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Despite changes in the way Americans listen to music, think online streaming apps like Pandora or Spotify, people are still checking out actual compact discs from libraries. In fact, a recent Pew report found that 16 percent of people who visited a library last year borrowed music. But just as libraries are introducing ebooks to readers, librarians are trying to figure out how to provide listeners with digital music.
Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports on one library in a small college town that's launched a digital music service focused on the local music scene.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: 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.
JASON PAULIOS: So it's extracting now. It's at about 90 percent.
MASTERS: It takes him about five minutes, and he says it's a great way to check out local music.
PAULIOS: And we're finished, and then I can open that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MASTERS: 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 you could listen to it on your way home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MASTERS: 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.
JOHN HIETT: Late one night, late for me anyway, I was watching Dave Zollo play, and I thought, you know, he's so good, how come we ship all of our music budget out of town? Why don't we do more with this? And I may have had a few at that point, but I had the sense to email myself with the idea.
MASTERS: 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 for free. You own it 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.
HIETT: And 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. I think a lot of times, local record sales are sort of negligible.
MASTERS: That's true for David Zollo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA FLY")
DAVID ZOLLO: (Singing) Some baby looking for a (unintelligible) score. Me, I'm not worried about that no more. I own a two-tone (unintelligible) and a .38 pistol and a (unintelligible) on the road like a runaway mister. Going to fly.
MASTERS: Zollo makes most of his money on the road and has given most of his back catalog to the digital library.
ZOLLO: I mean, 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. I think it's very shortsighted to not allow people to have it. People that want it, that love it will still buy it. I've found. And the people that, you know, just want to check it out, you know, that gives them an opportunity without putting everybody in this compromised situation where they're breaking the law, and you have to play the angry, you know, intellectual property owner, and it just doesn't make a lot of sense.
MASTERS: 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 says he downloaded pretty much everything when the project launched.
MATT KEARNEY: It's gotten to the point there's so much music on it now that you can't do that anymore. But a lot of times, you'll hear there's bands where you their posters around. You're just kind of curious. I was at a music festival locally here and heard a bunch of bands, and I'll probably download their albums and check them out.
MASTERS: There's a lot to check out from jazz to punk and a lot of Americana. This is Iowa, after all.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " LILA WHAT HAVEN'T YOU DONE?")
AWFUL PURDIES: (Singing) Lila, what haven't you done? Lila, what haven't you done? Oh, Lila, mm-hmm. What haven't you done?
MASTERS: 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 makes it available beyond city limits.
JARED BRENNAN: Initially, we're going to make it for library card holders only, but it's been decided to do it where we're kind of still curating a Nashville music culture as a permanent online, streamable and downloadable archive but also making it - allowing that to be available for the world at large.
MASTERS: 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.
PAULIOS: This one's got a bunch of classical. We've got Neil Young. We've got jazz, Miles Davis.
MASTERS: 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 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.
PAULIOS: You won't be able to donate your iTunes copy of Miles Davis.
MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Iowa City, Iowa.