Amazon, iTunes, and other online music marketplaces make millions of songs available to consumers with just the click of a button. That gives small bands trying to grow their fan base beyond their moms and local groupies an easier path to people’s stereos, but it also raises a big question: how do they stand out in a sea of artists?
The co-founders of Madison, WI-based startup The Rabble hope their new online music service will help solve that problem—and strengthen local communities’ arts scenes in the process.
The Rabble was recently spun out of Madison-based Murfie, an online marketplace for CD and vinyl record collectors to digitize, stream, buy, sell, and trade music. The new company started as a side project for several Murfie employees who were approached by the Madison Public Library to create an online music hub where library patrons could discover local bands.
After the pilot project launched in May, a few of those involved decided to turn the idea into a business. The result is an experiment that aims to use software to “empower libraries to support and sustain creative networks that already exist in their communities,” says The Rabble co-founder and CEO Kelly Hiser.
The company just officially incorporated this month and, as of this writing, it doesn’t have a live website. But the startup’s leaders are excited enough about the concept that they think they can expand to at least 12 more libraries in the next year, says Preston Austin, a co-founder of Murfie and The Rabble.
Here’s how it works: a library agrees to pay local bands licensing fees in exchange for putting their music in the library’s online collection. People with library cards can then stream or download the albums for free, Austin says. The marketplace includes information about the bands, links to buy more of their music from other online stores like iTunes, album reviews, and information on upcoming shows. The Madison version of this project, dubbed the Yahara Music Library after a local river, currently has 47 albums available online, which Austin would like to see grow to a rotating collection of 200.
Although the bands are getting paid through licensing fees, there was a risk that musicians would thumb their noses at Yahara because of fears it could discourage library patrons from buying the music, Hiser says. But nearly all of the bands approached by the library signed up, she says.
“People realize one of the bigger hurdles for a musician is building a fan base,” Hiser says. “If they’re in a collection that has the library’s stamp of approval on it and they’re part of the community … then there’s a lot of value in that.”
The Rabble is forming at a time when public libraries are dealing with people’s media consumption habits changing from paper books and plastic CDs to e-books and digital music. Austin doesn’t think those societal shifts signal the end of libraries. Instead, they’re evolving to add new services, while also getting back to their roots as a “community hub,” he says.
The Rabble helps libraries “replace things that have been eaten by software, and also gives them a role that they serve well locally that national infrastructures don’t,” Austin says. “The Amazons and the iTunes kind of can deliver local music, but they don’t care about little local ones. They’re built on the ones that go big.”
The Rabble and its partner libraries must still prove that they’re providing a service that people will flock to, but Hiser thinks there’s an appetite among library patrons.
“I think what’s going to be interesting to watch, at least with the model we’re working on, is whether it is able to generate more community investment in locally created stuff,” Hiser says. “But I think that that already exists. ‘Local’ is a thing that’s popular right now.”
The Rabble’s music service is built on Murfie’s technology. Murfie loaned $40,000 to the founders for startup costs, and it holds a minority stake in The Rabble. The two companies also have an agreement to provide technical support to each other. The Rabble is majority owned by its three co-founders (former Murfie software developer Matt Wheeler is the third founder), who are “working for ramen wages,” Austin says.
The Rabble will offer both an open-source software package and a paid software-as-a-service option. Annual software subscription prices have yet to be determined, but the company intends to charge libraries as little as possible to allow it to continue operating, Austin says, while also seeking money from philanthropic organizations. Austin says he also wants to allow library patrons to donate, so more artists can be added to libraries’ collections.
“I’d like to make it affordable for any library, at the scale of its community, to continuously serve as a curated collector … of local music and other cultural artifacts,” Austin says. “I see that as a role that libraries should play.” Besides music, libraries could create a database of local music history as part of the service, like archiving concert playbills and posters, he adds.
But this also raises the question of where The Rabble fits in with local publications that cover the community music scene. Austin sees the library service as complementary, not competitive. Readers of Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper Isthmus might first encounter a band in the publication, then go on the local library’s website to read more, download one of the band’s albums, and watch a YouTube video of a performance, for example.
“We’re not trying to put the Isthmus out of business,” Austin says. “We’re trying to make Madison’s music community more valuable.”
Right now, the company is focused on finding more library partners and further developing the software. Two features that might be added include the ability to download individual tracks (right now it’s the whole album or nothing) and allow visitors without library cards to sample music, Austin says.
Hiser recently moved to Massachusetts and is handling her duties remotely. She will become The Rabble’s full-time CEO when she finishes her Ph.D. next year, Austin says. Austin is splitting his time between serving as acting manager of The Rabble and as a Murfie advisor and board member.
The Rabble’s staff also includes two software developers, Austin says. The company is operating from Murfie’s downtown Madison office, which doubles as co-working space Horizon Coworking.
By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.