I worry about libraries and the future of music. Our users simply don’t use music in the formats or the ways that we provide it. We’re blind to what they want then complain when they try to make what we do have fit their paradigm. You’ve seen people come in, grab a pile of CDs, burn them right there in the library sometimes, then return them and check out more. Libraries are a source of piracy for sure, but the way we provide music to our users in general has proven to be less than useful as the years go on. Your CD circulation has dropped, right? And you’ve probably cut funding to the CD collection too, right? OK, now think about why you did that and what we need to do next.
Music sales have dropped about 50% in the last decade and while CD sales have tanked, album downloads have grown slowly but single song downloads have exploded to 13 times the number of album downloads (Tom Silverman, Tommy Boy Records). The advent of iTunes, YouTube, and other music consumption services fundamentally changed the way people consume music. It’s no longer about the album as a self-enclosed object with liner notes. It’s about the song itself, the music video, on demand when and where you want it.
And let’s face it. Libraries have crap in the way of digital music. We can’t just buy a song from iTunes and put it up on our website as a converted MP3 (though we should legally be able to, imho). We have to buy collections from third party vendors. There are three major collections in existence: Overdrive (classical, folk, tiny bit of rock), Alexander Street Music (folk, classical, world), and the new Freegal music service (popular music but only from Sony).
Overdrive & Alexander Street Music are very similar. Overdrive users download a music file in a DRM-protected format that will self-encrypt and be unreadable after the designated circulation period (e.g. 3 weeks). Update: Alexander Street Music offers -streaming- access to classical, jazz, and folk. And sadly, the selection is not what most of our users want. Most people aren’t looking for classical and folk music. Libraries with these services get very poor use of them (according to my anecdotal discussions with other eResources managers), and frankly, I personally don’t think they’re worth the money we pay for them. Check your usage stats and do a cost per use calculation. You’re likely to find you might be paying $5/song. Ri-freaking-diculous.
Freegal is very different. The songs are popular ones with a lot of well-known artists in different genres like rock, R&B, and country. And in a lovely change of pace, the songs are provided as DRM-free MP3s! But — and I stress the but — the library can only offer these in a very limited fashion because of cost. The library pays for the number of downloads per year they want to fund. Then divide that by 52, and there’s your weekly cap. If you hit the cap, then no users can download anything else for the rest of the week. As a result, Freegal suggests that you limit the number of songs any one user can download in one week. For our library in San Jose, that number is 3. Yep, you get only 3 songs per week, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to log on before we hit our weekly cap. Update/Clarification: SJPL no longer has a weekly cap. So if you want to download an actual album, you have to calendar yourself to come back for at least 4 weeks to get one single album. How many users are going to do that? For us to pay for enough songs for our users to access a full album per week, we’d need to spend approximately $500,000 per year. And that’s not happening, nor should it in my opinion. That’s a ridiculous proposition for a collection budget. Is this token offering of popular online music to our users enough to interest them and an attempt at a successful model, or does it merely show that libraries are clueless once again about what our users really want with digital formats? Again, please check out the cost per use of the service and I can just about guarantee you it’s costing you more to offer songs via Freegal to your users than it would to simply buy them the songs they want directly from iTunes, Amazon, or whatever other service they use. But what other choices do we have? To do nothing. And that stinks too.
It’s nice that the vendors are trying to provide music digitally to libraries. They could have just said no, and done nothing. An attempt is much appreciated. I’m sure dealing with record companies is a nightmare, and I don’t envy them that job. My first concern is what the residents of San Jose want and will use, and I’m just not sure that this is it.
Stephen Abram asked some excellent questions in his post about libraries and music: Libraries, Music, and the Internet.
1. Are we album or song oriented?
2. Do we create or use search tools for albums, artists and songs?
3. Do we catalogue by genre?
4. Are we oriented to physical formats alone?
5. Can we ‘lend’ a streaming format?
6. Do we use the promotion tools on YouTube like music videos?
I would add two questions to that list:
- Is it better to offer -something- in the way of digital music, even if it’s poor, or should we hope for better library-friendly digital collections or, better yet, a legal ruling that exempts libraries from DRM restrictions on digital content?
- Would any library be willing to take the legally risky (but perfectly rational) chance to burn its physical collection into MP3s and then start providing the files online for free to users with a library card log-in?
If your library has not had a serious discussion about music content and its place in the library’s physical and digital collections, I highly suggest you do so. The future has already moved on without us and we are struggling as a result. Be intentional in your decision-making, because what you invest in today will affect your users’ opinions of you tomorrow.
I do also think that this is a general problem related to digital content. Downloadable movies have the same problem as other commenters have pointed out. For movies & music, people want to get what they want when and where they want it. That means digital. Multi-device-compatible formats. Platform-neutral access. And to do it successfully, this probably means a streaming model, a cost per access model, and an “everything under the sun” model for libraries.
I have a few ideas of how we could potentially solve this problem, but it would take a government mandate that would likely piss off publishers, record companies, and movie moguls. Too bad for them. I’m ironing out the details of that idea now with some really smart people.
I feel firmly that we in libraries are doing the music thing wrong. We’re not providing the formats, collections, or songs to our users in the ways that they want to consume them. I believe streaming is the future — and as Abram asks, where do libraries fit in that model? Do we pay for a community-wide Rdio license? I think that’s the answer, or at least the best one I can come up with so far. If you have your own ideas, suggestions, or additional rants, please post them in the Comments section. Let the arguing begin!