Music Is Up-to-Date in Iowa City | November 1, 2012 | Music for the Masses

The Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) made quite a stir last year, launching a digital local music collection. The library took control of its own digital destiny, working out deals with local musicians to host and promote their albums on the library’s website, making them freely available for library patrons to download. We checked in with project head John Hiett (a longtime LJ video reviewer) to see how things have progressed.

MM: Why did you decide to emphasize digital downloads in your local music collection?

JH: As CD sales have declined over the last decade, we’ve been mulling over the role of libraries in a market mostly based on downloads, and this seemed like one answer. It lets us give local musicians both a little money and some exposure while offering a unique service to users—a win-win.

What are the terms of the agreements you make with musicians?

We lease the rights to let local users download and keep recordings. The lease runs for two years.  The downloads are forever, letting us avoid [digital rights management], which everybody hates. Our authentication software limits access to local users, roughly 56,000 people. We typically offer $100 per rec­ord, with some exceptions. Our contract is available for any library to use or adapt.

How did you approach the musicians?

To explore feasibility, I just asked some of the musicians [with whom I was somewhat acquainted]. Initial responses were positive enough to make it clear this could work. From there, I mostly used Facebook, MySpace, and band websites to message bands or harvest email addresses.

What were the initial reactions from the music community?

Some musicians got it right away. Others had to be pursued a bit more, nearly to the point of violating my “no begging” policy. Some bands (mostly younger) make a rec­ord and immediately give it away on their website.

Other musicians feel like their recordings are their life’s work and wanted to protect them a little more. Not everyone responded, but nobody said no. Once we had the site up and running, it became an easier sell.

Sadly, a few higher-profile musicians didn’t own the rights to their own recordings. They referred me to their rec­ord company, which wanted nothing to do with the project.  That, of course, makes sense, as this model completely cuts out the record ­companies. I’m still trying to lease some live shows from some of these people.

How long did the project take to launch from the initial proposal?

The big delay was getting [Iowa City’s] attorney’s office to write a usable contract. This took about ten months from our initial request for a meeting. Other­wise, it went very quickly. When I approached our director, Susan Craig, with the idea, I wanted to offer $50 each for about 20 albums. She suggested upping that to $100 per album and getting 50 records.

Graphic designer Mara Cole came up with a beautiful logo. James Clark, our webmaster, put it together quickly and is working on an open source version that other libraries can use.

What sort of circulation stats have you gotten?

Since early June, we’ve had over 1200 records downloaded, amounting to more than 14,000 songs.  The bulk of that came early, when we had a wave of publicity.
The project has a spot on ICPL’s home­page, which helps people ­discover it.

What are the next steps?

We’re leasing another round of records and should start posting them soon. It should be a little more diverse this time—a children’s record, more punk, some metal, some electronic, some church music, even some bawdy medieval songs. One weakness of the first round was that it reflected my own tastes too much, which tend toward rock and Americana.

I’m hoping to lease a few more live [performances] and out-of-print records. That keeps us from interfering with an artist’s sales of current material and allows us to offer music that’s harder to find. It also goes along with the current trend of libraries becoming de facto publishers.

After that, who knows? I’m retiring at the end of the year. I expect the library to evaluate the project after it’s been around a while and decide what to do with it. It would be nice to see the idea spread, which is the reason we offer the contract and will have an open source version of the software some day.

Some libraries have already been in touch.

About Matthew Moyer


  1. Peter Merz says:

    Does your library have music scores (string quartets in particular) for your patrons?