The Download Dilemma
The demise of the compact disc signals an uncertain future for library sound recording collections.
Posted Mon, 07/27/2009 - 14:41
A little over a year ago, I received an e-mail from Cantaloupe Music announcing the release of a new live recording of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, available solely as a download-only digital file through iTunes and the label’s website (Cantaloupe CA21045). At Northwestern University we typically buy most CDs released by Cantaloupe, so I investigated what our options were for acquiring this recording and learned that, due to licensing restrictions, the downloaded file could be sold “to end user customers only.” That phrase comes from the iTunes “terms of sale,” which has largely set the tone for all music download licensing agreements.
To be sure I understood the licensing terms, I conferred with our library’s copyright officer; just as I suspected, she told me that our library would not be considered an end user, and so could not download the file and make the recording available to our patrons. Further pursuit of this matter led me to a conversation with an Apple spokesperson who confirmed that “the terms of service dictate that iTunes is for personal use only” and that “libraries are not permitted to purchase music through the iTunes Store.” Meanwhile, I have seen more examples of download-only recordings being released; from discussions with other librarians, I know there are many who have found themselves unable to provide their users with certain recordings available only as digital files. I am not an expert on current or future technologies, and I certainly am no authority on copyright or licensing, but I do have a particular interest in building, preserving, and providing access to music collections. It appears that recent changes in the distribution of sound recordings are challenging our ability to continue this most foundational aspect of our profession.
The download-only trend
Initially, it seemed that download-only releases were being put forward only by small, niche companies like Cantaloupe or as special bonus tracks or EPs by larger labels such as Nonesuch. But this has changed, and it is clear that the recording industry—including the classical music recording industry—has already taken large strides toward a substantially, if not exclusively, online means of distribution.
Although I had never thought of it in these terms, it seems that we librarians are in the redistribution business, or at least we have been. Libraries have a long history of adapting to new sound-recording formats, but throughout those changes, we have been able to continue purchasing, cataloging, housing, and coordinating access to the recordings our patrons needed. With the legal restrictions surrounding download-only files, however, libraries are no longer able to carefully develop collections that pertain to the communities we serve. That is to say, a Northwestern conducting student hoping to study Dudamel’s interpretation of Berlioz cannot be helped by our library.Although libraries may be unable to purchase download-only files, our patrons’ desire to hear music for study and entertainment hasn’t changed. Presumably the licensing restrictions for downloaded music were put in place to inhibit illegal file sharing; but one colleague of mine wonders if the unavailability of these recordings in libraries just steers many listeners back to peer-to-peer sources: “Whereas traditionally the library was a place where someone could come to explore different kinds of music they were curious about, now I hear students say to each other, ‘If you want to hear that, you can get it free’ at such-and-such site, or ‘I’ll burn you a copy.’”
The preservation paradox
Along with providing materials to a particular user community, another fundamental role of libraries has been to preserve cultural heritage, but the situation with download-only recordings precludes us from continuing these efforts. Preservation is a costly undertaking, and libraries and archives are much more committed to this investment than are the companies that produce and own the rights to sound recordings.
My first library job was working as a student assistant in Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives. For one of my first tasks, I was given a list of Henry Mancini LPs to pull. The archivist told me that RCA was planning to reissue a collection of classic Mancini recordings. The company wanted to include reproductions of the original album covers in the booklet that would accompany the collection; but since they had not maintained copies of the artwork or even the actual album jackets, they had called on Bowling Green to provide photographs of the album covers.