A free Spotify alternative? How US libraries became the place to stream your new favorite band

With Spotify’s royalty model under scrutiny, some libraries are using a startup to help give local artists the play they deserve

“There are countless people who come in and say, ‘We just moved and this is our first stop,’” says Anna M Zook, reference and digital services librarian at the LE Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

“I always emphasize the fact that we have this local music platform that immediately wires them into the scene.”

Zook’s talking about Sawdust City Sounds, a free streaming platform run by the library. It features over 50 artists from the greater Eau Claire area – folk singers, rock bands, DJs and a few rappers – who applied to be in the collection, which is curated by a group of librarians and local musicians.

The endeavor is part college radio, part Spotify alternative. As Vice recently reported, over a dozen libraries across the US and Canada have called on the startup Rabble to help set up their local music streaming platforms.

Libraries in cities known for their music scenes, such as Nashville, Austin, Seattle, Portland and New Orleans, have all set up their own versions. But towns that are perhaps less idealized as musical havens have also taken part, including Fort Worth, Texas; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Davenport, Iowa.

“People understand the public library to be theirs,” said Preston Austin, who co-founded Rabble with the musicologist Kelly Hiser. “That creates a unique place for participation where an artist who makes a contribution [to the platform] knows they are contributing to their community.”

Rabble is becoming better known, as Spotify, which gives artists as little as $0.0033 per stream, has been the subject of much criticism for its payment model. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) and the US congresswoman Rashida Tlaib have called on Congress to create a royalty system for streaming platforms. (A representative for UMAW declined to comment for this story.)

Payment for artists listed with libraries using Rabble’s software started at a one-time $200 honorarium, but it has since been raised to $250. Austin expects the rate will keep climbing.

woman holds hands up in pose
Leti Garza. Photograph: Brenda Ladd

While $250 may be a relatively small fee, it may matter a lot symbolically for smaller artists. “It appears that for many, possibly most, of our artists, $200 is actually the largest royalty check they’ll ever get for their work,” Austin said.

Zook and her team of curators – local artists who include a folk singer, jazz musicians, a punk rocker and a library staffer who has played drums in rock bands – get together to review the open submissions. So far, they have received about 31 entries. They have the budget to accept between 20 and 25 acts.

“We want to make sure that we have this balance of genres and voices represented in our curation process so that we can shed a light on all the different types of music that make up the sound of the Chippewa Valley,” Zook said. “We want listeners to get an insight into the town and what’s important to our culture.”

Leti Garza submitted her bilingual political folk album Borderland to Austin Public Library’s streaming service last year. “I feel like [the curators] chose a variety of different genres, cultures and races, and I’m very happy to note that,” she said.

Treble NLS, a Pittsburgh-based rapper who contributed his album Reine: Story of an American Reject to the Carnegie Library’s Stacks project in 2019, said he had submitted his music in an attempt to give it the broadest possible reach. “I’m a contemplative rapper,” he said. “I want my music to connect with people from all walks of life. Everything I do arts-wise elevates the local scene.”

Noelle Hampton has lived and performed in Austin for nearly 20 years, but she said she still discovers new music through Austin Public Library’s streaming service, which streams her band the Belle Sounds. “When I have taken the time to go through the site, I am blown away by how much great music is there,” she said. “I was scrolling through all of the artists and was surprised by how many bands there that I still didn’t know of. This is a great tool for local discovery.”

exterior of the Milton H Latter Memorial Public Library, part of the New Orleans Public Library.
The Milton H Latter Memorial Public Library, part of the New Orleans Public Library. Photograph: Max Becherer/AP

Austin says that introduction to local artists is common among local libraries using streaming services. “It turns out that people who think they know their city’s music scene do not,” he said. “Even in relatively small cities, every single person who is highly connected to the local scene who we worked with directly discovered acts they did not know.”

That sense of discovery can feel increasingly hard to replicate in an era when streaming has replaced crate-digging. Spotify’s algorithm has the ability to spit out an endless amount of music, which provides what Austin calls a “lean-back experience”. It’s nice for moments when people want to zone out, but it doesn’t make them feel connected to specific artists. They may not even know who they’re listening to as the music drones on.

“You make a selection and music continues to come out, and you can lean back and soak it in,” Austin said. “You’re not really engaging with that music scene, and your choices are being made for you by an algorithm.”

Music lovers have to be a bit more attentive using libraries’ streaming services, perusing album art and artist bios to see what looks appealing. While the artists they find may not be getting paid traditional royalties, Austin and Zook say that many listeners will end up paying the artists they discover directly in other ways, such as buying their merch or attending their shows.

Garza, who has been performing in the Austin art scene since the 70s, thinks this is a good start. “The world has a long way to go on understanding the role of artists in the world and how they should be fairly compensated, but I do appreciate [this service],” she said. “One step at a time.”


Alaina Demopoulos

The GuardianTramp

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