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- Enrique Limón
How Salt Lake City Public Library has local music's back.
By NICK McGREGOR
In her engrossing non-fiction narrative The Library Book, author Susan Orlean writes, "The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."
Such lofty language means something concrete to local musicians, though. Last June, the Main Library branch of Salt Lake City's Public Library system launched Hear Utah Music (HUM), a repository for hundreds of albums by Utah artists. At hum.slcpl.org, listeners can stream and download tunes, read bios and watch videos or dig into a poster collection that's a singular slice of local history. Backed up by a physical archive of donated CDs and cassettes, this music is meant for public consumption—and it's built to last, with every entry able to remain in perpetuity if the artist so desires.
Better yet, each of those artists whose music has been entered into the HUM collection has received a cash honorarium: $200 for full-length LPs and $100 for EPs. "The library is trying to help support local artists directly," says librarian Jason Rabb, pictured, who specializes in nonfiction and audiovisual with a particular focus on local and classical music. "We pay the honorarium as a 'thank you' for sharing their music. Hopefully we're able to help them get their music out in the world a little bit, too."
The technology that HUM runs on is solid, as well. "When we started thinking about a digital collection, we weren't sure how to build a website or license all the music," Rabb says. "Luckily, we found a startup company, Rabble, which builds local music collections for libraries—a very specific thing. They were flexible, working with us to build the site how we wanted it. That was great."
Reflecting that level of professionalism, HUM debuted with a solid schedule that made it easy for bands to put the new venture on their radar. Twice a year, in February and August, HUM accepts submissions. New entries from the February submission period are announced May 1; from August, on Nov. 1. Each submission is judged on its creative merits by a five- to six-person jury of local radio station DJs, record store owners, studio engineers and critics. "Jurying is a big part of the project," Rabb says. "It's not just me choosing the artists; the jury makes the selection process transparent while also helping us reach other communities. That way, we can hopefully build a diverse collection."
Less than a calendar year in, HUM's diversity is astounding. Nearly 60 artists represent every genre, gender, age, ethnicity and creative twist under the sun. There's 100-year-old jazz legend Joe McQueen and young doom lounge purveyors Jazz Jaguars, the raucous noise of The Nods and the searing folk of Wing & Claw, the luxurious beats of Sally Yoo and the riotous poli-punk of Nasty Nasty, all sharing the same space. You can even check out a Local Music Cassette Tape Kit, which have proven so popular that, as Rabb laughs, "A lot of them have been 'disappeared.' We're working on getting replacements."
Rabb knows how special such cross-genre pollination can be for young musicians. A Price native who started playing in bands once he moved to Utah County, he then landed in Salt Lake City, where he studied music at the University of Utah and fell into a thriving thrash-metal scene centered on Bad Yodelers. A few years after co-founder Karl Alvarez left to join garage-punk legends the Descendents, Rabb served time as a Bad Yodeler himself. Since then, he's embraced more of an experimental bent, performing in avant-garde two-piece It Foot, It Ears and as a one-off collaborator with NOVA Chamber Series, Deseret Experimental Opera Co., and Christian Asplund's Avant Vespers series.
That far-flung background informs more than just HUM; the music programming that Rabb and his team have championed at Salt Lake City Public Library sends the same open-minded message. In addition to regular summer rooftop concerts at the Main Library and live local music at branches around the city, a new event, SHH! A Very Quiet Concert Series, debuted this winter. On second Sundays in December, January and February, SHH! presented low-volume music commissioned exclusively for the library, with artists utilizing the building's unique physical layout and architecture. "That was great," Rabb raves. "We had Christian Asplund wandering around the library playing his viola, along with music inside the elevators and in different parts of the library. But it was music that didn't disturb normal activities, patrons or staff."
In addition, the 12 Minutes Max series celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. Featuring short works by local artists in various disciplines, Rabb and team select three original pieces from local artists in any format that will fit on the Main Library's auditorium stage: experimental music, dance, film, writing, theater. "Several artists who are part of the HUM collection have participated in 12 Minutes Max," Rabb says. "It's performance art, but the whole event is short and sweet, taking about an hour."
Versions of both events will roll up into the library's next big plan: a full-day HUM Festival tentatively scheduled for September. "We're going to have music on the roof, music on the plaza, and music in the library," Rabb declares, pointing to last summer's two-night HUM launch party at The Urban Lounge and Diabolical Records as inspiration. "It's fun taking library programming out in the community."
Ultimately, Rabb views his job through that lens—and it's an outlook shared among his fellow front-line staff members and Salt Lake City Public Library executives alike. "The support has been amazing," Rabb says. "One big area of focus for the library is celebrating creativity in the community. All the support of local musicians and local arts programming really comes through, all the way from my personal manager up to the director of the library. The support is there, and I feel it down at my level."