Public Knowledge urges the FTC to investigate music streaming


Stones overturned. Cans of worms kicked open. Cats flung into flocks of pigeons.

Whatever metaphor you prefer, the UK’s parliamentary inquiry into the economics of music streaming shone plenty of light into the workings of the modern music industry. Could the US now get its own high-profile probe, conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)?

Public Knowledge, one of the American organisations that campaigns around issues including open internet, freedom of expression and copyright law, certainly hopes so.

It has published a white paper called ‘Streaming in the Dark: Where Music Listeners’ Money Goes – and Doesn’t’ that it claims “shines a light on the dysfunction of the music streaming ecosystem”.

Its author, senior policy counsel Meredith Rose, published a separate blog post that nods firmly in the direction of the campaign launched by musician Tom Gray that sparked the UK’s inquiry.

“The streaming marketplace is fundamentally broken,” she wrote, zeroing in on the NDA-protected deals between rightsholders and streaming services.

“Artists aren’t allowed to see the deals that set their streaming payment rates; indie labels aren’t allowed to see the deals distributors cut with labels on their behalf. And in many cases, artists aren’t even allowed to compare notes and talk about their own contracts.”

Rose called for the FTC to “use its statutory power to pierce the NDA curtain, study this marketplace, and determine how and where the market is failing consumers and artists” to pave the way for reforms using tools “from antitrust law, to fair-dealing mandates, to app store regulation, to whistleblower protections”.

This is what Public Knowledge wants, but the big question, of course, is whether the FTC will take it up on the suggestion.

In the UK, we’ve seen competition regulator the CMA decline to launch a full investigation of the music industry, partly because it decided problems in the market were not competition issues (although partly, in our interpretation, for pure bandwidth reasons: it has a number of other big investigations on its plate).

The current regulatory climate in the US seems to be more focused on Big Tech, so whether there’s the appetite or resources for a probe into Big Music is unclear.

However, three of the four biggest music streaming services are owned by Big Tech companies (Apple, Amazon and Google) and Spotify is already big enough to have attracted the scrutiny of US politicians.

Some of the issues raised by Public Knowledge could thus be pulled into existing probes. In any case, whether you’re in sympathy with its views or vehemently disagree with them, the organisation’s report is worth reading: to understand what it’s calling for and why, and to think about whether that will hit home with the FTC.

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash

Written by: Stuart Dredge