Rabble On: Tech Startup Aims to Boost Local Music Through Libraries

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

In July, Amazon supplanted Walmart (NYSE: WMT) as the nation’s most valuable retailer, as measured by market capitalization. Those who follow technology trends could have told you they had seen this change as inevitable. Even if the news didn’t come as a huge surprise, it was yet another indicator of the impact e-commerce has had on brick-and-mortar businesses during the past two decades.

Thousands of book and record stores have closed since Seattle-based Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) launched in 1994. These physical locations have had to contend with the lower prices and delivery services offered by online rivals, as well as the advent of streaming services and other “disruptive” models for consuming media.

One place where people can still go to browse the shelves and chat with connoisseurs is the local library, which is somewhat insulated from the financial pressures that traditional shops face. Rabble, a Madison, WI-based startup, is running with that idea and aiming to turn libraries into hubs for local music. This could help fill the void left by the ongoing disappearance of mom-and-pop record stores, says Rabble co-founder Preston Austin.

“Ultimately, what we’re really going for is more people being able to connect to their local music scene and learn more about it,” Austin says. “We think local collections is going to be a complex area moving forward, in terms of Web technology.”

Rabble’s open-source software, called MUSICat, allows local artists to add songs to a library’s online collection and receive licensing fees in return. Tracks are free to stream and download, though the latter activity requires a library card. MUSICat can be accessed remotely, Austin says, similar to how many libraries have websites that allow readers to place holds on books.

The software is currently in the “alpha” stage, meaning further development is needed before it’s ready to be released publicly; however, two cities are already using the service (more on that below), and Austin says he expects eight others will sign up by summer’s end.

Rabble is a spinoff of Murfie, another music-related startup Austin co-founded. He and Matt Younkle, Murfie’s other co-founder, recently announced they were stepping down from their leadership roles with the company (both will become advisors to Murfie, and Younkle will continue to serve on its board). In an e-mail, Younkle says he’s not planning to become involved with Rabble’s day-to-day operations. Murfie owns half of Rabble, and the remaining shares are split between a small group that includes Austin and Kelly Hiser, Rabble’s CEO and also a co-founder.

Like Murfie, Rabble is a place for users to find and download music. However, everything in Murfie’s online shop originated from one of the 750,000 CDs and vinyl records the company keeps in a vault; all of these discs belong either to Murfie or to one of its customers, says Murfie CEO Chris Wheeler. With Rabble, the emphasis seems to be less on ownership, and more on origin.

After incorporating in 2014, Rabble created an initial version of what would become MUSICat, Austin says. It was rooted in Murfie’s technology, he says, which is evident in the fact that users could download albums, but not individual songs. Austin says that’s been changed in one of the cities where Rabble is available, Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada.

“We’re moving in the direction of track-based for both streaming and download,” he says. “You just select the format when you download the track.”

Edmonton has branded its version of MUSICat as Capital City Records. The software is also live in Madison—the collection there is named Yahara Music Library, after a local river.

Madison and Edmonton are two of MUSICat’s 10 pilot cities, Austin says. He declined to name any of the others, but said that one has already agreed to terms with Rabble, and that two others are close to signing. The remaining five aren’t as far along in the contracting process, but Austin says he anticipates progress over the next six months or so.

Rabble is a for-profit venture. It develops, hosts, and supports MUSICat, and charges libraries for those services. According to its website, a “mid-sized population center” can expect to pay Rabble $30,000 to install MUSICat and maintain the software for a year, and then $12,000 annually after that.

Austin says he and his team would like to come up with ways to reduce the financial burden on … Next Page »

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