Music for the Masses: Q&A with Sarah Houghton

I don’t know about you, but your Music for the Masses columnist views digital music warily. Triple that for digital music services that vendors are rolling out for libraries. But with ebook mania sweeping the library world, it’s downright irresponsible to clap two 45s over one’s ears and not at least survey the field (which, as of this writing, includes OverDrive, Freegal, Alexander Street, and the emerging Rdio). Someone who has been doing a lot of thinking about this is librarian Sarah Houghton (aka The Librarian in Black); there is a lot of great discussion going on at her blog ( about these and related digital content topics. Taking a break from live-tweeting the State of the Union from Washington DC, Houghton (an LJ 2009 Mover & Shaker) cut right to the chase.

MM: Digital music in libraries‚ are we on the right or wrong track?

SH: I don’t think a good solution for digital music in libraries has been presented yet. I think the Rdio product from Recorded Books is on the right track in terms of service model, but the pricing is prohibitive for most libraries. So we’re on the wrong track. I’d like to see libraries suggest alternative licensing, ownership, and access models and communicate those to the vendors‚ instead of the other way around.

There are so many issues at play here‚ on the library side, the vendor side, the record label side, the artist side, DRM. The music industry still doesn’t have any consistency in approaching digital content. Do you think this tangle will ever get sorted out?

I think we will see copyright law revised, namely the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and see a fair use exemption extended to libraries for digital content. When this happens, libraries will be able to purchase digital content as we always have purchased physical content (or perhaps license it). No more charging libraries extra, putting additional restrictions on library e-copies, or simply refusing to sell to us. When that happens, at least the mess for libraries and library users would be sorted out. In the long term for consumer concerns, we will continue to see [digital rights management] fade away until it is simply a memory that makes us shudder in the dark.

There are a lot of obscure but great albums that are only available to us physically. One of my worries is that as libraries rush to embrace digital music as it currently stands, whole genres will disappear from our collections.

Large public libraries, university libraries, and music libraries will continue to archive physical music collections. We’ve already seen general public library budgets for CDs and other physical music formats decrease, and that trend will continue. Public libraries have typically provided popular stuff in all the genres but then rotated that collection out as time passes. With a digital collection, we [can] offer an entire catalog of music and let users choose which ones they want to access‚ what a better model!

Are there any vendor models that are currently workable?

Freegal’s model does not work, period.

[Ed. Note: Sarah Houghton wrote a negative post about Freegal shortly after leaving San Jose PL, CA, in 2011 to move to San Rafael Public Library, CA, where she is acting director. She was not involved in the final decision to contract with Freegal at SJPL, where the service has been very successfully received both by customers and the library.]

A pay per use model will never work in libraries, as it creates an unpredictable budget item. The service also fundamentally changes the library’s role from being an entity that buys one copy, then loans it out multiple times, to an entity that buys a copy of something for the patron to keep forever. Fundamentally flawed and unjustifiable to library stakeholders, in my opinion. Recorded Books’ Rdio model can work, but the company needs to alter the pricing structure. If you’re a small to midsize library, the current costs are simply prohibitive.

What are some best-case-scenario solutions we in the field should be thinking about? You’ve mentioned Spotify and Rdio communitywide licenses. What about the Ann Arbor/Magnatune deal where the library pays the vendor a flat fee for unlimited patron access to over 900 albums?

I’d like to see libraries be able to purchase a certain number of streaming concurrent licenses so that users can log in to services like Spotify or Rdio with their library cards and access the premium offerings that way for free. [And it looks like Rdio is making moves in this direction.‚ Ed.] If the library hits its max, the user would be told what happened, and the library would be notified of turnaways on a weekly basis to evaluate whether to increase its concurrent licenses. We’d have to be careful about implementation, e.g., would users be encouraged to buy tracks, and, if so, how and is that OK with the library? I think that the Ann Arbor/Magnatune example is stellar, and I congratulate them on their work to create another model, one that recognizes the needs of both artists and consumers.

About Matthew Moyer