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Just say no to Freegal

April 13, 2011

I am going to do what few librarians ever do. I am going to be perfectly frank about negative experiences with a vendor.  Consequences be damned.

I remember Meredith Farkas’s courageous post about EBSCO’s unethical practices in April of last year. There were repercussions for her post, but she met her goal of having the library community talking about EBSCO as a vendor to libraries.

Historically, librarians only publicly post about the positive experiences they’ve had with vendors. The negatives seem to only come out at late night drinking fests at conferences or in private conversations. I believe this lack of willingness to speak frankly about the companies we buy stuff from is due to three problems:

  1. As a profession, we’re generally nice people and don’t like to talk smack about anyone. This is generally a wonderful trait, but when we’re talking about allocating our scarce resources it can be extremely detrimental.
  2. Librarians are afraid of repercussions at work, including being disciplined, yelled at, or just plain fired.
  3. Librarians are afraid of the vendors, who they think might give them worse prices and support if they bad-mouth the product.

But hey, this is me. I’m tired of being quiet. And I’m not pulling any punches now that I don’t have to in order to preserve my job.

I’m going to tell you about my experiences with Freegal, and why Freegal is a bad investment for libraries.

I’ve worked with Freegal. I have dealt with the sales and support staff, used it as a user and as an administrator, I reviewed stats, and I fielded patron comments/complaints. And one of the reasons I’m posting this now is that Freegal is now cold-calling and cold-visiting my area’s libraries, and doing the typical sales dance that hides the limitations and problems of the product. A visit happened to my library yesterday, where the sales rep asked for our director for a cold-call sales pitch in person. I am pretty sure he didn’t realize that I now work for this library instead of my previous employer.

If I’m being polite, I would say that Freegal is not a wise investment for your library. If I’m being honest with you over a beer, I’ll say that Freegal is a frelling piece of junk and I don’t trust the company.

But whether you prefer the first or second mode of expression, the message is the same. Libraries have been lured into purchasing Freegal by well-crafted sales pitches, promises of future enhancements, and a false god of shiny technology.

Background
Freegal is a product that offers libraries downloads of music, from Sony, as DRM-free MP3s (and DRM-free MP3s are awesome; let me be clear about that). Freegal Music is owned by Library Ideas, LLC. Library Ideas, LLC is a company that has a single webpage. Freegal also only has a single webpage. Now, if my librarian skills are telling me anything, I’d be a bit skeptical of giving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that has so sparse a web presence.

The last library I worked for purchased a year’s worth block of downloads from Freegal. The staff worked with it for a while and we had some bad experiences, including many complaints from customers.

I wrote a post in September 2010 about libraries and digital music: “Music in Libraries: We’re Doing It Wrong.” The post mentioned Freegal, as well as Overdrive and Alexander Street Music. Freegal did not like what I had to say. Comments were made on my blog, and a call was placed to someone above me in the library. This call from Freegal included asking my supervisor to tell me to remove my post, or at least revise it. I said no, and thankfully my director backed me up. This blog was and is a journalistic enterprise of my own making, done on my own time. If I want to comment on a vendor’s product or service, I can do so. We all can.

My goal here is to peel back the veil, to give you an honest assessment in my opinion, and to educate people about what exactly it is that Freegal has for libraries.

Why are we buying pay-per-use MP3s?
I believe that without really thinking it through, libraries who have subscribed to Freegal have created a fundamental change in their library’s collection policy and expenditures.

Libraries typically buy one copy of something, and then lend it out to multiple users sequentially, in order to get a good return on investment. Participating in a product like Freegal means that we’re not lending anymore, we’re buying content for users to own permanently so they don’t have to pay the vendor directly themselves. This puts us in direct competition with the vendor’s sales directly to consumers, and the vendors will never make more money off of libraries than they will off of direct consumer sales.

What that does is put libraries in a position of being economic victims of our own success. I would think that libraries would remember this lesson from our difficulties with the FirstSearch pay-per-use model that most of us found to be unsustainable.

