Sensing a revolution in the way Internet traffic is managed, rock and roll musicians find themselves in the unusual position of defending the status quo.
Independent, lesser-known musicians and smaller record labels have launched a nationwide campaign Tuesday to support the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, which they said is under fire from Internet providers who want to charge a fee to have some Web sites load faster than others.
The Rock the Net campaign, made up mostly of musicians who are on smaller record labels or none at all, said they are fearful that if the so-called "Net neutrality" principle is abandoned their music may not be heard because they don't have the financial means to pay for preferential treatment.
Some said they don't want to pay. The Web, they said, has allowed many unknown musicians to put their music online, giving fans instant access to new music and giving bands greater marketing capabilities.
They said independent record labels are also on an equal Web footing with major players like Apple Inc.'s iTunes.
"It could be a pretty sad world where money alone buys the ears and anybody that can't afford it, can't get proper placement, is pushed off to the ghettos," said Derek Sivers, owner of CD Baby, an online store that sells compact discs by independent musicians.
The group is the latest to get involved in the Net neutrality issue.
SavetheInternet.com is a coalition of more than 800 groups — ranging from liberal political groups, such as MoveOn.org, to conservative groups, such as the Christian Coalition of America — that support the issue. That campaign was formed more than a year ago and is organized by Free Press, a national public interest group.
On the other side, phone and cable companies, including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp., want the freedom to charge content providers for priority Web traffic. They contend any legislation affirming Net neutrality would harm investment and innovation in the Internet.
Former musician Jenny Toomey, who is now executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for independent musicians, said this issue is so important that it has even attracted some big name artists, such as R.E.M., Sarah McLachlan and even Kronos Quartet, a classical musical string ensemble.
"Never before have I been doing work for the music community where every single artist that we called said, 'Yes use my name. I'm on board to support this,'" she said during a teleconference Tuesday morning. Her group is one of the campaign's organizers.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said if Internet providers are allowed to start charging fees for preferential treatment then it will stifle innovation across many industries, not just music.
"This is nothing more than a new bottleneck fee, a corporate broadband tax that will discriminate against less powerful voices and those unable or unwilling to pay such discriminatory fees," he said during the teleconference.
He complained that the Federal Communications Commission isn't doing enough to protect Net neutrality.
However, the FCC said last week it will see if Internet providers are conducting any such discriminatory business practices.
It said it will study how high-speed Internet providers are managing traffic on their networks and if they're charging different prices for different speeds or levels of service. The FCC might adopt regulations to ensure all Web traffic is treated the same.
Besides the Future of Music Coalition, the Rock the Net campaign is sponsored by Noise Pop Industries, which sponsors an annual San Francisco music festival among other things, and Zeitgeist Artist Management, which manages musicians.
According to the campaign's Web site, 124 bands and 24 music labels support the initiative.