Obscure Music Finds An Outlet On The Web Advances in digital technology over the past decade have made it easier and cheaper to distribute music. But that doesn't necessarily mean those cherished, obscure LPs are turning up online — at least not legally.
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Obscure Music Finds An Outlet On The Web

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Obscure Music Finds An Outlet On The Web

Obscure Music Finds An Outlet On The Web

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Advances in digital technology over the past decade have made it easier and cheaper than ever to distribute music. That has left fans salivating at the prospect that thousands of obscure, out-of-print recordings could someday resurface. And in a sense, that's happening right now. But in many cases, it is fans, not record labels, doing the hard work.

As part of our series on how the music business has changed in the last 10 years, Joel Rose has this report.

JOEL ROSE: If you want to find great records that nobody has heard in a while, it helps to get your hands dirty...

Unidentified Man #1: It's pretty cool, huh?

ROSE: ...and bring along your portable turntable.

Unidentified Man #1: This is a weird record. This is KRS-One's sister-in-law. Remember Harmony?

ROSE: Kenan Juska and Justin Cox took me to one of their favorite spots in Brooklyn.

Mr. KENAN JUSKA: I remember the video.

ROSE: From the street, this looks like any other junk store. In the basement, though, boxes of dusty old LPs and 45s are stacked to the ceiling: a crate digger's paradise.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: While Juska picks up a hip-hop single by Harmony, Justin Cox is flipping through oldies and film soundtracks, looking for something different.

Mr. JUSTIN COX: My favorite records of all time are, like, the really oddball ones, like the guys who, like, just didn't fit into whatever commercial style it, you know, needed to be to make money at the time. I like the failures who made beautiful music.

ROSE: Eventually, Cox and Juska will collect enough beautiful failures for their weekly Internet radio show, "Chances with Wolves."

(Soundbite of Internet radio program, "Chances with Wolves")

Unidentified Man #2: American people, the wolves are coming.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: The Internet theoretically should have made it easy for record labels to reissue the treasures lurking in their vaults. After all, it's simple to turn an out-of-print album into MP3 files. But that's not exactly what happened.

Eliot Van Buskirk writes about the music business for Wired.com.

Mr. ELIOT VAN BUSKIRK (Writer, Wired.com): I've heard from a number of people that there are just vaults full of unreleased tracks, unreleased albums, live recordings, you know, all of this stuff that the digital music optimists among us, such as myself, kind of thought this would all be available, and it just isn't.

ROSE: At least not from the record labels. But the Internet has given fans the tools to distribute rare recordings themselves. Some, like the "Chances with Wolves" guys, are pretty careful to comply with copyright law. You can stream their show live, though you can't download it. But many fans post their finds online as MP3s, where they're free for the taking.

Mr. RF (Blogger, Record Fiend): This is our way of sharing difficult-to-obtain music.

ROSE: This is RF, who helps run a blog called Record Fiend. He doesn't want to use his name because a lot of what he's doing is technically copyright infringement, but he says there are rules.

Mr. RF: I think among a lot of music bloggers, there's sort of a code of honor where if somebody else has posted a particular album, then you don't do that.

ROSE: One of his recent discoveries is an LP reissue of songs from the 1920s by St. Louis guitarist Clifford Gibson.

(Soundbite of song, "Tired of Being Mistreated")

Mr. RF: I decided that, you know what, the rest of the world needs to hear this stuff. Nobody else is really giving him the accolade that he deserves, so why not me?

(Soundbite of song, "Tired of Being Mistreated")

Mr. CLIFFORD GIBSON (Singer): (Singing) Ain't gonna cut no kindling, ain't gonna pack no coal. I wouldn't spend a nickel not to save your soul 'cause I'm tired of being mistreated, by the way you do.

ROSE: There may be hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers sharing their favorite records like this. For legal reasons, they tend to keep a low profile. But RF says he's not trying to take money away from anyone.

Mr. RF: I would argue that my music blog, and several of the other excellent music blogs that are out there, actually help the record labels and artists by exposing their music to a larger potential audience and therefore, should lead to higher record sales.

Mr. DARIN SOLER(ph) (Vice President for Digital Music, Sony Legacy): They may have good intentions but at the same time, it's not OK to decide for yourself how you're going to promote someone's property when you don't own it.

ROSE: Darin Soler is vice president for digital music at Sony Legacy. Before he can reissue an old record, Soler says he has to figure out who owns the publishing rights, locate the master recording, and create music files that are ready to sell online, a lot of work for obscure titles.

Mr. SOLER: We're still completely dedicated to doing it, but it has to be a more gradual process. We can't throw an infinite amount of resources at it when we know that it just doesn't generate huge amounts of revenue.

ROSE: Soler estimates that Sony has prepared about 10,000 albums for digital download so far. But many artists may never see an official digital reissue of their music.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac")

Ms. AGGIE DUKES: (Singing) Swing low, sweet Cadillac, coming to carry me home.

ROSE: Records by singer Aggie Dukes are so rare that until recently, even her own daughter had never heard them.

Ms. KATHERINE DUKES(ph): People had told me she recorded. But she passed when I was 11.

ROSE: Katherine Dukes says she's grateful to the guys from "Chances with Wolves" for playing one of her mother's records on their Internet radio show, and for sending her MP3s that she didn't have.

Ms. DUKES: I was so elated that it was still playing. Nobody would look for those if they wouldn't play them. They give artists an opportunity to be played where they would not otherwise.

ROSE: Dukes says her mother never made much money from those records. The Internet may not change that, but at least her music is easier to find if you know where to look.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac")

Ms. A. DUKES: (Singing) Take me to Jamaica. Take me to Jamaica. Where the rum come from. Where the rum come from. Or like a mamba ...

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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