Smithsonian Folkways saw its sales jump 33% last year, part of which comes from burning rare recordings on CD-R for customers:
- And in doing so, the label best known for dusty recordings by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly is taking initial steps toward creating a 21st-century "celestial jukebox," where nothing recorded ever goes out of print.
The Folkways inventory includes 2,168 titles dating to 1948. Some of those are collections by familiar troubadours like Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. But many more are obscurities like "Music From Western Samoa: From Conch Shell to Disco" (1984) and "Folk Songs of the Canadian North Woods" (1955).
Most recording companies, if they would ever release titles like that to begin with, would let the master tapes languish once a first pressing was sold out and initial interest had waned.
The notion of any recording falling into history's dust bin was said to gall Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. Dan Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways, recalled that Mr. Asch used to ask if Q would be dropped from the alphabet just because it wasn't used as much as the rest of the letters.
When the Smithsonian Institution bought Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, the museum agreed to keep every title in print. Initially, requests for rare, out-of-stock albums were fulfilled with dubbed cassettes.
Now, music fans hankering for "Burmese Folk and Traditional Music" from 1953 can pay $19.95 and receive a CD-R "burned" with the original album, along with a standard cardboard slipcase that includes a folded photocopy of the original liner notes.
The Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group representing the major music corporations, worries that CD-R technology aids music piracy. Rather than buy new CD's, the theory goes, people will burn downloaded music onto CD-R's or burn a copy of a friend's CD.
In 2002, 681 million CD's were sold, down from 763 million the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has been using the CD-R technology since 1996 to sell its obscure titles, essentially creating a just-in-time delivery model for record companies. Every time an order comes in, a Folkways employee burns five copies, one for the customer, and four for future requests.
Last year, the company sold 13,467 CD-R's, accounting for 6 percent of its CD sales, said Richard Burgess, director of marketing. Over all, Smithsonian Folkways had net album sales of almost $2.9 million in 2002, up 33 percent from 2001, despite its cutting its advertising budget more than 50 percent. [NY Times]
Vive le niche.