Tracks Music Library Is a New Kind of Local Listening Experience

December 16, 2020

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If you spent any time on social media on the first day of December, there’s a good chance you ran into a Spotify Wrapped, or perhaps several dozen. This aggregation of listening habits—tailored to the individual user and presented in sleek, Instagram-ready graphics—has become something of a yearly ritual in the age of streaming, as our music consumption is increasingly dominated by massive platforms like Spotify.

There’s no doubt that it’s fun to analyze your own year in music and compare it with others. Yet the unveiling of Spotify Wrapped each December also serves as a reminder of streaming’s stranglehold on the music industry—an arrangement that makes it difficult (and some musicians say nearly impossible) for independent musicians to earn revenue from their recorded work.

Tracks Music Library, launched in the spring, offers a locally focused alternative. Formed as a collaboration between the Chapel Hill Public Library and Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, the streaming platform exclusively features music by local artists, who are compensated for their submissions and given full ownership of their tracks. Upon visiting the website, you can search curated music from more than 70 musicians and bands; if you have a Chapel Hill library card, you can also download music.

Early in December (first on its own platform, and a few days later on other streaming platforms), Tracks capped off its first year with the release of two compilations, Tracks Volume I: We Rise as Allies and Tracks Volume II: Isolation Illumination. With a roster of local artists that runs the gamut from hip-hop to jazz, and from indie to bluegrass, the projects offer artists a chance to respond to the twin crises that have marked this moment in America: the country’s reckoning with systemic racism and the isolation of the pandemic.

“Our main goal was to support local music,” says Melissa Bartoletta, marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture. “So we were like, ‘What way can we do this, but put money back into the pockets of these artists?’”

Working with producers Kevin “Kaze” Thomas and Thom Canova, the library recruited artists to work on original songs and commissioned visual artists Chris Frisina and Cassidy Goff to design each album cover. We Rise as Allies, produced by Kaze with art by Frisina, directly references the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, while Isolation Illumination, produced by Canova with art by Goff, is inspired by the experience of pandemic quarantine.

“Can’t Say Nothing,” the first track on We Rise as Allies, opens with a challenge from Kaze to white observers of the movement for racial justice: “Are you really my ally? Do you really care, or do you just feel guilty for being indifferent?” Violet Bell’s Lizzy Ross follows that spoken introduction with a frank admission of her own privilege as a white woman, singing, “I never have to fear blue lights in the rearview mirror / He leans in the window and says, ‘Ma’am, you’re free to go.’”

“I felt that it was important to have that moment at the beginning, to say, ‘Hey, this is a conversation we need to have,’” Thomas says of “Can’t Say Nothing.” “If you’re in this moment, and you don’t know what to say or know what side of it you’re on, it’s time to have this conversation. It’s uncomfortable. But let’s start having it.”

From there, We Rise as Allies yields the floor to Black voices. On “Good Trouble,” Kaze, rappers Rowdy and Dasan Ahanu, and singer Nathan Harris trade verses inspired by the late John Lewis and past generations of activists and ancestors. The uplifting jazz anthem “Winner in You” follows, and it sounds as if pianist and singer Lydia Salett Dudley is responding directly to the verses that precede her: “Keep up your head, young man,” she sings. “Don’t you give up the fight.”

The compilation also includes genre-bending songwriter Sonny Miles—who counts Barack Obama among his fans—and the atmospheric soul of XOXOK, who closes out the volume with the tender love ballad “All in.”

For the second volume, Isolation Illumination, Thom Canova aimed to highlight the creative ingenuity that spending more time at home can foster. Without the ability to play live or record with others in a studio, he notes, home recording has become more important for artists than ever.

“People get to spend extra time during this isolation working on their track,” Canova says. “And what this does for people who get to listen to it, is it illuminates what artists are doing on their own during this crazy, crazy time. I think that hearing what artists have to say right now, while we’re all stuck at home, is a good way to do it, because we can’t go see them live and get the full effect.”

Isolation Illumination spans alt-country, electronic indie, and punk, featuring contributions from Shelles, Pretend Chess, Ghost Guns, and BANGZZ, plus a stomping old-time instrumental from Durham’s Hard Drive.

While less overtly political than We Rise as Allies, the compilation still makes room for the moment; BANGZZ’s scorching cut, “Love,” calls us to “make way for radical love,” navigating a divided political climate with compassion.

Like the music library itself, the Tracks compilations seek to represent the full diversity of music in North Carolina. In the absence of the venues, studios, and clubs that normally form a scene, it can be difficult to see a clear path forward for that regional legacy. (One of the great paradoxes of the pandemic is that we are at once more confined to our physical communities, and more disconnected from them.)

In a way, Tracks fills that vacuum, providing a virtual space for local music in the absence of a physical one. But even before the onset of the pandemic, the need for a local approach to streaming was there, notes Molly Luby, the Chapel Hill Public Library’s special projects coordinator, who helped secure the state grants that funded the first year of Tracks.

“So much music these days is streaming,” Luby says. “And for a lot of local artists, it’s very difficult to get their material in the library, because they don’t produce CDs; they’re not necessarily part of the larger music ecosystem, where we can order their music in the traditional ways that we’ve done at the library.”

Luby says, however, that Tracks isn’t simply an archive—it’s a living document.

“It will grow and change along with the music of Chapel Hill,” Luby says. “It is something that is of the moment.”

From Elizabeth Cotten to Merge Records, Chapel Hill has long been a cradle for the musical legacy of North Carolina. Kaze, reflecting on his own career in the local scene, says he doesn’t expect that to change. Tracks is one reason why.

“I think that we are the most talented musical community in our country,” he says. “I do. Nashville is cool—don’t get me wrong. Atlanta is cool. New York’s cool. L.A. is cool. But the sauce comes from Carolina, baby, I don’t care where you go; that sauce is gonna come from Carolina. It’s gonna be in the mix, and the world loves it.”