SALT LAKE CITY — There aren’t any late fees when you stream.
HUM (or Hear Utah Music), a new service from the Salt Lake City Public Library, offers streaming music from a wide array of Utah-based musicians. Anyone with an internet connection can access HUM for free. (If you want to actually download the music to a device, you’ll need a library card.)
The collection is modest at this point — 40 albums from a wide range of artists — but that’s growing: Every August and February, the library accepts submissions during a three-week period, which are then assessed by a jury of local music experts, and the artists selected for the collection get $200 for participating.
It’s an interesting development — one that shows how modern libraries are adapting both to new technologies and a community’s needs. It’s also part of a growing movement among libraries across North America, which are starting to offer similar streaming services revolving around local music.
Filling a unique niche
As it turns out, making a streaming service is pretty hard.
“We always came across the same hurdles,” said Jason Rabb, a librarian at the downtown branch who oversees its music collections. “Like building a website: We didn’t have resources to build and maintain a website that can stream and download music. And licensing was always an issue. How do we track down the people that have the copyright for this music?”
Rabb is a musician himself, and said he’s wanted something like HUM for the past five years. The library has an extensive local music collection, in the form of CDs. But logistically, a streaming service was beyond the library’s normal capabilities.
Enter Rabble, a Wisconsin-based startup that tackles these exact problems. The company currently works with about a dozen libraries across the U.S. and Canada, including ones in Seattle, Nashville, Portland and Austin. Providing efficient software for both streaming and licensing, Rabble gives libraries the necessary infrastructure and assistance for building their own streaming collections.
While its software is billed as open source, the logistics of making Rabble functional requires a lot of expertise. According to their website, participating libraries pay a $14,000 setup fee, plus an annual subscription fee scaled to library's population size. According to Jason Rabb, Salt Lake’s subscription fee is approximately “right there in the middle” of the bottom ($1,500) and top ($16,000) tier.
That cost may seem high, but launching a streaming service like this is complicated. Participating libraries have to work with a city’s IT department, with the participating musicians, a collection’s jurors, learn how to operate the site’s back end — the list goes on and on.
According to Rabb, Rabble does a lot of this coordinating for the libraries: “They’re sort of fluent in all these languages,” he said. “It’s such a unique and specific program that they’ve built.”
Kelly Hiser, one of Rabble’s cofounders, told the Deseret News that most e-content vendors use a pay scale based on the size of a collection or how much it’s used, rather than population size.
“I think public libraries have done an incredible job on many fronts, in terms of keeping up with technology,” Hiser said. “But in terms of digital lending — things like e-books and music libraries — libraries have really not gotten great deals from their vendors in those arenas.
“There is this real need for this specific thing,” she added. “There’s not a great way for libraries to share local digital content like this online, especially in a way that empowers libraries to work with musicians to build the collection.”
So, how does Rabble work? The company’s software (called MUSICat) gives an interface for musicians to submit their music and bios. From there, libraries and jurors use the interface to hear and rate the music, leave comments for other jurors to see and process licensing agreements with musicians. A library can then host the music/photos/bios on its streaming website.
When the Salt Lake Library closed its call for submissions last August, it had received approximately 200 entries.
“There were a lot of submissions, but the library made it so easy to digest that stuff,” said Brad Wheeler, KUAA’s director of programming, who was among HUM’s jurors last August. “And I liked that we were able to have a dialogue with each other, and read each other’s comments about the music that we’d listened to, and why we liked it.”
“The jurors kind of give the collection credibility in the community,” Rabb added.
Conquer Monster, a Salt Lake electronic band composed of Joshua Faulkner and Daniel Romero, was among those selected for the HUM collection last August. According to Faulkner, a lot of local buzz for submissions came from owners of Diabolical Records, and from the musicians who regularly perform at the downtown record store.
“From a historical standpoint, HUM preserves a cross-section of the local music scene, and it was exciting to be a small part of the local music history,” Faulkner said in an email. “The $200 was a nice bonus, but we would’ve submitted regardless of the pay.”
More to come
So, are people actually using HUM? Rabb said the site averages approximately 3,500 streams and 900 downloads per month. In August, HUM’s biggest month, it tallied nearly 5,000 streams and more than 1,500 downloads. Since the MUSICat software is still fairly new, Rabble frequently updates it. Rabb said the company will soon have an app for patrons to use, instead of accessing the streaming collections through a web browser.
Hiser said Rabble’s participating libraries are constantly working with one another, which drives the MUSICat software into new territory. This has spawned an accompanying archive for old concert posters, which each library can host on its own customized streaming site. HUM’s concert poster archive, which is donation-based, is growing, and features numerous Salt Lake bands and venues that have come and gone. Combined with the music, it provides an enriching peek into Salt Lake’s music scene.
For Wheeler, who's been a radio DJ in Salt Lake for decades, it helped him realize how vibrant certain subsets of the scene really are: He hadn't realized how much synth and jazz music Utah was producing. Thanks to HUM, now he does.1 comment on this story
“Something like this just makes you realize there are so many bands here in the Salt Lake valley and beyond that sometimes slip through the cracks and don’t get noticed,” he said.
“Even people who really know the local music scene, they don’t know all of it, right?” Hiser added. “So for the library to be able to step in as a respected curator, and bring in a variety of voices to the table, that’s a big deal.”
HUM’s next call for submissions is Feb. 1-22. Submitted music must have been made within the past five years. More information can be found at hum.slcpl.org.