The Free Music Archive: Collaboration in the cultural frontier

0 Posted by - May 2, 2009 - Blog, Sound

fmaIt’s as much library as it is archive. But that’s the way things are these days – archives becoming interactive and living bodies of culture and memory. In this case, it is music we are remembering and sharing in a collaborative and innovative way outside the intellectual property box.

The Free Music Archive is an interactive archive-cum-library with high-quality free legal music downloads. From the website: “Every mp3 you discover on The Free Music Archive is pre-cleared for certain types of uses that would otherwise be prohibited by outdated copyright law. Are you a podcaster looking for pod-safe audio? A radio or video producer searching for instrumental bed music that won’t put your audience to sleep? A remix artist looking for pre-cleared samples? Or are you simply looking for some new sounds to add to your next playlist? The Free Music Archive is a resource for all that and more, and unlike other websites, all of the audio has been hand-picked by established audio curators.”

The Arcive was created by WFMU, one of the longest running freeform radio stations in the US (freeform being where the on-air DJs have creative control over the music they play). Located in Jersey City, New Jersey, WFMU is a non-profit listener-supported broadcaster (90.1 fm) with a long history of supporting independent artists and providing a fecund alternative to commercial radio’s cultural wasteland.

The range of music that airs on WFMU is remarkable: psychedelia, experimental, obscure 50s-60s blues, unpopular jazz, R&B, soul, reggae, garage rock, hot-rod music, 78’s, 8-tracks, twee, indie pop, schlock-a-billy, hip-hop, electronica, hand-cranked wax cylinders, punk rock, exotica, downtown art music, radio improvisation, cooking instructions, Old Noise, classic radio airchecks, found sound, off-kilter kids’ music … the list is only partial.

They also have a little spoken word – comedy, call-in shows, anti-fascist lectures, interviews with obscure radio personalities, interviews with notable science-world luminaries, spoken word mish-mashes. In 2001, they teamed up with Amy Goodman and Democracy Now to challenge a hostile takeover at WBAI that resulted in Democracy Now being temporarily “banished” from WBAI and the Pacifica Radio Network.

The Free Music Archive was created from a grant from the New York State Music Fund and opened its streaming doors on April 10, 2009. The music housed in the archive is curated by WFMU in collaboration with curatorial partners – KEXP, dublab, KBOO,, among others. One of the curatorial streams is called: phoning it in, where listeners are encouraged to call their favourite artists and record them performing on the telephone.

Downloads are free, but listeners can “tip” artists they like with a quick click.

Hats off to the folks at WFMU for such a great cultural resource – keeping it in the cultural commons.

Leave a reply