A Folk Label Hits the Internet

I've always liked the eclectic nature of Folkways Recordings; my library contains a dozen or more releases, plus a few dozen more on vinyl. I keep meaning to browse their massive catalogue and get some CDs custom-printed. I doubt that I'll buy any from the Apple Store (don't really like to purchase from iTunes: too low-res, like to have a physical CD, yadda yadda), but this is still cool news.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Anthology of American Folk Music

A Folk Label Hits the Internet

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, has reached a deal to market all of its vast and eclectic library on Internet services like Apple's iTunes Music Store.

Digital music downloaders, get ready to rock to “Finnish Tunes and Songs,” “Festival of Japanese Music in Hawaii (Vol. 1 and 2)” and “Stethoscope Sounds: Heart Murmurs and Lung Sounds.”

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, has reached a deal to market all of its vast and eclectic library on Internet services like Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store. The development promises to bring to a wider audience seminal works by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly as well as recordings from around the world and thousands of historical obscurities.

Folkways put its catalog online, including Dock Boggs, Jimmy Collier and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick.
“We're really a museum collection for audio,” says the label's director and curator, Dan Sheehy, an ethnomusicologist by training. “When I see CDs going out the door at our fulfillment department, I think of them as mini traveling exhibitions.”

The new marketing arrangement, with a New York-based digital distribution company called the Orchard, could upend that earnest approach. The Orchard -- owned by Dimensional Associates Inc., the private equity arm of hedge fund JDS Capital Management, Inc. -- is combing this vast treasure trove of historic recordings, seeking oddball ways to generate revenue from previously overlooked sources.

It's not just the niche appeal of its offerings that sets Folkways apart. The company's business model, dating back nearly 20 years, would seem tailor-made for the Internet age of targeted sales. Many of the 3,500 albums in its library sell just one or two copies a year, issued on CDs (and before those, cassettes) custom-recorded when a customer places an order. Folkways distributes to retail outlets about 10% of its titles, mostly American blues and folk titles by household names like Woody Guthrie. Its biggest hit, the six-volume “Anthology of American Folk Music,” has sold just north of 80,000 copies since it was reissued on CD in 1997.

Folkways rarely spends more than $30,000 promoting an album, so the company has to find marketing opportunities where it can. “We have to piggyback on trends,” says Richard Burgess, its marketing and sales director. For instance, seeking to capitalize on Bruce Springsteen's recent hit, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” the company launched a marketing program called “Can't Start a Fire Without a Spark: From Seeger to Springsteen.” “We have most of the original Pete Seeger stuff,” says Mr. Burgess. “We're out there trying to let people know we have it.”

Folkways manages to break even most years, by relying on a strategy that is often touted as a key benefit of distribution via the Internet: the ability to profitably sell small quantities of a very large number of products. On the Net, the model works because a digital marketplace often involves minuscule costs for storage and delivery; for Folkways' custom business, it works because the company doesn't actually maintain much inventory.

Moses Asch founded Folkways Records & Service Co. in 1948, with the simple-sounding mission of recording “people's music.” The label released 2,168 albums before Asch's death in 1986, showcasing seminal American blues, country and bluegrass artists; European folksingers; African drummers; Indonesian gamelan orchestras; and hundreds of other regional and international performers.

A great deal of Folkways' output has remained commercially obscure. Yet at the same time, those recordings have been incredibly influential to the people who managed to find them -- like the young Bob Dylan.

The Smithsonian Institution acquired the label from Asch's estate in 1987, on the condition that every single title be kept in print. The Smithsonian has since added collections and signed new artists, such as the influential country singer Lucinda Williams, whose first two albums were released by Folkways in the early late 1970s and early 1980s.

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams

Happy Woman Blues (Lucinda Williams)
“Happy Woman Blues” (Lucinda Williams)

Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways
“Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways” (Classic Bluegrass from Smithsonian Folkways)

Music of Central Asia Vol. 1: Tengir-Too Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan (Tengir-Too)
“Music of Central Asia Vol. 1: Tengir-Too Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan” (Tengir-Too)

plus a good many others.


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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on May 22, 2006 8:59 AM.

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