Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Collecting Music in the 25 Years After the Launch of Napster

Collecting Music in the 25 Years After the Launch of Napster

by | Jul 3, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Marci Cohen, Head of Instruction and Consultation, Boston University Libraries

When approached last year about writing for Against the Grain, I was initially asked to write album reviews. Why, I asked the editors, when few libraries are continuing to collect recordings on physical media in the age of streaming music. The more detailed brief I got in response was to write about music culture for a library audience rather than a more narrow scope of supporting library collection development. But even when many users prefer the convenience of streaming music, there are still valid reasons for libraries and individual listeners to maintain their recorded music collections and add new materials in 2024.

The last quarter century has seen remarkable shifts in listener preferences for formats. Napster, a peer-to-peer file-copying platform, launched June 1, 1999, taking advantage of growing access to broadband internet and the relatively small file sizes for MP3s, the audio file format invented a few years earlier. CD sales in that period were flying high, peaking in 2000 at 942.5 million units. Napster quickly faced copyright infringement charges and was shut down in 2001. One reason that Naptster and other copyright-infringing file-copying platforms proliferated was that record labels were reluctant to meet consumer demand for digital music. Their fears of piracy caused them to drag their feet on providing convenient and legal downloads. But the iTunes Store opened in 2003, offering licensed music downloads from major and independent labels, with even the Beatles capitulating in 2010 to make their catalog available. Downloads reigned briefly, but streaming revenue from services such as Spotify overtook downloads in 2015.

Vinyl has seen the most dramatic fluctuations in sales, which dipped to their nadir in 2006. In the US, 1.6 billion units across all music formats were sold in 2006, but LPs accounted for just 0.9 million. In comparison, Taylor Swift sold nearly that many vinyl copies of The Tortured Poets Department in a single week earlier this year. Which is a good entry point to consider libraries. In the ‘00s, I worked in a public library with a substantial CD collection that had held onto a limited number of LPs, primarily recordings that hadn’t been reissued in the newer format. When giving a tour to high school volunteers, I pointed out the vinyl and said, “These are the LPs.” The teens looked at me quizzically and asked, “What are LPs?” Now teens debate with older generations on the properly formed plural of “vinyl.”

Providing music collections and services in public libraries in a pre-streaming era was fun because we were the only game in town. People came in not just looking for specific songs (We had a grand time in 2002 with a display of the VH-1 top 100 one-hit wonders list; it says something about web ephemerality that the list no longer appears on the VH-1 website.) but also more general requests such as music for ice skating performances (Figure Skating’s Greatest Hits (Telarc, 1999) fit the bill.) or ‘70s theme parties before there were Spotify playlists to fulfill that need. The first classical music streaming services for libraries were launched, but we didn’t see the appeal for our patrons when streaming required access to a computer, and computers weren’t connected to the speakers in cars or audiophiles’ homes.

But the rise of iTunes was already causing alarm for libraries as the decade saw the first download-only releases. Libraries can lend physical media, including books and CDs, because of the copyright principle of doctrine of first sale. But software copies, including music files, are licensed rather than sold, so that doctrine does not apply. Because downloads are made available under an end user license agreement and libraries are intermediate rather than end users, libraries can’t collect downloaded music for our patrons’ use. The result was that libraries had no way to collect some new releases. Music librarian D. J. Hoek brought this to the attention of the broader library community in 2009 in “The Download Dilemma” in American Libraries.

I now work in an academic library that amassed a significant collection of vinyl during the 1960s to 1980s before shifting to collecting CDs well into the last decade. Usage patterns and format preferences continue to change. For a period, we were heavily involved in ripping individual tracks from CDs or digitizing portions of LPs for course reserves, but interest has dropped off for such services because YouTube is so much more convenient. No matter how often I’ve touted the benefits of liner notes (De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising [Tommy Boy, 1989] has comics on the CD insert. How fun is that?!), we observe little use of our recorded collection for curricular and research use. On the other hand, we’ve seen a steady increase in leisure use of vinyl by students. The Kendrick Lamar LPs we bought after he won the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN. (Top Dawg Entertainment, 2018) have served as ideal conversation pieces at outreach events. Wide-eyed freshmen interested in prog rock slobbered over our vintage Yes album with a gatefold sleeve. We’ve held vinyl listening parties in the student lounge at the school of music, where it’s always fun trotting out The Baroque Beatles Book (Elektra), an album from 1966 of baroque arrangements of Beatles songs from still-active faculty member Joshua Rifkin.

Some listeners praise the warmth of analog over digital recordings, and streaming audio clearly can’t match the appeal of LPs as tangible objects. But there are other issues in the decision to retain or add to physical music collections. A big one is that streaming access can disappear. Neil Young temporarily pulled his catalog from Spotify, followed by Joni Mitchell in support, in protest of podcaster Joe Rogan. “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love,” a track featuring Prince on Janelle Monae’s 2013 album The Electric Lady (Wondaland / Bad Boy) is missing as of May 29, 2024 from an album that is otherwise available on Spotify. Even in the realm of libraries, Alexander Street loudly announced when they licensed vast swaths of the Universal catalog for their streaming music service, only to quietly pull it later on. In an interview promoting her biography of musician and composer Wendy Carlos, author Amanda Sewell acknowledged the importance of libraries for her research. Because the protective Carlos has kept her recordings out of print and off streaming services, libraries were the only places that Sewell could listen to Carlos’ recorded output, including Switched-On Bach (Columbia, 1968), one of the few classical albums to achieve platinum sales.

While MP3s and other downloadable file formats are looking like a relic of an earlier part of this century, they still hold appeal. Audio system company Sonos alienated customers with an app update that cut off access to customers’ personal libraries of downloaded digital music (Ovide, Shira. “Why This Company’s Biggest Fans Turned Against It.” Washington Post, May 17, 2024.) Online music platform Bandcamp has earned loyalty from both musicians and listeners for its artist-friendly terms, but a recent change in ownership may make customers particularly thankful that they offer downloads of all purchases. Although these are, strictly speaking, licenses rather than purchases, having music files on one’s own hard drive or independent cloud storage account means that the music won’t disappear if Bandcamp does.

In the broader landscape of library services and collection, those in the know scoff at the assumption that everything is now available online. Reasons for the lack of availability are often tied to money, from copyright restrictions on valuable recordings to inadequate resources to digitize, describe, and present lower-demand materials even when holders have the appropriate privileges to do so. I don’t miss the days of parents haranguing the library staff for not having enough copies of the hot Backstreet Boys album to meet demand or the feisty opera lovers scrambling for first place in the hold queue for the coming season’s opera commentary CDs. And libraries are justified in reducing the amount of shelf space for recorded music in light of declining circulation. But there are still good reasons to hold onto or add to library and personal collections.

Check out the “playlist “Collecting Music in a Streaming Age” 

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