Palo Alto library subscribes to novel music idea

Cardholders can download five free songs per week through Freegal Music

For card-carrying members of the Palo Alto City Library, book and movie checkouts last for weeks but music downloads last forever.

The library is one of around 3,000 in the United States and 5,000 worldwide that subscribe to Freegal Music, a downloadable music service from Virginia-based Library Ideas, LLC. Though use of the service in Palo Alto has increased over the past year, only a small percentage of cardholders use the service. The library staff hopes to see more participation.

Freegal, a blend of "free" and "legal," boasts millions of songs, thousands of music videos and dozens of genres from about 28,000 record labels, including Sony Music Entertainment. Featuring artists from Miles Davis to Elvis, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Dixie Chicks, Outkast, Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus, as well as classical music, Freegal's collection is designed to appeal to the young, old and everyone in between.

"It's a very good service that fits people's needs," said Diane Lai, head of the library's Information Technology & Collections division. "It would be impossible for us to have a CD collection that matches Freegal's repertoire."

Cardholders may download up to five songs per week to their computers or mobile devices. The process is simple: Library members navigate to Freegal's home page through the library's website, log in with their 14-digit library card number and search for music by album, artist, genre or song. The download credit counter resets every Monday.

Over the past six months, the library has averaged about 340 users and 3,100 music downloads per month, according to Senior Librarian Jessica Goodman. Downloads have increased by nearly 30 percent over the past year.

The library adopted Freegal in 2012, just a couple of years after the service's inception. The decision was part of a push to develop a virtual branch that would help the library keep up with digital trends. The service also allows the library to save time on maintenance such as resurfacing and replacing damaged disks and save money on preparing new disks for lending. Other benefits include avoiding space issues inherent in a growing disk collection and reducing the length of waiting lists.

"Adele's '21,' for example, when that came out there were enormous lines at libraries," said Brian Downing, CEO of Library Ideas, LLC, in an interview with the Weekly. "Freegal services a larger population."

The cost of Freegal subscriptions varies from library to library. The population of the city a library serves, not the number of cardholders, determines annual fees. Palo Alto, home to about 65,000 residents, pays $18,250 per year for the service. The subscription breaks down to around 50 cents per download, according to Goodman.

Of the library's approximately 47,000 cardholders, only a small percentage use Freegal, which Lai said is due to a lack of awareness more than a lack of interest.

"When I worked at the desk at Mitchell Park Library," she said, "whenever customers would ask for a CD, we'd say, 'On a related topic, have you heard about our Freegal Music service?' Customers were often interested and said things like, 'That's awesome!'"

Freegal, which accounts for 3 percent of the library's total collection budget, allows members access to about 7.9 million songs. To put that into perspective, the library spent nearly $6,000 on 477 CDs in fiscal year 2014, according to Lai.

Because the cost of a Freegal subscription is based on the size of the population a library serves, the downloadable music service is feasible for most libraries.

"I personally grew up in a small town, and small-town libraries are just as important as larger libraries," Downing said. "We are just as happy to serve 300 people as 3 million people."

Other libraries in the area that subscribe to Freegal include the Santa Clara County Library District and the San Mateo County Library.

When Downing started pitching Freegal to libraries in 2010, he emphasized equally the "free" and "legal" aspects. Freegal funnels a large portion of its revenue to participating record labels.

"When people walk into a library and check out a CD, that's legal," he said. "But when people put that CD into a computer and start ripping songs, that's not legal."

In one fell swoop, Freegal supplies millions of songs to thousands of libraries, stymies illegal download activity and supports a struggling music industry. And, in this digital age, it gives many a reason to use their library card each week.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2014 at 9:29 am

This shows how even the libraries are moving towards the electronic download system.

Needing all these libraries is definitely going to be a thing of the past. We may need more community center space with check out desks for materials on hold, but shelves of books and other materials is getting more and more obsolete.

On top of that, it is clear that the Mitchell Park fiasco shows that for those of us who were not in favor of this large new structure and would rather have seen a serious remodel of the old library were more in touch than those who planned the large library.

We are at present without two libraries. Materials are in storage. The last time I placed a hold on a book I was number 22 for 3 books in the library system which I figure will take 6 months for me to get my turn and then I have to trust that the book will be clean enough to actually want to read after approximately 7 people have taken it home to read with food and coffee.

Libraries have their place, but they are not what they used to be.

1 person likes this
Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2014 at 11:27 am

KP is a registered user.

Now that I know...I am going to use it, for sure!!

1 person likes this
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2014 at 11:32 am

I'm going to use it too. I love the libraries and request books very often. MOST of them are in storage, which is very frustrating. I am counting on the storage books being back in circulation after Mitchell Park is finished

1 person likes this
Posted by Giants Fan
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Just signed in to Freegal Music using my library card and already downloaded my first song! one click and it's in my iTunes library. thank you palo alto library for this great service and to Palo Alto online for spreading the word!

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