Iowa City librarian Jason Paulios pulls out his smartphone, enters his library-card number and begins downloading an album by local metal band Blizzard at Sea.
"So it's extracting now," he says, eyes on the screen. "It's at about 90 percent."
The download takes about five minutes to complete. Paulios says it's a great way to check out local music: You could be waiting for a concert to start, download an album by the band you're about to see and then 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, watching a performance by one of his favorite local artists. He realized he was spending the library's budget on a bunch of musicians who weren't from Iowa.
"I was watching Dave Zollo play, and I thought, you know, he's so good, how come we ship all our music budget out of town? How come we don't do more with this?" Hiett says. "And I may have had a few at that point, but I had the sense to email myself with the idea."
Here's what he came up with: If you have an Iowa City library card and a computer, you can download more than 100 albums by local musicians — free. You own them forever. Hiett says 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 says. "I think a lot of times, local record sales are sort of negligible."
That's true for Zollo. He makes most of his money on the road and has given most of his back catalog to the digital library.
"I think it's a good way to do business: If you believe in your product, hey, take it for a spin," Zollo says. "People are going to be taking it anyway. People that want it, 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 and it doesn't make sense."
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 Elliott 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 says he downloaded pretty much everything when the project launched.
"There's so much music on it now that you can't really do that anymore," Kearney says. "But a lot of times, there's bands where you see their posters around and you're just kind of curious. I was at a music festival here this weekend and heard a bunch of bands. I'll probably download their albums and check 'em out."
There's a lot to check out, from jazz to punk and plenty of Americana. (This is Iowa, after all.)
Librarians across the country have caught wind of Iowa City's project, and the Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library is 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.
"Initially, we were going to make it for library-card holders only," Brennan says. "But it's been decided to do it where we're still curating a Nashville music culture as a permanent online, streamable and downloadable archive, but also allowing that to be available for the world at large."
Back at Iowa City's only library, under buzzing fluorescent lights in a back room, librarian Paulios goes through boxes of donated music from another era, each full of about 75 CDs.
"This one's got a bunch of classical," he says, pointing out discs as he sorts them. "We've got Neil Young, we've got jazz ... Miles Davis."
Paulios says 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 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: "You know, you won't be able to donate your iTunes copy of Miles Davis."
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