Posters in Edmonton’s Capital City Records

by Kelly Hiser

Rabble is a startup based in Madison, Wisconsin that builds online local music collections with public libraries. Our open-source platform, MUSICat, helps librarians connect with local musicians to collect, curate, license, and publish music. We work with an amazing group of library partners, in Edmonton, Madison, Nashville, and Seattle, and we’re excited to bring several new partners on board in 2017: Hennepin County Library, Omaha Public Library, and Multnomah County Library. Minneapolis, Omaha, and Portland are home to incredible and distinctive music communities, and we’re excited to listen to their collections later this year.

Rabble will turn three this fall, and we’re pleased that we’re still around and continuing to form new relationships with libraries. Building a startup in a niche public library market has not been easy, and we’ve faced our fair share of challenges and setbacks. But we’ve come a long way, and we feel optimistic about our future. I credit Rabble’s success largely to the care we bring to our work with librarians and musicians. 

Albums in Nashville’s BoomBox

Care may not be a practice that most CEOs center in their work, but it’s essential to mine. I aspire to care as a radial practice in my life and work. For Rabble, that means centering people, not profits. It means taking a values-driven approach to decisions big and small. To care is not to be emotional or weak but to build meaningful relationships that can grow, adapt, and endure. As an organization, care operates within Rabble at multiple levels: personally, socially, and professionally.

To care is not to be emotional or weak but to build meaningful relationships that can grow, adapt, and endure. As an organization, care operates within Rabble at multiple levels: personally, socially, and professionally.

At the personal level, my care for libraries, librarians, and musicians runs deep. I’m lucky to count many academic and public librarians among my friends, and my partner is a talented and passionate public librarian. He’s acted as a sounding board and advisor to me since I began working with libraries. His commitment to building more equitable communities through library service has helped ground my own work in the values of public librarianship.

My friends and family also include many working musicians. I lived as one myself, making ends meet as a pianist with a mix of accompanying, lesson teaching, church gigs, and (ahem) waitressing. I eventually ended up as a music historian, which deepened my understanding and curiosity about how our society values music and musicians. My care about music’s value—about who gets compensated and recognized, and for what—informs my work as a historian and Rabble’s CEO.

Librarians also care about how their work creates value for their communities, and they’ve been doing and theorizing that work far longer than Rabble has been around. The Rabble team recognizes that, and we try to follow librarians’ lead.

Librarians also care about how their work creates value for their communities, and they’ve been doing and theorizing that work far longer than Rabble has been around. The Rabble team recognizes that, and we try to follow librarians’ lead. After all, librarians came up with the model that our MUSICat app supports, in which libraries license work directly from local artists to share online with their communities. This is where the social aspect of Rabble’s care comes in: we do our best to follow conversations among librarians on Twitter and in journals, and to talk with librarians whenever we can (librarians are really, really generous about doing this). We’re also fortunate to have Kristin Eschenfelder, the director of UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies, as a board member. Through conversations with folks like Kristin, we’re constantly deepening and refining our understanding of how we can contribute to the work of librarians.

Artists featured in Madison’s Yahara Music Library

We also bring care to our professional relationships. We work with staff at our partner libraries on a day-to-day basis. Caring about those professional relationships means, in part, recognizing how ridiculously busy most librarians are, and doing simple things to simplify their lives, like responding to email promptly. We work hard to listen carefully to librarians when they share their ideas, needs, and concerns with us. We check in with them about how their work is going and actively solicit feedback about how we can do better. This communication is invaluable to Rabble—it helps us continually improve our own processes, build better tools, and become a better partner.

Some of the most celebrated and innovative public libraries in the world have chosen to work with a little-known, tiny startup on bold and experimental new music projects. I’m convinced that folks at those libraries took a chance on Rabble because they recognized that we care about the work we do with them, and they know that care makes all the difference.

 

Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good.

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