A first impression of the Madison Public Library's new showcase of local music.
For the past few days I've been testing out the Yahara Music Library, a new digital local-music resource hosted by the Madison Public Library and engineered by Madison startup Murfie. The service opens to South Central Library System members today. Essentially, a library card number gets you access to stream and download music from a curated collection of albums by Madison artists; artists who are chosen for the collection receive a $200 payment. As the Wisconsin State Journal noted this week, it's built on an open-source platform that can possibly be re-purposed by other libraries and institutions looking to build a similar resource.
I'm coming into this with both optimism and skepticism. The Madison Public Library, having opened its swanky new Central Library and debuted a new slate of arts programming (we curated the music for one of the library's new Night Light events), now has both the potential, and I think a duty, to become a stronger presence in the local arts community. Then again, whenever something is pitched to me as an effort to support local musicians, I immediately start thinking about all the ways in which I've seen that go wrong. Such efforts—from Make Music Madison to the Madison Area Music Awards—mean well, but tend to be a bit tone-deaf, have trouble connecting with all the different pockets of musicians and audiences our city has, and for some reason have a penchant for putting people through hellaciously convoluted online voting and sign-up systems. (Behold, in our benevolence we have created more hoops for you to jump through!)
So it's a bit of a relief that YML's interface is simple and clean, and that its modest initial offering of 23 albums (the plan is to expand it over time) spans across genres and age ranges: Classical music from the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, hip hop from DJ Pain 1 and Sincere Life, jazz from Ben Sidran, the more outlandish likes of Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Julian Lynch, and Reptile Palace Orchestra, and so on. Which is important, because efforts to document to boost local music tend to err over-emphasize either the usual suspects (Phox, Count This Penny, etc.) or one particular little clique or genre within local music. There are a few albums here that I've singled out for praise in recent years, including Spires' Ancient Patience Wills It Again and Sincere Life's Write Of Passage EP.
The streaming audio (full tracks and albums, no interruptions or ads) sounds decent, and, as on SoundCloud, keeps going pretty fluidly as you jump from page to page. You can also grab .zip downloads of each album. The album pages all currently have a "where to buy" tab that currently just refers users to three local record stores and Murfie (I doubt each of these albums is available through all four sources, and perhaps this should be replaced with specific sales links for each album). Additionally, each artist included has a landing page that includes a short bio, links to their website/social accounts, and SongKick listings of upcoming shows. Users can add albums to their individual collection, but otherwise YML has few social/interactive bells and whistles, which I think is the right choice.
One element I'd throw out immediately is the of review quotes and promotional bios that populate the album pages. (And I say this at the expense of my vanity, since my review of the Sincere Life EP is on there.) If you consume a lot of music, you're inured (or should be) to that stuff, because, well, take any release and there's almost certainly at least one person, somewhere, who will rave about it.
More importantly, I like the fact that YML isn't a music publication or another aspect of the music-marketing rat race, not particularly aligned with any one demographic or clique, and it has an opportunity here to more emphatically set itself apart from all that. Most music writing, "professional" or otherwise, is pretty mindless and servile, so try something else—chances are that users will find it refreshing. The selection is curated by MPL, so how about offering curators' notes to make a case for why something was worth including? If presented thoughtfully and with not too much of an air of authority, that would be very worthwhile, as would more creative approaches—say, soliciting thoughtful "liner notes" on a given album from another artist included in the collection, or even a little video series of artist-on-artist dialogues. I could see other creative approaches working as the collection grows. For example, highlighting themed sub-collections that highlight a certain genre or narrative in local music. (I would also offer, free of charge, to include the library in my will and establish Scott Gordon Memorial Collection of Scratched-Up Promo CDs From Madison Bands.)
Of course, the real measure of YML will be how it grows and maintains artist and audience interest over time. There's a great opportunity for it here, as there are many different ways to find your way to local music, but no one strong hub that connects you easily and quickly with a broad range of it all at once. In fact, using YML has already given me the chance to reconsider local acts I initially wasn't really feeling, and certainly challenging one's own opinions and preconceptions is an important part of being a listener. The selection will of course never please everybody (prepare to hear from the "it doesn't include ______, so boo!" school of thought, YML folks!), and there are endless discussions to be had about how to create a fair and helpful economic model that supports local musicians (though YML pays artists, Murfie co-founder Preston Austin admitted to me that the artists included here are making an altruistic decision as much as they are a business decision). But in embracing a variety of music and creating a design that doesn't hinder the user, YML has left itself ample room to grow.