Interview with Jason Sigal of the Free Music Archive

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This week I interviewed Jason Sigal, Managing Director of the Free Music Archive, a brand new initiative developed by the acclaimed independent freeform New York-based FM and streaming radio station WFMU. Launched last month, the Free Music Archive is a curated archive of high quality legal audio downloads. The FMA pairs WFMU’s longstanding reputation and expertise with a model inspired by Creative Commons and the open source software movement, and presents a useful solution to copyright and regulation quandaries now facing the distribution of music online. - Ceci Moss

What conversations inspired the Free Music Archive?

The idea came from our Station Manager Ken Freedman and Assistant Station Manager Liz Berg, so you'd need to talk to them personally about the run up to the project. But this is the basic idea:

Radio is not enough. WFMU is at the forefront of using new technology to fulfill our mission, but outdated copyright law and the looming possibility of unfairly high royalties make it difficult to provide audio on-demand, to podcast, to archive, even to stream online. A lot of webcasters closed down as a result, because they would be paying more to webcast than to broadcast over FM/AM or what we would call 'terrestrial' radio. We want to support the artists we play. But SoundExchange (the performing rights organization who claims to collect royalties on behalf of all the world's recordings, not just those registered with the RIAA) has a gargantuan list of Unpaid Artists that they can't seem to track down. Glancing through it now...Kraftwerk's on here, the Afghan Whigs, X-Ray Spex, Ted Nugent...SoundExchange has a very difficult task at hand, and it's a valiant one, but if they can't find these artists, they're NEVER gonna be able to find some of the shit we play, so our money mostly goes to support SoundExchange's operating expenses so that they can pay Metallica.

Concurrent to these debates and the whole "Save Net Radio" campaign, major record labels and large corporate music radio stations were involved in this whole pay-for-play scandal. These commercial stations were getting bribed with mountains of cocaine and Ferraris and stuff to play the same top-40 artists that everyone already knows about. Meanwhile, non-profits like WFMU -- who even refuse underwriting support because we feel it's just another form of advertising -- we were told that we had to pay much more than we could possibly afford in order to play our freeform mix of primarily unknown artists. It just seemed ridiculous.

Then Eliot Spitzer came along, attacked everyone involved in payola in NY state, and set up the New York State Music Fund. The fund supports projects that spread the word about all the great music out there. You can read more here.

Our grant enabled us to put on free concerts that we called the Free Music Series. Shows included Alan Vega, Oneida, and Old Time Relijun at Southpaw on 10/13/2007, the free Sonic Youth show with the Feelies at Battery Park on 7/4/2008, and the August 20th 2008 show at Lincoln Center, perhaps my favorite, which was WFMU Music Director Brian Turner's dream bill (he set up all of these) with Dutch avant-punks The Ex collaborating with legendary Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya, the Either/Orchestra backing legendary Ethiopian vocalists Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayu Eshete, and the Kenyan/American group Extra Golden.

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Image: Poster for WFMU's Free Music Series Concert with Sonic Youth and the Feelies

Our grant also laid the groundwork for the Free Music Archive, a social music website of podsafe audio. There are already libraries of free music out there, like archive.org and jamendo.com that provide free LEGAL music. Then there are the myriad ways of finding free music online that is NOT considered legal, there's just so much free music at our fingertips these days. The FMA is unique in that it’s not just legal, but curated, so it combines the user-generated content with the curatorial role that WFMU has always played. WFMU’s Station Manager Ken calls our model "web 1.5" - meaning, if web 2.0 is all user generated content and web 1.0 is WFMU streaming without comments or user feedback, then the FMA is somewhere in between.

Every time a new technology comes along, the music industry freaks out and there's this big struggle for control. This happened in the early days of radio actually -- music publishers didn't want their music played over the radio because they thought people wouldn't go see live music anymore. But then they realized a correlation between radio airplay and sheet music sales. Radio has always offered this type of promotional value, and in the shifting digital landscape, the Free Music Archive is our way of ensuring that we can continue to play the role we've traditionally played, legally.

Who are your curators? How did you decide to work with them?

Our curators specialize in audio that WFMU might not be covering, and they're pioneering new methods of music distribution and promotion online.

KEXP is a very influential non-commercial radio station based in Seattle, they're listener-supported. Along with WFMU, they're one of a few independent radio stations out there known for music. This is a strange time for radio, a lot of the radio world is leaning away from music, towards news and public affairs, but WFMU and KEXP have always been known for curating music. The FMA will help us continue to do that in an online environment.

dublab is another example of a station that's challenging the traditional concept of "radio" -- they have a live stream, archives, an mp3 blog. They don't actually have a terrestrial signal, but they do have a weekly program on KPFK called “Future Roots Radio”. They're very active in the local Los Angeles music scene -- they sponsor a lot of events and have a sound system that they rent out to help make live music possible in a lot of nontraditional spaces. They also have a lot of experience using Creative Commons -- they did a fantastic project where they commissioned a bunch of 8 second audio loops, and a bunch of round album-art-sized visual artworks, and licensed them all under Creative Commons to allow for infinite loops, and a soundboard that you can toy with here.

