anti-consumer. Cable TV providers will counter that cable is beset by channel space limitations and that they need editorial discretion when deciding what to carry.

“But no one thinks that the internet is subject to those kinds of channel space limitations — or that the internet should look more like cable TV,” Wood continued. “So, should Comcast be able to say you have to pay the internet access provider extra just to reach ESPN’s website, or Broadcasting & Cable’s website for that matter? Clearly, most people would answer with a resounding no. And common carriage law prevents exactly that kind of unreasonable discrimination, but not because Comcast is unfairly competing with Broadcasting & Cable.

“Net neutrality isn’t just some kind of ersatz anti-trust law. It’s a preservation of internet users’ rights to access what they want over their internet connection without paying extra tolls to the phone or cable company.”

Signatories to the letter include members of the group R.E.M., Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, GWAR, Mutual Benefit, The Buzzards of Fuzz, Helen Keller’s Ukelele and a veritable host of other musicians.

It is likely that, despite that push from artists and indie labels, Pai will be singing a different tune come Dec. 14. He signaled last week that he has the votes to eliminate the paid prioritization rule.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.