What if those online music services that collect your tastes and recommend new jams were headquartered right down the road? And what if they were run by friendly folks actively working to wow you with care packages for your ears that you could drop by and pick up? Okay, so the “care packages for your ears” are compact discs. And the Internet isn’t serving them up—the library is.
CD of the Month Club
Some would tell you that next to commercial streaming music services like Spotify and Rdio, libraries’ aging compact disc collections are fossils. So why do we even bother to keep our music collections? Why not just cede the victory to our digital overlords and call it a day?
A lot of things justify maintaining and promoting physical music collections. One of my favorites is a service we’ve developed at the Cincinnati public library. The CD of the Month Club builds on the premise of music discovery services such as Pandora and was, in no small part, inspired by LJ 2012 Movers & Shakers Matthew Moyer and Andrew Coulon’s stellar Personalized Playlists program at the Jacksonville Public Library (ow.ly/uk8Ad). New club members fill out a form (either on paper or online at ow.ly/uk8qm) and answer a few questions about the kinds of music they typically enjoy. Each month, they’ll receive a mystery CD, chosen specifically for them by a team of music-loving library staff and shipped to their favorite branch. Before sending the selections we place a slip in the front of the jewel case, sometimes with a personal note. When the discs are ready to be picked up, patrons are notified just as with other holds.
We invite members to determine the adventurousness of their selections on a scale between zero and five (zero being, “don’t bother sending me something I’ve never heard before” and five being, “I dare you to blow my mind”). In just over a year, our club has grown to nearly 700 members, and we recently sailed past our 4,000th personal CD recommendation.
Behind the scenes
The process we follow in making our choices isn’t all that complex. We create Word documents for members that include their preferences and a history of our past selections for them, as well as any feedback they’ve provided. The profiles are organized and linked to a spreadsheet on which we also keep track of statistics and manage workflow. We’re transitioning to a newly created database that will give members the ability to view and edit their own profiles as well as rate and review each CD they receive.
The real fun is picking the CDs. Presumably most people join the club because they want to be exposed to new things, so we work with their preferences to begin. The human element is what sets our program apart from algorithm-driven services. We make educated guesses, using intuition (and a few resources I’ll discuss below) to help guide members to new (or old) musical territory. Some members are less interested in being challenged than others, and that’s more than okay.
Blowing their minds
More members than not dare us to blow their minds. But what does that mean? Since we don’t want to scare anyone away, it’s crucial to consider each member’s listening experience. We probably won’t send Wolf Eyes to a member whose favorite bands are Maroon 5 and Adele, even if they’ve dared us to blow their mind. Instead, we might start with something relatively safe, like Broken Bells or Neko Case, then after a few months send something slightly outside their comfort zone. We want to demonstrate that we understand their interests before we throw John Coltrane’s Ascension at them. Every CD we recommend is an opportunity to further our relationship with that person. And then blow their mind.
Do it yourself
So you want to start a CD of the Month Club at your library, but you aren’t feeling confident about choosing music for strangers. Don’t worry: if you enjoy music, then you have what it takes. There’s a wealth of advice in back issues of this column. Start with Moyer’s “Music Advisory” (ow.ly/ulz0K) and Brian Morell’s “Discovery Without Algorithms” (ow.ly/ulz6L). I’ve also developed a program-in-a-box (ow.ly/uk996) that any library is welcome to use.
Gnoosic’s Music Map (music-map.com) plots similar artists in spatial proximity. Sometimes the comparisons are a bit off, but it’s usually a great starting point. AllMusic (allmusic.com) is also excellent; in addition to suggesting comparable artists it includes categories for “influenced by,” “followed by,” “associated with,” and “collaborated with.” AllMusic also features terrific guides to genres, highlighting key artists, albums, and songs in each, plus tons of reviews and biographical information.
What we get from it
So many great, unexpected things have happened as a result of this program. Members visit the library just to talk about music, or they’ll email to tell me they just placed a hold on every other CD by the artist or composer we recommended. Sometimes they’ll even counter with their own recommendations for me! The CD of the Month Club allows us to shine a spotlight on less-trafficked corners of our amazing music collection. I’m excited beyond words about how far this project has come in such a short time. Suffice it to say, my mind is blown.
Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County