Palo Alto City Library subscribes to novel music idea

By Benjamin Custer
Palo Alto Weekly (Published August 2014)

For card-carrying members of the Palo Alto City Library, book and movie checkouts last for weeks but music downloads last forever.

The library is one of around 3,000 in the United States and 5,000 worldwide that subscribe to Freegal Music, a downloadable music service from Virginia-based Library Ideas, LLC. Though use of the service in Palo Alto has increased over the past year, only a small percentage of cardholders use the service. The library staff hopes to see more participation.

Freegal, a blend of “free” and “legal,” boasts millions of songs, thousands of music videos and dozens of genres from about 28,000 record labels, including Sony Music Entertainment. Featuring artists from Miles Davis to Elvis, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Dixie Chicks, Outkast, Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus, as well as classical music, Freegal’s collection is designed to appeal to the young, old and everyone in between.

“It’s a very good service that fits people’s needs,” said Diane Lai, head of the library’s Information Technology & Collections division. “It would be impossible for us to have a CD collection that matches Freegal’s repertoire.”

Cardholders may download up to five songs per week to their computers or mobile devices. The process is simple: Library members navigate to Freegal’s home page through the library’s website, log in with their 14-digit library card number and search for music by album, artist, genre or song. The download credit counter resets every Monday.

Over the past six months, the library has averaged about 340 users and 3,100 music downloads per month, according to Senior Librarian Jessica Goodman. Downloads have increased by nearly 30 percent over the past year.

The library adopted Freegal in 2012, just a couple of years after the service’s inception. The decision was part of a push to develop a virtual branch that would help the library keep up with digital trends. The service also allows the library to save time on maintenance such as resurfacing and replacing damaged disks and save money on preparing new disks for lending. Other benefits include avoiding space issues inherent in a growing disk collection and reducing the length of waiting lists.

“Adele’s ’21,’ for example, when that came out there were enormous lines at libraries,” said Brian Downing, CEO of Library Ideas, LLC, in an interview with the Weekly. “Freegal services a larger population.”

The cost of Freegal subscriptions varies from library to library. The population of the city a library serves, not the number of cardholders, determines annual fees. Palo Alto, home to about 65,000 residents, pays $18,250 per year for the service. The subscription breaks down to around 50 cents per download, according to Goodman.

Of the library’s approximately 47,000 cardholders, only a small percentage use Freegal, which Lai said is due to a lack of awareness more than a lack of interest.

“When I worked at the desk at Mitchell Park Library,” she said, “whenever customers would ask for a CD, we’d say, ‘On a related topic, have you heard about our Freegal Music service?’ Customers were often interested and said things like, ‘That’s awesome!'”

Freegal, which accounts for 3 percent of the library’s total collection budget, allows members access to about 7.9 million songs. To put that into perspective, the library spent nearly $6,000 on 477 CDs in fiscal year 2014, according to Lai.

Because the cost of a Freegal subscription is based on the size of the population a library serves, the downloadable music service is feasible for most libraries.

“I personally grew up in a small town, and small-town libraries are just as important as larger libraries,” Downing said. “We are just as happy to serve 300 people as 3 million people.”

Other libraries in the area that subscribe to Freegal include the Santa Clara County Library District and the San Mateo County Library.

When Downing started pitching Freegal to libraries in 2010, he emphasized equally the “free” and “legal” aspects. Freegal funnels a large portion of its revenue to participating record labels.

“When people walk into a library and check out a CD, that’s legal,” he said. “But when people put that CD into a computer and start ripping songs, that’s not legal.”

In one fell swoop, Freegal supplies millions of songs to thousands of libraries, stymies illegal download activity and supports a struggling music industry. And, in this digital age, it gives many a reason to use their library card each week.