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Iowa City Library's Local Music Project Could Become Library Model

Despite changes in how Americans are listening to music, think Pandora or Spotify, people are still checking out physical CDs from libraries. A recent PEW report found that half of Americans visited a library last year, and 16 percent of them checked out music.

But just as libraries are introducing eBooks to readers – librarians are also trying to figure out how to get digital music to library goers. Iowa City has launched a digital music library that focuses on its local music scene.

Going Local Online

Iowa City Librarian Jason Paulios pulls out his smartphone and enters his library card number.

"So, it's extracting now, it's at about 90 percent," Paulios says as he downloads an album by local metal band Blizzard at Sea.

It takes him about 5 minutes  and he says it’s a great way to check out local music. Paulios says you could be waiting at a bar for a concert to start and download an album by the band you’re about to see and listen to it on the way home.

This is the Iowa City Library Local Music project. The idea for it came to retired librarian John Hiett while he was sitting in a bar. He realized he was spending the library’s budget on a bunch of musicians who weren’t from Iowa.

"Late one night, late for me anyway, I was watching Dave Zollo play and I thought, he's so good, how come we ship our entire music budget out of town?" said Hiett. "I may have had a few at that point, but I had the sense to email myself with the idea."

Here’s what Hiett came up with: If you have an Iowa City library card and a computer, you can download more than 100 albums by local musicians for free and the user owns it forever. Hiett said  a lot of the music is older and out of print, but some bands don’t have a problem just giving the library a new recording.

"A couple times I suggested to people you don't want to give us this brand new album, it might cut into your sales and they didn't seem to care," Hiett said. "I think a lot of times local record sales are sort of negligible."

That’s true for Iowa City musician DavidZollo. Zollo makes most of his money on the road and has given most his back catalog is to the digital library.

"I've got no problem with a test drive, I think it's a good way to do business - if you believe in your product.. hey take it for a spin! People are going to be taking it anyway," Zollo said. "People that want it and love it will still buy it, I've found. The people that want to just check it out, this gives them an opportunity without putting everybody in this compromised situation where they're breaking the law and you have to play the angry intellectual property owner... It doesn't make sense. "

What's in it For the Musicians?

Zollo owns the licensing rights to his music… he makes $100  for every album he lets the library add to its digital collection.  More well-known Iowa musicians like William Elliot Whitmore and Greg Brown are fans of the library project, but their work belongs to their record labels. The library has averaged about 10 downloads per album in its first year. Matt Kearney said he downloaded pretty much everything when the project launched.

"Often you'll hear bands or see posters around," Kearney said. "I was at a music festival this weekend and heard a bunch of bands and I'll probably download their albums and check them out."

There’s a lot to check out, from jazz to punk, and a lot of Americana. This is Iowa, after all.

The Foundation for Something Bigger

Librarians across the country have caught wind of Iowa City’s Project. Nashville Public Libraries are planning to use it as a foundation for something that goes a bit further. Librarian Jared Brennan says the Nashville system plans to curate a history of the city’s music that goes beyond country to include hip-hop, alt-rock and other genres …  and make it available beyond city limits.

"We were originally going to make it just available for library card holders," said Nashville Public Librarian Jared Brennan. "We're still curating a Nashville music culture and as a permanent online streamable and downloadable archive... but also making it available for the world-at-large."

The Downside of the Digital Music Revolution

Back at Iowa City’s only library, under buzzing florescent lights in a back room, librarian Jason Paulios goes through boxes of donated music from another era. Each full of about 75 CDs.

"This one's got a bunch of classical, we've got Neil Young, we've got jazz, Miles Davis," Paulios said as he sifted through the boxes. 

Paulios said CD donations like this are frequent. He says it’s wonderful, not having to spend money on adding great music to the library’s collection so users can still check out physical CDs the old-fashioned way.  He’s also now in charge of the Iowa City Library Local Music Project and he has about 6,000 dollars in his budget to diversify the digital collection next year.  But, as he looks over the boxes of CDs, he’s reminded of the downside of the digital music revolution.

"Y'know, you won't be able to donate your iTunes copy of Miles Davis," Paulios said. 

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.