Another curator is Halas Radio out of Holon Israel, they're relatively new. Halas Radio is another example of a new approach to radio, where there's no actual terrestrial broadcasting involved, it's all over the web. Halas is a project of The Israeli Center for Digital Art and one of their missions is to document and preserve music from around the entire expanded region, not just Israel or the Middle East but inclusive of Europe and Ethiopia. Daniel Meir came to visit WFMU a while back, and brought with him some amazing footage of a traditional music festival from a small town in Ethiopia. We look forward to sharing some of this on the FMA.

Curators aren't just radio stations though, ISSUE Project Room is the first participating venue, and we’ve been talking with a bunch of others.

There are also some netlabels involved as well. WeirdoMusic Recordings from the Netherlands is a great one.

Can I ask a basic question? Who curates the curators?

Haha, that's a good question. We do, and it’s tough. Quality is such a subjective thing when it comes to audio, but the concrete qualifications that we're going for are curators with large collections of pre-cleared audio, who have experience utilizing the web to spread the word, and who'll add new material to the FMA on a regular basis. We’re also working with record labels. The labels won't exactly be curators like you see in the main drop-down menu, but we'll have the ability to browse by label.

Was the move to bring together an international group of curators intentional? I ask this only because I feel the model of FMA is not only informed by the direction presented by web 2.0 technologies but it is also a response to outdated US copyright law and its impact on American radio stations. The reason why so many American broadcast stations are now turning to talk radio is because they are also trying to podcast their content online, and talk radio allows them to side step restrictions regarding music licensing and podcasts.

Exactly. (I just snapped my fingers in agree-ance!) Of course it's going to be international, that's the nature of the web. And that's one reason we offer Creative Commons licenses -- they adapt out-dated copyright law to fit the world wide web.

We do already have some labels curating audio from Indonesia (Yes No Wave Music), Australia (Dual Plover), more European countries than I can name off the top of my head. From the beginning, we knew this project had an international scope. We had a pre-launch blog up as a placeholder, and we'd find our pre-launch sampler tracks popping up in podcasts from all over the world.

Oh! I should mention another curator, Excavated Shellac. He had a blog where he would digitize out of print 78 rpm recordings of international music, many of them in the public domain, but some are simply what we call orphan works. Meaning, that they may still be protected by copyright in some countries (we did research into international copyright last summer, it was incredibly complex) but their rights holders cannot be located. So, nobody will ever hear this amazing music unless we do something. We’ve made some of this "orphan work" available, but because of its nebulous legal status, we can't say what you can or cannot do with it. Most of the music has a clear set of rights associated with it under Creative Commons, but with orphan works, it's impossible to make that claim.

Most of the music on the FMA has a clear set of rights, as in you can download and share non-commercially, or some music can be remixed or sampled or included in a new work, sync'd to video, some can even be sold commercially as long as you attribute the author. We're working to expand this part of the library, because in the meantime most is only available for non-commercial music sharing.

You worked closely with the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, correct? What role have they played in the development of the FMA?

Yes, they do amazing work. The FMA is covering new ground and music licensing is incredibly complex. There are almost always at least two rights-holders associated with a music recording, the right to the recording and then the right to the composition/song. In some cases, there's also a separate lyricist, publishers, any number of people who may have to sign off before a song can be made available for download. The Berkman Center has helped us navigate the complex world of intellectual property law as it pertains to online music. When we have a theoretical question or issue or project, we go to them. They’re one of a bunch of people who've offered advice along the way. We've also been getting helpful perspective from WFMU listeners, some of whom work in IP, others are contract lawyers, publishers, music lawyers etc.

Are there any upcoming FMA news or projects that you want to mention to Rhizome readers?

We’re adding new audio every day, we launched on April 4th with approximately 5000 files, and now we're at 6500. We’re going to be growing exponentially from here, adding new curators and more curated legal audio, it's not the kind of resource that can ever be exhausted.

There are also some very exciting remix contests in the works using Creative Commons licenses and the Free Music Archive. On top of that, we’re planning to have some really excellent, high profile record labels use the FMA as an ad-free place to share the free promotional mp3s that they're already sharing online.

Very important to note - the site is still in BETA. There is a gigantic list of changes, revisions, and improvements that are going to make the site more useful and intuitive. We're working on a message board where users can discuss the myriad topics the FMA brings up, like intellectual property issues...We’re hoping to use this as a forum to figure out policies for dealing with some of the gray area issues we're already encountering. An embeddable player is also on the way, as is an API.

We’ve learned that web development is expensive and time consuming, but we'll get there in time. User feedback helps us figure out our goals going forward, we've been storing a lot of meta-data for advanced search options that aren't available yet. Like, if you're searching specifically for audio that can be used for your non-commercial video project, and includes Spanish, and is radio-safe...you'll be able to search for that soon.

In the meantime, we're just building this gigantic database of great audio.