Amoeba's Vinyl Vault: Treasure Trove or Legal Sticky Wicket?
While the corpses of corporate music retail chains litter strip malls where outlets like Tower Records and Blockbuster Music once stood, Amoeba Music is an independent juggernaut with three California-based stores the size of supermarkets. They've been a destinations for music aficionados for more than two decades, places that shine the light on small artists and labels and give fledgling releases an audience that, in many cases, they might not attain in big box stores.
A large part of Amoeba's charm is the thousands of used records that are traded in and given a chance at a second life in their used bins. But its latest project has many folks talking about copyright law.
As used vinyl comes through the doors of the store, employees have been culling albums to record, master and then sell digitally the songs on the new Vinyl Vaults section of their website. You won't find the last Radiohead album there or other big time releases from big time artists. The focus is the left-of-center, the self-released, one-off singles recorded in someone's basement; it's become an absolute treasure trove of old blues ripped from shellac 78s and unreleased psychedelic workouts. "We've been doing this a few years and in the course of buying stuff at our trade counter we've found some amazing vinyl artifacts that, [we've discovered] through our research, are not available digitally," says Jim Henderson, who co-owns the stores.
Henderson says most of the material available in the Vinyl Vaults is in fact licensed, but admits some of the works are not. This is where things get sticky. "If we deem that it's not available digitally, then we try to make contact with the person who owns it. If the person who owns it is interested, we send them a copy of our Vinyl Vaults agreement, do a deal, and put their project up. Make a digital master of the record and clean it up. If we can't find the rights' holder, we have a decision to make -- if it's something that we think we can put up and help expose to the world. If it's something that belongs to somebody, it says right there on our page that we will take it down or make a deal."
While giving customers access to music they crave (and otherwise may not be able to attain) is the dream of every record store, the legal ramifications of selling unlicensed releases remain unclear.
"The classic line is it's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission," says Rob Sevier, co-owner of the Chicago-based Numero Group, a label that specializes in reissuing lost and forgotten relics of music and has garnered a trio of Grammy nominations by doing so. "We go to people who 40 years ago did something that nobody has spoken about since. But you come to them and say you want to do it and show them a simple agreement and you get, 'I don't know if I want to do this.' It's a no-brainer of the century that someone is going to offer you a little money."
"We're trying to do the right thing here," says Henderson. "100 percent of anything that we're selling that we don't have an agreement for is going into an escrow account." But no matter if Amoeba has the best of intentions; selling copyrighted material without contract from the rights' holders could be problematic.