The more popular our service gets, the less able we are to meet demand. The private industry is moving away from pay-per-use. Netflix, Rdio, etc. are offering all-you-can-eat models instead on a subscription model. Freegal puts us in danger of manufacturing a demand we can no longer meet. The pay-per-use model undermines the economic power of libraries, which is to aggregate our communities’ buying power and take advantage of the economies of scale. I believe strongly that buying a product like Freegal could be damaging to libraries’ long-term economic sustainability.

Selection
It’s important to realize that Freegal only offers Sony music. That’s it – one record label. Despite promises from the very beginning that they’re “just about to add new record labels,” they have not offered anything other than Sony music. To me, offering a service that only presents one publisher’s offerings is not in keeping with our collection policies that require non-preferential selection. Also please realize that not all Sony music is offered in Freegal. It’s a select number of albums from a select number of artists.

Cost
Freegal offers two models for purchase:

  • A library can buy a block of downloads, a set number for the whole year, but once those are gone they’re gone. You can either set a library-wide weekly cap (divide your yearly total by 52) or choose no cap. Users are limited to 3 downloads per week.
  • A library can buy the “unlimited plan” (which isn’t really unlimited) which lets any library user download 3 per week, with no weekly or yearly cap. And you guessed it, this option is significantly more expensive. For a large urban library, the quoted cost was well over $100,000—over half of the library’s entire eResources budget.

This pricing model is not sustainable for libraries. From the dozen librarians I’ve spoken with at libraries with Freegal, it seems that the average cost per song is on par with a consumer-cost for a song ($1) or slightly more ($1.10 or so). If we really want to offer users a wide selection of MP3s they can keep forever, wouldn’t it be cheaper and smarter to simply buy users 3 MP3s from any record label through Amazon or iTunes?

Feedback on Freegal from Users
We had hundreds of complaints from users about Freegal at my last library.  I have heard the same thing from most of the other Freegal libraries I’ve spoken with.  The main complaints I heard were that the 3 songs per week limit was not sufficient. We heard repeatedly that having to schedule yourself out for a month’s worth of downloads to get a full album was not realistic. Other users were severely unhappy that the collection was only Sony, and some pointed out the preferential treatment asking if we’d been paid off to just offer Sony music. Others reported that they loved the service at first, but found the weekly limit per person to be just plain annoying and stopped coming back to the site after a few weeks. Persistent access, not temporally limited, is the expected norm – and when a service doesn’t provide that, it creates less interest in repeated visits and use.

Customer Service
I forwarded user comments, questions, and complaints to Freegal. I got no response. Even though I was named as the contact for my library, the company persisted in contacting another librarian (who was the initial sales contact) for all issues.  It was as if I didn’t exist.  Even after a face-to-face meeting where the rep was told by our administration to only work with me, he continued to exclude me. It was like a junior high shunning.  Technical problems that users encountered were never addressed. It was like sending questions and emails into a vacuum. A company that behaves that way does not get a gold star in my book.

False Promises and Bullying
In addition to the bad customer service issues listed above, I also question the overall ethics of the company and its sales staff. Numerous promises were made to me (“off the record of course”) that new content from other record labels would be added in the next few months. It’s always “in the next few months” and yet that elusive day never seems to come. My advice is to never, ever buy a product based on features or content that is not explicitly included in the contract.

The company also swears that they are giving you an amazing deal that no other library receives. And guess what? Everybody’s getting that same deal. This happens with a lot of vendors. Remember: their job is to sell. Negotiating with vendors is sadly often more like negotiating for a used car than it is like buying a fixed-price item off the shelf.

I condemn the company’s decision to contact my supervisor to tell me to take down my post that mentioned their product.  Even if this had been on a library blog that I’d written on library time, that action is a very poor way to respond to criticisms of your product.  But the fact that this blog is mine and not the library’s made it indefensible.

The salesperson I worked with also told me that the contract terms, including pricing, was “strictly confidential” and that it could not go out of the room. Heads up: unless you signed a non-disclosure agreement with a company, you can discuss any contract terms with whoever you want. That kind of meaningless and baseless bullying from a vendor sits very poorly with me.

