What does net neutrality mean for studios?
Back in 1993, producer Phil Ramone gathered a group of musical luminaries to sing with Frank Sinatra on what would become the groundbreaking Duets LP. The thing is, though, that few of those vocal partners actually ever made it to Capitol Records’ Studio A in Hollywood for those sessions. Physically, anyway. Tony Bennett was in New York, Liza Minnelli was in Brazil, and some other voices were scattered elsewhere around the globe. But the record got made, thanks to a process that at the time seemed like science fiction.
With Al Schmitt at the console, Sinatra had already recorded his parts, in front of an orchestra, the way he was used to working; Ramone chose where the duet partners would add their lines. They would be phoning their parts in over an ISDN line, a digital subscriber circuit operated by AT&T but using encoding created, in part, by George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. The Entertainment Digital Network — EDNet, for short — had gotten transmission signal latency down to below 80ms, which made it viable enough, with some time-delay compensation, to allow it to be used for real-time remote vocal recording. Bono recorded his part at U2’s Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin; Aretha was in Detroit to sing her lines on ‘What Now My Love?’ It all worked seamlessly, just like overdubbing a vocal, the difference being that the vocalist wasn’t in the same studio. Or the same city. Or the same continent.
Duets was a huge success — it sold over three million copies — and it helped rejuvenate Old Blue Eyes’ career late in the game by pairing him with some younger artists, like Julio Iglesias and Bono. (Hey, it was 1993 — we were all young then.) But it was also an inflection point in connecting the recording studio, which had always been a rather purposely insular place. It was a time when what would become the Internet was still in its adolescence. Some of that turned out to be file sharing, which ultimately brought down the music business as we knew it then, but some of that also created new opportunities for collaboration and interaction between artists, producers, engineers and studios. Some name-brand session musicians today make as much of their living playing on sessions emailed to them as they once did in the studio.
That same Internet has been under attack, ever since the Federal Communications Commission stated, in 2014, that it was looking into ‘net neutrality’ — a still-amorphous concept that like some kind of digital Rorschach Test allowed anyone to read into the phrase what they saw based on some combination of knowledge, ignorance, ideology and self-interest. At stake was what the Internet would become: would it be a free-flowing medium through which all data — from today’s weather report to pornography — flowed freely, regardless of the nature of the content? Or could those who had come to control the canal locks of its digital waterways — cable and wireless companies like Comcast and Verizon — be able to throttle its speeds, allowing those who paid more to access fast lanes to deliver their messages? The debate was alternately spirited and vicious.
We got the answer in late February. According to the FCC, the Internet will now be classified under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which means it will be regulated like a public utility, like telephones and water. This means that all Internet traffic will get the same access to connectivity. (And more so — the FCC is forbearing from stricter utility-style rules that it could also apply under Title II.) In short, nothing has changed, except that a regulatory agency has now guaranteed the status quo, instead of leaving it to the vagaries of an open market.
That’s a good thing, because the open market has resulted in the opposite of what’s needed for improvements in service and user-cost containment: instead of more competition we have less, thanks to ongoing consolidation between large broadband providers, who look at the millions of dollars in fines they’ve paid for predatory pricing as simply the cost of doing business. Opponents of the FCC’s decision as ‘Obamacare for the Internet’. But it’s closer to the kind of anti-monopolistic legislation that the US saw in the early part of the 20th century, when the robber barons, precursors to today’s oligarchs, ran critical industries such as oil and finance like fiefdoms.
In the long run, it’s also good for studios. While the complex connectivity that took place during the production of Duets is rarely necessary these days, the need for more quotidian connectivity, for the routine transfer of session files, for Skype to let producers monitor sessions, for quick approvals of mixes and so on, has never been greater. Studios routinely book time online, and exchange information like setups and equipment rentals over email. And who isn’t offering clients free Wi-Fi in the lobby these days? It would be hard to imagine running a studio without the Internet today. Or more precisely, without an affordable, reliable high-speed Internet connection, something that is far from assured with just a handful of large corporations controlling access and pricing. (Comcast, the largest of US broadband providers, has been voted ‘Worst Company In America’ twice, in 2010 and 2014, according to Consumer Reports’ online portal.)
Without codification of net neutrality, the future wasn’t looking promising. A 2013 study by the Open Technology Institute of consumer broadband services in 22 cities around the world showed that, in comparison to their international peers, Americans in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles are paying far higher prices for much slower Internet service. If it’s connectivity you need, you’re better off making records in Seoul than in Brooklyn.
Net neutrality will prove to be a benefit in the long run. That time period, though, will be extended by the tsunami of litigation that opponents have already promised. But that’s just going to mean that the inevitable — cost-effective, widely available gigabit-speed broadband — will simply take a little bit longer.