…but what else?

Some time ago, I heard a friend say that her daughter had found one of her LPs and asked:  “Mommy, what’s that big, black CD?” That dear child is now finishing college, and the news is that vinyl is back, though of course, that’s not news. It never went away.

When shellac is back, that’ll be news.

Freegal bannerThe model for distributing audio is ever changing. Over the past four or five years, I have downloaded hundreds of tracks through Freegal, a music service offered through public libraries. Not every library subscribes to it, but Hennepin County Library (HCL) and Saint Paul Public Library do. You can download up to five mp3s a week, which are yours to keep and use without digital rights management. The downloads are free. Free. Actually, we citizens have already paid for them. The HCL web site reads “Subscription purchased with funding from Hennepin County property taxes.” I guess that makes them free. Like freedom, it’s a right you have only if you exercise it.

Freegal is run by Library Ideas, a privately held media company focused on libraries, based in Fairfax, Virginia. Library Ideas outlines the highlights of its Freegal Music 4.0 Service:

  • 8 million songs

  • 28,000+ music labels including all the labels of Sony Music
  • 15,000+ music videos
  • app available for Apple and Android mobile devices

photo of Spike Jones

Spike Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people I’ve talked to aren’t aware of this resource. Because I’m a sucker for things free, I use it weekly to the max, downloading everything from Wagner’s Parsifal to Spike Jones’s City Slickers. And there have been discoveries: the wind music of Ibert; Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques; Stephen Fry narrating Tubby the Tuba.  I’ve held off from the latest Adele album, but she’s there too, staring me in the face.

One librarian raised objections to Freegal in 2011. Some of her complaints have been addressed since then. But it’s still unclear to me how the service remunerates copyright holders. I suspect that Library Ideas pays the labels, which then distribute minuscule amounts in royalties. (See the jaw-dropping 2010 chart at Information is Beautiful detailing royalties actually earned on digital music.)

To use Freegal

You’ll need a library card. Mine is from HCL, so I’ll describes that process.

  1. Go to your library’s web site: e.g., Hennepin Co. Library.
  2. Browse: Online Resources
  3. Scroll down and click “Freegal
  4. Enter your 14-digit bar code number and 4-digit PIN (At this point, you can apply for a library card if you need to.)
  5. Click “Log in
  6. Click “Connect Now“. You enter the Freegal web site. (Note, you can enter this site from the Web directly, but you won’t be able to download.)Connect Now button


Use the clunky search engine. Or use the menu bar, which includes:

Music • Videos • Most Popular • New Releases • Genres

Click Genres and you’ll get a sense of the vastness of the selection. Then click Classical, and you can search artists A-Z. The result will be a list of tracks, with option to preview (the arrow) or download, or add to a wish list.

What to think of this model for distributing audio? I’d be interested in your comments and experiences.