Amoeba's Vinyl Vault: Treasure Trove or Legal Sticky Wicket
As the corpses of corporate music retail chains like Tower Records and Blockbuster Music litter dying strip malls, Amoeba Music thrives as an independent juggernaut with three California-based stores the size of supermarkets. Amoeba has been a celebrated shopping destination for West Coast music aficionados for more than two decades and is a place that shines a light on small artists and labels, giving fledgling releases an audience and, in many cases, much-craved sales they might not attain in big-box stores. A large part of Amoeba's charm is the thousands of used records that are given a chance at a second life. But the store's latest move has left some music lovers and industry professionals scratching their heads.
As used vinyl comes back through the doors of the store, employees cull albums to record, master, and then sell digitally on the new Vinyl Vaults section of Amoeba's website. You won't find the most recent Radiohead album or other big-time releases at Vinyl Vaults. Its focus is the left-of-center, the self-released, the one-off singles recorded in a basement -- it's a 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 . . . are not available digitally," says Jim Henderson, who co-owns the stores.
Henderson says most of the material available in the Vinyl Vaults is licensed, but acknowledges that 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."
Giving customers access to music they crave and otherwise may not be able to attain is the dream of every record store, but the legal ramifications of selling unlicensed releases are real. "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 Grammy-winning label that specializes in reissuing lost and forgotten relics of music. "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 the 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 intentions; selling copyrighted material without contract from the rights holders could leave the music giant litigated so hard that we could have a new audio format by the time it's all over.