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Tue, Feb 18, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Folkways label profits on oldies


The major music companies may fret over falling revenue, but one label saw its business jump 33 percent last year -- thanks in part to the recordable compact discs.

The label, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, is using recordable CDs, or CD-Rs, to ensure that each release in its extensive catalog is always available. 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 Asch used to ask if we would drop one letter from the alphabet, would we drop Q, just because it's not 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 US$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 helps music piracy. Rather than buy new CDs, the theory goes, people will burn downloaded music onto CD-Rs or burn a copy of a friend's CD.

In 2002, 681 million CDs 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.

Smithsonian Folkways had net album sales of almost US$2.9 million last year, up 33 percent from 2001, despite its cutting its advertising budget more than 50 percent.

Interest in Smithsonian Folkways has jumped since the bluegrass-flavored soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001), from Universal, won a Grammy for Album of the Year and went platinum six times over.

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