Library Rock: Checking Out Music's Quiet Champion

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Ambient guitar, whirling theremin, improvised Casio jams—you’d be lucky if you found such a variety of sounds emanating from your local rock club, but citizens of Cincinnati have the distinct privilege of witnessing these experimental sounds at their local library. It’s all a part of the Public Library of Cincinnati’s Experimental Music Project, a monthly concert series that takes place right next to the fiction shelves.

And Cincinnati isn’t the only public library expanding its music offerings. Libraries around the country, from Jacksonville, Fla., to Kalamazoo, Mich., are developing innovative programing, collections and initiatives, much to the benefit of musicians and music fans alike. Music clubs (like book clubs, but with albums) are even springing up. All of these efforts help to create a more sustainable future for both libraries and the music industry—two areas are undergoing massive transitions in the digital era. In a time of unprecedented access and choice, libraries might just be both the advocates local musicians need and the curators fans crave.

So far the response from patrons towards Cincinnati’s diverse musical offerings has been overwhelmingly positive. The series has included music by noise guitarist Pete Fosco, the experimental orchestrations of Brooklyn’s Panoply Performance Laboratory and even a live-soundtracking of the silent horror classic Nosferatu.

According to Cincinnati’s Music Reference Librarian Steve Kemple, “After the very first performance back in August an older woman came up to me and said, ‘Was that even music? What do you call that? I don’t dislike it, I just have no idea what to call it. I actually really enjoy it, but it’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard!’ That really embodies what I hope people will get out of the performances. I like to think I’m not only turning people on to experimental music but also to their sonic environments. And, of course I’m turning people on to our collection. Really, at the end of the day, I just want to blow people’s minds. That’s why I became a librarian.”

Last March to December, librarians in Florida blew 85 minds by creating just that many personalized playlists (which included over 645 album recommendations—from Sun Ra to Fela Kuti to Vivian Girls). With more precision and heart than Pandora or Spotify, the Jacksonville librarians create customized playlists for patrons without relying on computerized algorithms. Instead they base recommendations off of highly individualized survey response forms—many of which are featured on the library’s radio show—yes, the librarians double as DJs and broadcast all their favorites over the airways of local NPR affiliate WJCT-FM 89.9. A recent broadcast included tracks by The xx, The Monkees and Neko Case.

Jacksonville has also partnered with a myriad of local musicians to cultivate diverse collections that reach far beyond the mainstream. Active members of of Jacksonville’s burgeoning hip-hop community including Paten Locke, Willie Evans Jr and Tough Junkie have contributed both their advice and records to lend local music collection an authoritative street cred.

According to Jacksonville’s popular-media librarian and Library Journal columnist Matthew Moyer, “As more and more musicians start taking control of their own business, so to speak, and doing their own marketing, promoting and selling their music directly to fans, the library can be an important place to help musicians and potential audiences connect. Libraries catalog and preserve their music in an increasingly ephemeral digital age. Libraries can be a place to nurture musical creativity, whether it be as a performance space or a space for creation.”

Advance Base’s Owen Ashworth (formerly of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone) is a musician who knows a thing or two about utilizing the library as a space for creation. He actually recorded his latest album A Shut-In’s Prayer in one.

According to Ashworth, the decision to record in a library was simple: “The Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago has four (maybe more) rehearsal rooms with decent pianos and as long as they have a library card, anybody can go play a piano for a while. We wanted to use a real piano on the album, as opposed to the digital thing that we’d been using for shows.” The library had a resource the band didn’t. And so over the course of several early weekday mornings they gathered in the rehearsal space and created beautifully intimate album. “It worked out great and I would totally do it again.”

And other musicians are also reaping the benefit, not only in terms of recording resources but by gaining greater exposure and monetary compensation. Mandala of the band Witherings plays wizard rock, a genre inspired by Harry Potter, so it makes sense that many of her band’s tour stops would be libraries. But what’s really incredible is that those libraries provided most of the funds that enabled the tour in the first place. “Thanks to two libraries which had the funds to pay us, we were able to cover the cost of our gas as well as hotels in the cities in which we didn’t have planned crash space,” says Mandala.

“Our experiences with the libraries were each very different,” she continues. “The library in Oklahoma, which paid us the most, did a lot to promote the show including printing up large, beautiful fliers and it attracted an adult crowd. The library in Arkansas billed the performance as a children’s show, and at one point I had several small children dancing with me as I performed. The third library gave us a private room where we mainly played for the local Harry Potter meet-up group. All three of these experiences were as incredible as they were unique.”

And speaking of unique, Iowa City Public Library’s Local Music Project allows county residents to legally download entire albums by local bands free of charge and free of DRM restrictions. It’s a remarkable business model which compensates artists (all musicians are paid for leasing their material to the library) and it allows casual listeners to take a chance on something they might not normally listen to and become hometown fans. The project is up to 49 albums and growing, and other libraries are following suit.

All of these partnerships are exciting and symbiotic, as musicians, fans and libraries attempt to navigate a new media landscape. Kemple puts it best, “As public spaces, libraries can be a place for mixing up people in addition to ideas. In this way, libraries can foster the sorts of interactions that lead to collaboration. Every library is a music scene waiting to happen.”

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