The Free Music Archive was founded in 2009, the same year Barack Obama was inaugurated as this country’s first black president. As a project directed by the legendary Jersey City radio station WFMU, it was to be a “library of high-quality, legal audio downloads,” a place where artists could share their music and listeners could enjoy it for free. Now, following a funding shortage, the FMA plans to close sometime this month.
“The future is uncertain, has been my mantra lately,” says Cheyenne Hohman, who’s been the director of the Free Music Archive since 2014. The shutdown date was initially November 9th, but it has since been pushed back to November 16th because the FMA is in early talks with four different organizations that are interested in taking the project over. “The site may stay up a little bit longer to ensure, at the very least, that our collections are backed up on archive.org and the Wayback Machine.”
Even so, it’s not a perfect solution. “If it just goes into archive.org, it’s going to be there in perpetuity, but it’s not going to be changing at all,” Hohman says. “It’s not going to be the same thing, that sort of community and project that it was for ... almost 10 years.”
The project got its start after WFMU won a grant from the state of New York. The plan was to create a resource that was aimed at people — “webcasters, podcasters, broadcasters, video artists, students,” per Hohman — who were interested in Creative Commons licensing. Those licenses are looser than traditional copyright, and they give artists more flexibility in sharing their work and allowing others to use it. As Hohman points out, traditional copyright is far from perfect for the online world; the content uploaded to FMA, on the other hand, was created explicitly with the digital in mind.
“The FMA is literally the only reason anyone ever heard my music when I was starting out,” the ambient musician Chris Zabriskie tells The Verge in an email. “It wasn’t just the permissive creative commons licensing, it was the FMA as a platform that introduced my music to millions of people over the years. It’s the reason I have a career.” Having his music freely available mattered to Zabriskie, and, in his words, the FMA just seemed to get that. “They understood that free independent music needed more than to just be free and independent; it needed a community. The music won’t disappear, but something special is vanishing.”
“We don’t face some of the same red tape that organizations that are trying to digitize things that are covered under copyright, for example, are facing,” Hohman says. “But I do think that as with many arts organizations and similar sorts of libraries and archives, we’re facing an unfriendly administration.” She says the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, awarded the FMA a grant for FY2018-2019 that was a third of the size of those it had received in the past. (Regardless, they’ll have to relinquish the grant with the closure.)
“Arts funding is dwindling,” Hohman says. “Support for archives and libraries is strong philosophically, but ... material support can be lacking.” That lack is harmful to anyone who relies on those institutions to get things done, from researchers to people whose main portal to the internet is their local library — Hohman included.
“My main goal, career-wise, is to connect people with resources that they need. That’s sort of the driving force behind what I do,” she says. And with the Free Music Archive’s impending closure, Hohman has found herself slightly adrift. “I don’t have a clear career plan. I live in Los Angeles, and there are tons of library and archiving jobs here, but it’s pretty competitive. And also those gears grind pretty slowly. So I’ll probably be between jobs for a while.”
Even so, Hohman plans to stay with the Archive for as long as she can. “If there’s a new partner organization that’s willing to take me on as a consultant, or even as a director as part of the package, I’m willing to go with it. But ... I need to make sure that I have my own needs met. So hopefully there won’t be a gap in service for the Archive,” she says. “And hopefully I will also find a way to persevere.”