It’s easy to be cynical about what’s happening with our Federal government in Washington, DC. Between the antagonism, gridlock and overall messiness of Congress, we sometimes lose sight of positive developments that make a difference for our cultural community.
One of those developments took place this week, and Senator John Kennedy was in the middle of it.
We are in the middle of a fundamental shift in how music and culture is created, distributed and accessed by fans. This is an incredibly disruptive time, particularly for musicians and other artists who are trying desperately to keep up with the times and understand how to distribute their work – and how to be paid fairly.
As technology has evolved, a core principle has been at the core of innovation – network neutrality. Put simply, network neutrality is the idea that large internet service providers should not have the ability to block or otherwise limit the ability for smaller innovators and entrepreneurs to reach consumers via the Internet. If someone creates a legal, licensed way to distribute music or video, they have the right to make it available and consumers have the right to access that content.
Take WWOZ for example – ‘OZ’s global stream reaches tens of thousands of fans worldwide, helping promote New Orleans music to fans all over the world. Because of net neutrality, WWOZ has the ability to stream without having to negotiate with Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and the other big Internet providers. Even more importantly, we are beginning to see music fans actually put money into the ecosystem by paying monthly subscription fees to streaming services – some analysts project the overall scale of the music economy will soon dwarf the size of the music industry at the height of the CD era. Again, the successes of these services are due to network neutrality.
The challenge of streaming services, of course, is that the revenues generated by giants like Spotify and Apple Music are not filtering down to the artists themselves in a manner that can sustain livelihoods for many. The solution, many think, is future generations of artist-owned streaming services with more artist-friendly revenue splits. This, again, is only possible because of net neutrality.
Local music journalism is already an at-risk platform across the U.S. Cities across the country where music is vital to local culture are watching their local music journalistic coverage rapidly decrease if not altogether shut down. Cities like New Orleans depend on local music publications, like OffBeat magazine, to provide both residents and tourists access to local music. Musicians and music venues benefit from this coverage. Without net neutrality, local music publications like OffBeat, which are already facing existing challenges, will surely suffer greatly from increased fees and other hurdles just to get the word out to folks who want to support live, local music.
Local New Orleans musician and board member for The Ella Project, Craig Klein, has been a long-time proponent for net neutrality. “Net Neutrality is a gigantic concern for musicians and we are grateful to Senator Kennedy for voting the way he did,” he tells us. “Music is an art, but it’s also a business, and when that business favors the creators, like Net Neutrality does, then it’s great day for music. Let Net Neutrality live and be free so music and musicians can flourish. #nottakenadvantageof.”
For two decades, there was general political consensus that net neutrality needed to be protected through legislation or regulations. Throughout that time, our friend Michael Bracy, who is based in DC but is also a genuine supporter of New Orleans music and culture, played an instrumental role in advocating on behalf of net neutrality, particularly through his role as policy director for the Future of Music Coalition. The Federal Communications Commission, the agency responsible for drafting and enforcing rules, tried three different times to draft rules that were supported by the US Court of Appeals, culminating in a 2015 rulemaking that once and for all settled the issue….or so we thought.
President Trump’s FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, decided to eliminate the 2015 rules altogether, spurring a massive outcry of citizens, consumer groups and innovators. Under his plan, the existing FCC rules will end on June 11 and no network neutrality protections will exist, creating unprecedented opportunities (and pressure) for ISP’s to unleash previously unseen business practices to monetize their networks.
Democrats in the United States Senate opposed the FCC action, and launched a rarely used legislative tactic called the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA is essentially a veto of a regulatory action, and if passed by both houses, and signed by the President, the 2015 FCC rules would be reinstated.
For reasons that honestly don’t make much sense to us, net neutrality has become a partisan issue, with Democrats in support and Republican opposed. As the CRA made its way toward a critical floor vote this week, one Republican had joined with the Democrats, meaning one additional Republican had to vote in support of net neutrality.
In a dramatic move, Senator Kennedy became that 51st vote, thus ensuring the CRA would move on to the House for consideration. Eventually, he was joined by another Republican senator.
Very literally, if Senator Kennedy and his two colleagues had not bucked their party leadership to support net neutrality the effort to reinstate the 2015 rules would have died this week.
We still have many twists and turns to go – the House needs to pass their version and the President has to sign the bill; at the same time the Appeals Court is evaluating the FCC’s action and may put up a roadblock.
But, the point we want to make is that Senator Kennedy was faced with a tough decision and not only made the right vote, but he made a brave vote. And he made a vote that is critical for current and future members of the New Orleans cultural community.
Well done, Senator. Well done.
Ashlye Keaton and Gene Meneray
Co-Founders of The Ella Project