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If you’re fed up with streaming behemoths like Spotify, there’s now another place you can go to discover new music: your local library. Over a dozen public libraries in the U.S. and Canada have begun offering their own music streaming services to patrons, with the goal of boosting artists and local music scenes. The services are region-specific, and offer local artists non-exclusive licenses to make their albums available to the community.
The concept originated in 2014 when Preston Austin and Kelly Hiser helped the Madison Public Library build the Yahara Music Library, an online library hosting music from local artists. By the time they completed their work on Yahara, they were confident they had a software prototype that other interested libraries could customize and deploy.“That became kind of the inspiration for building MUSICat,” Austin told Motherboard, referring to the software platform he and Hiser created under a startup called Rabble.Now, public libraries in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Fort Worth, and most recently New Orleans have launched their own community-oriented streaming services using MUSICat’s open source software.Joshua Smith works at New Orleans Public Library and has been embedded in the city’s rich music scene for over a decade. He oversaw the launch of Crescent City Sounds with help from a team of curators that represent local artists and business owners, music journalists and historians and more. “They helped me get the word out to the music community,” Smith told Motherboard, noting that their community status helped spread the word that the library now accepts digital music submissions.
Smith says that for this first round, the curators accepted albums from artists that were released in the last five years, and that while living within city limits wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, not gigging regularly in the area was. To be considered, applicants needed to submit at least one track from their album.
“The goal of this was to make every round that we add albums to it to be as reflective of the local music scene as possible,” he said. “Personally, I was looking for things that are less what you think of when you think of New Orleans music because people think of us in a certain way. There's an incredible diversity to the music scene here. And, you know, just the diversity of the city. So we're trying to make everything as reflective of that as we could this round.” Crescent City Sounds now has 29 albums and artists. Smith hopes that in future calls for submissions, the curators can reach out to artists to fill in collection gaps. However, the collection that debuted in October includes genres that range from traditional jazz and brass bands to surf rock, funk and hip-hop infused Mardi Gras Indian music. “Mardi Gras Indian music is a thing that nobody knows of or thinks about here, and it’s really cool,” he added. “It’s kind of this weird, secretive, amazing thing [in New Orleans]!”Smith is referring to Flagboy Giz—an active masking member of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe who submitted his debut album, Flagboy of the Nation, for consideration in Crescent City Sounds’ collection last spring. He says each selected artist received a $250 honorarium to license their music to the New Orleans Public Library for five years—a far cry from the fractions-of-a-penny per stream paid to independent artists by platforms like Spotify.
This honorarium and licensing agreement is roughly the standard for public libraries following Rabble’s process model. Austin does insist that libraries using MUSICat meet the basic criteria of paying artists to license their work to their libraries. But for everything else, Austin notes that these pre-established models are guidelines, not guardrails. “We offer a platform that pulls a core piece of this puzzle together,” Austin said. “We give them a great tool set for that, and we give them a process model that has sort of proven virtues that they can know about in advance. But the collection that’s created and the community around it, and the places that it can go, that’s much bigger than we are.” One example of a public library that took MUSICat and ran with it is Capital City Records— the music streaming platform of the Edmonton Public Library in Alberta, Canada. An early adopter of MUSICat, the library’s collection has grown to amass over 200 local musicians. The project also created opportunities for the library to engage in spin-off projects like limited run of vinyl pressings and running library-focused music events throughout the city. Dan Alfano, manager of digital initiatives at Edmonton Public Library says he appreciates that the client-customer relationship between Rabble and the library works more like a partnership. He described work on a series curators wanted to add to the website more information about Edmonton’s local music history and scene legends.
“The folks at Rabble basically helped us create this page as we were working with this other volunteer-run organization to get this local history project up on the site,” Alfano said. “So we have meetings talking about what the profile should look like, what are the various sections that we need to add and really just some web design. It might not sound like much, but it was huge, just to have the ability to go to them and say, ‘Hey, we've got this really cool thing. What do you think?’ And them saying, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out!’” While over 2,000 artists are featured on one of MUSICat’s music platforms, Austin says the company wants to continue forming partnerships with libraries on the local level. So for music lovers looking to jump ship from Spotify, he has a clear message: “This is not Spotify for libraries,” Austin said. “It’s a little different. The localness is kind of key.I don't think we could, for example, use the same strategy on the same fee to license on aggregate collection, which was all the local music from all the libraries available on the music hat app, right, like something like that would need to, it would need to be about the local collections and take people to them and let them play that music in context.” And maybe that’s exactly what we need.