So why does Freegal continue to be such a big temptation for libraries?
One word: technolust. Libraries are so keen to offer digital content to their users, a worthy and long-overdue goal. But Freegal’s model is simply not the way to be successful for digital music.  We need to wait for, or create ourselves, something that does work for libraries.  Freegal doesn’t work because:

  • Select songs from one record label is not the way to be successful.
  • A costly and unsustainable pay-per-use model is not the way to be successful.
  • Low limits per week for users is not the way to be successful.
  • And working with a vendor that is a bit shady and unresponsive is not the way to be successful.

Am I wrong?
I admit that it’s possible. My own experiences may be drastically different than everyone else’s, though I’d be surprised if that was the case. If you and your library have had good experiences with Freegal, leave a comment here. If you disagree with the assertions I’ve made above, tell me why I’m wrong. If you’ve had bad experiences, please share those too—anonymously if you feel more comfortable sharing that way.  I encourage people, though, to name your library and yourself. I want to see more people talking about positives and negatives of various vendor experiences. We need to help each other as professionals to get the best deal from the best vendors out there.  Sharing information is good, right?  It’s the principle to which our profession is dedicated.  Let’s share as much as we can, the good and the bad.  In this case, unfortunately it’s the bad.

“Just say no to Freegal”

  1. J Says:

    I don’t know about the business side of things with Freegal, however…an abundance of Classical (i don’t mind) and Asian music, oppressed CD collections and the same old shit at most libraries, i will continue to use Freegal (until the states library services can get their fingers out and use interlibrary loans) and enjoy what Freegal has (compared to most libraries). Fix up the system itself and patrons may emerge again. One more thing…log in first rather than search before logging in (as it will save you disappointments (as it us weird that before you log in and find an album you like….and then log in, and it is not there).

  2. neal baxter Says:

    Freegal sucks. Very limited selection. Website crashes all the time. Herds user toward music that Sony is selling. MP3 is an outmoded format by now. Directly threatens the whole idea of a library by pulling library into digital black hole, which will eventually kill off physical bricks and mortar libraries.

    Used to be the computers were a sideline the library offered. Now the computers are taking over, just like everywhere else. Pretty soon we will all be in little cubicles hooked into the web, with unlimited access to media and zero access to reality.

    Would say more, but folks won’t get it, they are running like lemmings over the digital cliff. It’s an illusion people!

    LOG OFF AND LIVE!!!!

  3. J Says:

    Some libraries are in buildings that are heritage by council and shall never be destroyed and another fact is that some towns are populated by small amounts of people and will always have a library (as some patrons are elderly and do not want to be intimidated by the internet). Then, there are people with disabilities who cannot get to a library and the home library services are important for their sanity. In schools, children in year 1 & 2 have reading time before school for about half an hour where parents come along and volunteer their time to hear the children read.

    Having expressed all this, to your comment ‘Neal’ that frankly, you come across as a person who is probably a Marxist who swallows their own hype quicker than an adult porn star swallows semen. ‘Would say more, but folks won’t get it, they are running like lemmings over the digital cliff. It’s an illusion people!’

    Lemmings do not run over a cliff, so your analogy is about as educational as your analogy. Next, you don’t ‘say’ anything on a blog page, you type it and finally, As for your attempt at all of us living in an ‘Orwellian’ world is quite grandiose and as interesting as your vent (or have you been watching many episodes of ‘Dexter’s Ego Trip Special’ (cubicles? indeed)? On the subject of books, do you just carry around a copy of a dog eared 1984 to make yourself look intelligent? Freegal is great because in this day and age, because the new retail music stores only offer Greatest Hits or the popular selections (and even if your band is Pink Floyd, the original release CDs’ are impossible to get anymore.

    LOG OFF AND LIVE!!!! …WTF? That just defeats your own point via you being on here.

    How about you come back with some cemented facts, scholarly articles et al, or you will just choke on semen like a porn star rejecting it (and I think you just did). Many people love the smell and feel of books, and as long as there are authors like Christie, King et al, there will always be novels in a hard copy format (unlike retail newer record stores that only stock best of’s or re re re re remastered copies of THE popular albums by the band.

    Don’t bother belittling people (because there is always another person who can do it better).

    Quote J, nevermore

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