Monday, June 20th, 2011

In Defense Of Libraries

This is from a talk I gave today at a rally to save the Oakland library system from proposed massive closures.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the arts in changing society, the role of culture in moving politics, and the spaces where this kind of cultural change and political change happens.

So I started thinking a lot about used record stores.

In the marketplace they play a really interesting role. Where does pop music go to die? Used record stores. Think of all those copies of The Eagles’ Hotel California you can get for 25 cents.

Where does music go to be reborn? Used record stores. It’s where the crate-diggers, hip-hop producers, guitar-slingers are uncovering old sounds that are blowing their minds and causing them to write the music of the future

So used record stores aren’t just used record stores.

They are morgues and landfills of copyright. They are places of cultural recovery and transmission. They are the creative birthing grounds for pop’s second life.

Basically they are libraries.

Because of this, the used record store becomes an interesting place to think about how we place a value our past and how we make something new of it.

There’s a cultural economy of used record stores, it’s born of the process that goes from record release to the cut-out bin to used record market to crate-digging to revival.

It starts from the moment pop dies—the moment that is the opposite of consumption, the moment of deletion, when a record is cut-out of the catalog, the process when the record falls off the market.

When music is determined to hold no more monetary value, it is deleted. That is where most of our recorded history lies. In the cut-out bin. In the Trash file. Locked behind the copyright fence. Lots of it belongs there like the Eagles. But what about when it doesn’t?

Historically, most artists have not retained ownership of their works, which means that record labels and publishers curate musical histories and cultural legacies. These gatekeepers have the legal power to choose what music can circulate, and what stays out of print.

The situation becomes bleaker with the extension of copyright terms, which has created a class of orphaned music that can’t be legally circulated or preserved because the owners can’t be found or they have gone.

At the same time, because of sampling law, copyright litigation has raised the price of keeping musical genres like hip-hop in print, placing even recent, in-demand records behind the fence. The irrational marketplace for sample clearances also gets between artists in ways that the law never intended, disrupting the transmission of cultural memory.

What we are talking about here plain and simple is market failure. It renders important music inaccessible, especially genres devalued by major labels and publishers, such as jazz, blues, folk, and bluegrass. Even if corporations do not deem this music valuable in an economic sense, it doesn’t mean the music is not valuable to us in the cultural sense.

Enter the collectors, the hipsters, and the DJs. Their rediscovery of musical heritage is a cyclical phenomenon made possible by the deletion of massive amounts of culture. A process we seen repeatedly occurring in Black music, for instance, from the blues to free jazz to funk to disco to hip-hop.

Revivals are what happen at the point where the margin of the marketplace meets the bleeding-edge of hipsterism. It’s lots of fun, but it can also lead to decontextualization and erasure. Where do sagging jeans come from, right? In the cultural economy, in other words, history itself can be deleted.

So on the one hand, you have the market failure that occurs when companies choose to delete records or stop circulating records that have historical or creative importance, music that embodies our human story or music that helps seed new creativity.

Because of market failure, you can’t get De La Soul’s first four albums on iTunes. Nor can you get most of Biz Markie’s albums. You can’t get the complete Def Jam-era Public Enemy boxset Chuck D and the crew put together almost a decade ago.

On the other hand, you have many vital, vibrant and we should note—often legally ambiguous—scenes that pushing further and further the spaces where copyright lapses, the competitive crate-digging subculture, a small galaxy of super-creative musicians, and a bigger galaxy of cool audiences come together to create tomorrow’s mainstream.

Style and the market go hand-in-hand. But there is a larger question, too. One that transcends market value: how do we as a community forge a shared history and how we create a better future for ourselves?


When I was a teen on a tiny income, I spent as much free time as I possibly could in libraries. In fact, libraries were where I got to form a lot of my musical taste.

On weekends, after spending my McJob money up at Froggies used record store, I’d take the bus down to the library. There was some genius librarian at the Hawai’i State Library who was an uber-hipster. And so that’s where I discovered Robert Johnson, Clyde McPhatter, King Sunny Ade, Gang of Four and Talking Heads.

I’d lug home the cassettes I’d bought along with the vinyl records I’d borrowed from the library, plus crazy books like Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide, wherein he reviewed a million records in riddling prose, and Stephen Davis’s Reggae International, a splashy book that featured album-sized pictures of Big Youth smoking gynormous spliffs. And then I’d spend hours more with them, seeing and hearing and reading the world.

Those are the kinds of things that make an impression on a young person, develop a youth’s love for words and sounds and people.

These days the Oakland library offers more to teens than I ever had. And I’m glad of that too. We live in neighborhoods where virtually every young person we know will be unemployed this summer. Oakland teen programs are helping youths not just to learn and listen to the world, but to learn to lead, to actively engage in and make the world that they live in together.

And that is the way the world changes—the world changes through the culture first. Cultural change always precedes political change.

People who work in this building behind us might think otherwise, but in reality we are the ones who make it move—those of us who are artists, those of us who are community builders, those of us who support artists and community builders. We change the culture, and politics follows.

The folks who are against us, who are against a vibrant vital public core, know this. The budget cuts inflicted we face here and all around the country are about laying waste to the public space and fencing it off. And they are about stopping cultural change right where it begins.

We are now in an era where they are pushing privatization towards its last frontier: the collective imagination. And we cannot allow that. We have to stop them right here in their tracks.

All used record stores are libraries, but libraries are not used record stores.

When I go into a library, I don’t have to worry about who is holding whose copyrights, why this book didn’t sell enough to continue to be available in any marketplace, how many other stories there are out there that I am missing because the storytellers don’t have the money or the property rights to tell them.

In the library, I am in a space beyond the marketplace, beyond consumption, beyond the money censors, beyond the noise. I am in a place where librarians have accumulated the knowledge and the stories important to me and my community.

The library is the embodiment and the refuge of our collective imagination. In the library, we learn just how big and full of possibility the world is and we build the kindling to fuel our creative fires and to change our culture.

Those two transformative acts are too important just to leave to the playgrounds and the graveyards of the marketplace.


For more information on the plan to close most of the Oakland public libraries and how the community is mobilizing to stop this, please visit Save Oakland Libraries. Special thanks to Amy Sonnie and Ted McCoy.


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