Since Variety reported on Amoeba's entry into the digital marketplace in January, the Vinyl Vaults have become a subject of particular interest to anyone concerned with intellectual-property law—the store has been uploading and selling some of these rare recordings without the consent of the copyright holders. Amoeba has been open about this; the Vinyl Vaults section of its customer-support page says that the folks at Amoeba have tried to get in touch with "as many of the rights holders as we could find," but contained in that statement is an admission that they haven't been able to find everyone. Amoeba says that all the money recouped from downloads of albums belonging to copyright holders that the store cannot locate will get placed in an escrow account until the matter is resolved.
Unfortunately it's far from clear that Amoeba has made a real effort to contact everyone. Banastre, for instance, had no idea Amoeba was selling Electric Women until I tracked him down and broke the news. He wasn't furious about it, but he found the situation irritating, in part because Amoeba's FAQ page explicitly says the store has tried to get in touch with copyright holders. Given how quickly I found him, why couldn't the store do the same?
To be fair, the Vinyl Vaults store currently offers nearly 700 titles, so we're talking about a lot of work. But Banastre was only one of nine musicians I found in the Vinyl Vaults and then got in touch with, and not one of the nine had heard from Amoeba. Eight had no idea Amoeba was selling digital copies of their music before I reached out to them; one had found his album in the Vinyl Vaults when he Googled his own name six weeks ago.
I began digging through the Vinyl Vaults shortly after reading Variety's piece, which is when I came across the album Willoughby's Lament by D.C. folk artist Bob Brown. I located Brown with ease in early February—out of the nine artists I spoke to, he was the first—and then turned his story into a feature for the Washington City Paper this week. While working on that article I decided to take another look around the Vinyl Vaults to see if I could track down anyone else.
I ran into plenty of dead ends, but I was able to find some people quickly. The next was Scott Madry, a research associate professor for the anthropology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who plays in a band called Over the Hill. In 1976 Madry released a solo psychedelic-folk album called Sea Dog, after a nickname Madry says he got at military school when somebody said he kind of looked like the cartoon dog of Captain Crunch fame; until recently it was available in the Vinyl Vaults. "I never made much money off the album," Madry says. "I think my last royalty check from BMI was for 73 cents." Eventually BMI told him it cost more money to cut his checks than the checks were worth. Over the years Sea Dog has become a sought-after collectors item, though; it's a rare private-press record, and the subculture of collecting such LPs has become so fanatical that the New York Times noticed it in 2006. Madry says that every once in a while a collector will get in touch to buy a copy of Sea Dog. "I still have several boxes of them," he says. "So I'm happy to sell copies."
Rex Beech, formerly front man of novelty punk act the Sick Band and now president of an Orlando company called Beech Outdoor Advertising, has also been approached by collectors—in this case interested in the 1981 seven-inch "Punk Rock" b/w "Boogers." "This dude calls me up from California and says, 'Hey man, I'll buy as many of those as you have,'" Beech says. Shortly after Beech sold the collector 20 copies for $5 each last summer, he noticed that the man was reselling it online—and that people were paying as much as $200 for it. Curious listeners can buy the MP3 version of that single from the Vinyl Vaults for $1.48—which was news to Beech. "That's kind of amazing that they wouldn't contact me," he says. Beech owns the copyright to the single, so he's understandably miffed. "It's unbelievable, it's un-American," he says.
Almost every artist I spoke to about their music's appearance in the Vinyl Vaults was confused, aggravated, or both. And almost every artist I spoke to was easy to find. Martha Swetzoff, who played in Boston postpunk outfit Bound & Gagged, is a faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design; her band's four-song self-titled 1980 EP is available from the Vinyl Vaults in MP3 form for less than $3. Alabama producer Paul Hornsby played in 60s rock combo the Five Men-Its, which he mentions on the biography portion of his website; his band's 1964 single "I Don't Love You No More" b/w "The Old Man (I'm Growing Old Before My Time)" can be had via the Vinyl Vaults for as little as $1.56. Rick Stevers drums in Detroit rock act Frijid Pink, who had a Billboard-charting hit in the 70s with a cover of "House of the Rising Sun" and is still playing shows and releasing music. In the 60s Stevers was in a group called the Detroit Vibrations, and though their 1967 single "I'm the Man" b/w "She's a Winner" is hard to find in a physical format, it's ready to download from the Vinyl Vaults.
Amoeba co-owner Jim Henderson says what I found shouldn't be taken to reflect on the state of the entire Vinyl Vaults catalog. I wasn't able to speak to Henderson for my Bob Brown feature, but he did send me a short e-mail about the Vaults for this blog post, explaining that a family emergency prevented him from sparing more time:
I understand that the experience you've had is likely to have created a feeling that we've not done any licensing work and are proceeding cavalierly, but I assure you that while our efforts have obviously been flawed, we have licensed much of what is on the site, continue to have fruitful dialog with labels and individuals about vinyl vaults approvals, and earnestly and honestly are seeking only to create a haven for music that is otherwise lost or underexposed, and further, working in concert with the folks making these lost treasures. This isn't an excuse or a pardon for our errors and oversights, but genuinely where we're at. We have nearly 25 years of working closely with artists, labels and our community, and are not looking to cash that in for a chance at selling a few downloads.
I don't mean to bash Amoeba, and I'm willing to believe that the store is doing its best to address this kind of oversight. After I got in touch with Madry, he contacted Amoeba; Henderson promptly gave him Sea Dog's sales numbers and offered him a contract. Sculptor Larry Estridge, whose old band Nightwatch has an album called Before the Rain in the Vaults, also reached out to Amoeba shortly after I spoke with him over the phone on Thursday; Friday morning Estridge called me to tell me he'd received an e-mail from Henderson about the album. Eric Relph, the only person I spoke with who'd discovered his music in the Vaults on his own, contacted Amoeba before I reached out to him and received a contract that would allow the Vaults to continue selling his 1978 solo folk album, Pretty Darlin'.
All three musicians are now engaged in the process of reaching an agreement with Amoeba. For them Amoeba offers a valuable service—the store is digging up their long-lost work and making it available in a way they aren't able to on their own. Because Amoeba is a hub for music fanatics, the Vinyl Vaults store also gives some of these artists a leg up in the digital marketplace. And in the case of releases such as the Detroit Vibrations single, Amoeba may even be preserving music that might otherwise be lost; according to Stevers, the masters to that seven-inch no longer exist and he only owns two copies of it himself.
Good intentions aside, Amoeba still has some bridges left to cross before its Vinyl Vaults project is squeaky clean legally. Tarleton, who says he makes his living selling his music and performing around Missouri, has issues with the Vinyl Vaults that go deeper than the lack of a contract. He's already selling Electric Women on CD and vinyl through his own site and in MP3 form via CD Baby (at a price slightly higher than at the Vinyl Vaults). He doesn't want to lose those sales because a big digital store is undercutting him. "It's discouraging," he says. "I'm not sure they'd ever be able to send me that much money."