In recent years Madison Public Library has transformed into an innovation hub that draws all sorts of creative types. The new Central Library teems with forward-thinking features, including a media lab where patrons can design videogames and maker-focused Bubbler programming that ranges from audio engineering workshops to community art projects. It's also the birthplace of the Yahara Music Library, a collection of locally made music that cardholders can stream online and download to a variety of devices.
Yahara launched on May 23 with albums by a handful of Madison artists, including Beth Kille, Pushmi-Pullyu and Venus in Furs. It also features local acts past, such as Spooner, and performers with ties to the area, such as West High alum F.Stokes.
The new resource highlights the ingenuity of MPL staff, as well as library leaders' ability to spot a strong concept, refine it, and turn it into reality. The original concept came from librarian Guy Hankel, who manages MPL's music collection. He knew that the Iowa City Public Library had begun offering local music to its cardholders online, but he wanted to take the idea further.
"I'd been looking for a better way to leverage library resources to promote local music, one that could deliver music as streams or free downloads," he says.
Eager to find a Madison-based partner to build this delivery system, Hankel contacted Murfie, a company that digitizes clients' CD collections in a way that lets them sell, trade and stream the recordings. About a year ago, Hankel met with cofounder Preston Austin to see how Murfie might go about creating the resource he envisioned.
Austin helped bring the idea to life by fleshing out the technical details.
"I said, 'We could build something like Murfie, and here's how it would work,'" Austin recalls.
Hankel was confident that Murfie had the expertise needed to build the music library, but he still had to convince the MPL board to sign off on the project. The board ultimately gave Hankel a launch budget of $80,000. Murfie received $50,000 of that money to develop, design and host a system MPL could use to share albums, artist biographies and other types of content. The company also contributed a streaming service, mobile app development and other in-kind investments free of charge, Hankel says.
Both Hankel and Austin note that Murfie can tailor the Yahara platform to the needs of other libraries. This could provide revenue for Murfie and a way for MPL to recoup its investment.
Though Hankel spearheaded the new music library, MPL fellow Kelly Hiser also played a significant role in developing the resource and planning its launch. Many Murfie employees touched the project as well, but the bulk of the design and development work was done by a small team Austin supervised. So far, Hankel has selected most of the albums for Yahara, using MPL's collection development policy as a guide. He hopes to form a selection committee in the future, but for now his goal is to "include music of all genres," with a special focus on artists who've won awards or gained national attention.
MPL pays each Yahara act $200 for a five-year license of one album. This sum is generous compared to what many artists receive from streaming services like Spotify, which tend to give record labels a heftier cut of a song's profits.
Ida Jo, a singer and violinist, chose to participate in Yahara because it seems like a local, indie spin on streaming.
"Free streaming programs are huge in the business right now, and narrowing it down to a community database is a fantastic idea," she says. "This type of streaming allows listeners to discover music from artists that they might not otherwise hear about."
Hankel says that since MPL hopes to avoid negotiating with labels, Yahara only features musicians who release their work independently. For similar reasons, it doesn't include cover songs.
"That's why you may notice that a few tracks are missing from an album," Hankel says. "Our hope is that fans will go out and buy the band's entire album after listening to [most of] it through the library."
The restriction may prevent tribute acts from participating, and classical and jazz artists may struggle with it since there's such a strong tradition of performing works composed by others in these genres.
Despite the challenges, there's plenty of music to enjoy now -- and lots more on the way soon.
"We've budgeted to have approximately 75 titles by year's end, with at least 50 more in each of the coming years," Hankel says.