Webmaster Tobby Dodds sat down with me to explain Folkways’ success. Folkways is a record company operated by the Smithsonian that has a huge collection of about 40,000 traditional Americana, spoken word, world music, and ethnographic recordings, and even the sounds of animals and machines. It started in the 1940s and then 50 years later started making CDs from its old acetate records. It is somewhat ironic that much of this traditional and historical material now has another life on the web.
“Most people don’t come to the Folkways website directly. They come to us through the webpages of specific CDs.” As Dodds explains, each Folkways CD available for sale on the website has its own web page; the website has more than 3,000 pages.
Visitors also get to the website when searching for a particular singer or a musician. The Folkways website typically appears in the top results of Google searches. “The key,” says webmaster Dodds, “is that singer’s name or artist is on our webpage. Once the person navigates to the webpage he or she will find dozens of hyperlinked references specifically about that artist. After that, the visitor is hooked.”
Dodds says Folkways Recordings offers music from around the world and thus was “built for the Internet.” He recalls one specific instance after first launching a web version of Folkways in 2001. One afternoon Dodds received a call from a man who was elated that Folkways had a CD of Angolan Freedom Songs. Seconds later Dodds learned the man was working on an oil rig off the Coast of Angola and calling from a satellite phone.
Folkways sales have evolved from the old record store with bins of records and then cassettes and CDs, and from its catalog sales where people would send in written order forms. Now millions of dollars of its music are sold as tracks downloaded from the Folkways website to computers and mobile devices–just like iTunes. In fact, thousands of Folkways tracks are sold on iTunes and other digital music sites. Folkways makes more money per sale on its own site–about $0.99 a download, and about two-thirds of that when it sells through others. It gets more profit per sale on its own site, but tries to have a large presence on other sites because they have much more traffic.
Dodds tracks his webmetrics, and uses services like Google Analytics. Dodds says sometimes the numbers can be misleading because there could be a lot of co-workers accessing the website instead of outside visitors. Still, the website gets something like 5 million unique visitors a year.
Folkways is part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, So be sure to check out their other sites–they have great videos of all sorts of musical performances.