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From Folkways to Smithsonian Folkways

An Entrepreneurial Journey from Individual to Institution

Richard James Burgess

Smithsonian Folkways Records / University of Glamorgan

This paper traces the evolution of a self-sustaining cultural repository of sound recordings from its shaky, entrepreneurial first steps to its present day form: an unlikely non-profit organization built on documentation, preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage and operated from within the National Museum of the United States. This paper is a high level overview of the Folkways and Smithsonian Folkways record labels. Some key elements discussed are, Folkways founder Moses Asch's early attempts at running labels, his thinking, methodologies, failures and even bankruptcy that coalesced into the non-conformist complexity of Folkways. Any attempt to untie the Gordian knot of this venture necessitates some account of the irreducible Asch who was an engineer, producer, folklorist and businessman. He was highly respected by his artists with whom he had, sometimes, perplexing relationships. Equally baffling to outsiders were the business principles on which Folkways Records ran for nearly forty years without ever having a hit record. Asch was convinced a hit would ruin him. For a number of reasons the sale of Folkways to the Smithsonian met with resistance from Asch and others, but the twenty years post-acquisition have borne out the wisdom of that move. Remarkably, the present day Smithsonian Folkways hews close to Asch's principles and philosophy even amid unprecedented turmoil in the marketplace. The paper will allude to the challenges of the oxymoronic institutional-entrepreneurship of the present day label and outline how it has maintained an attitude and perception of independence whilst operating within a large bureaucratic, institutional environment.

From 1948 to 1986 Folkways Records and Service Corporation successfully employed an entrepreneurial, music industry business model operating on the low frequency or low amplitude end of the power law curve of sales that is now termed, the Long Tail.[1] With very little capital, no formalized or major distribution network and minimal staff the label issued more than 2200 albums. This schedule equals approximately one release per week for the history of the label. Most of these releases comprised audio content that could best be described as outside of the commercial mainstream. Some of these recordings would become iconic works and the artists who created them-Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White, and Mary Lou Williams-would become icons of American music. Other recordings including Speech after the Removal of the Larynx, and Sounds of North American Frogs, were simply obscure. Folkways' ethnographic titles such as Folk Tales From West Africa, produced by Harold Courlander, contained music that might otherwise not have been released and disseminated to the public. Behind this extraordinary story stands one man, Moses Asch, whose vision was to create an encyclopedia of sound. And this was to be no ivory tower research collection; an essential part of Asch's plan was to distribute these recordings as widely as possible to the public.

Moe Asch, as he was always known, was born in 1905 of Jewish parents in Poland. His father was the acclaimed Yiddish author, Sholem Asch. In Moe's early life, each time the family moved, first to Paris and subsequently New York City, Sholem insisted that the children speak only the language of the new country. Moe's parents traveled constantly; he spent very little time with them and was brought up mostly by his maternal aunt Barbara (Basha) Spiro. Basha was a progressive radical who was influential on the young Moe, "Aunt Basha taught me fundamental things. The one that has always stayed foremost was that one cannot be a progressive person interested and dedicated to social justice and reform if one lived a lie or did not tell the truth."[2] Throughout his life Moe remained politically and socially progressive, but unlike many of his artists, friends and colleagues from that period there is no evidence that he was ever a member of the communist party. He was far too independent minded for that and a self declared anarchist of the variety associated with the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World). [3] He would cite Marx but did not see the merit in collective life. His deep rooted suspicion of government would be a factor in the negotiations with the Smithsonian Institution in his final years.

Asch trained in radio technology at the Electronische Hochschule in Germany under a professor who built the Berlin radio communications system during the First World War This training was very timely, being early in the development of radio technology, and it provided Asch with a useful technical skill when he returned to the United States in 1925. Back in New York City he opened a radio repair shop called Radio Laboratories. Asch eventually expanded the business into public address (PA) systems and installed the PA for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Madison Square Garden speech at the close of his second presidential campaign.[4] He worked with the American Standards Association to help standardize radio parts, devoted much of his time to improving radio reception and has said that he invented a radio antenna system for apartment buildings. He worked with Lester Polfus (who later changed his name to Les Paul) on a very early magnetic pickup for the guitar and contributed to a variation on the condenser microphone which increased sensitivity and flattened the response.[5] Flat response was at the heart of Asch's, later, recording philosophy and he used his modified condenser microphone until the RCA ribbon microphones became available. His electronics training and experience would serve him well as he moved into the recording business.

Through family connections he began doing work for WEVD, New York City's premier Yiddish radio station. The WEVD connection allowed him to record singers and segments for later broadcast, and it was while recording his father interviewing Albert Einstein that the great scientist is said to have urged Moe to pursue his mission of documenting the authentic sounds of the world's people.[6] Although it does not appear that Moe received any funding from the Federal Music Project (FMP), which was part of Roosevelt's WPA (Works Project Administration), he respected FDR's New Deal and released two albums of FDR's speeches. Given the timing and Asch's progressive sympathies, it is possible that his thinking was influenced by some aspects of the WPA such as the Federal Writers Project which produced many oral histories from previously undocumented areas of the country.

As Tony Olmsted, Folkways historian, notes, "Although he [Asch] knew a great deal about how to record, his intuition about what to record certainly came from disparate sources." [7] It would be a trial and error process that would shape Moe's varying levels of expertise not only in production, A&R, and ethnomusicology, but also in controlling all aspects of running a label including manufacturing, printing, accounting, royalties and rights, legal, marketing, PR, promotion, and distribution among others.

When Folkways Records began in 1948 it was Moses Asch's third record label. His rationale and modus operandi were shaped by the problems that plagued the first company, Asch Records, and the bankruptcy that ended his second, Disc Company of America. These experiences and the lessons learned from them finally coalesced into the unique, contrary, mission-driven business model that became Folkways Records and Service Corporation. Moe's son Michael Asch explains:
The first was Asch Records, founded in the 1930s, on which he released the first recordings of Lead Belly. The second was Disc Records, founded during World War II, on which, among many other important releases appear; the Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings. While initially a success, Disc went bankrupt in 1947, when, as he told me, he lost the anticipated Christmas [8] sales due to a snowstorm in mid-December that delayed the release of a Nat King Cole Christmas album until after December 25th. Moe started Folkways with a loan of $10,000 from his father and the goodwill of his assistant, Marian Distler, who agreed to be the "front" person so that he could get going while still under bankruptcy. [9]

There was another consideration; once the Second World War ended the tide of progressive social and political attitudes which had been rising in the pre-war US, turned sharply in the other direction. As Michael puts it:
From the earliest days of Folkways my father sought to put into practice the spirit of collaboration for the production of "progressive" material in support of his values. At the same time, I believe that the Folkways catalogue represents my father's adaptation to new circumstances that were developing, since from its first days these progressive values were under attack. [10]

Moe recorded some of the most seminal artists for Asch Records; Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White, Mary Lou Williams and many more. On the basis of the strength of his catalogue the label should have been very successful but when the US entered World War II shellac became a rationed raw material. Shellac is a resin that is generated by a tiny insect, Laccifera lacca, in the forests of India and Thailand. Prior to World War II it was used in pharmaceuticals, electrical goods, as a food coating, in hat making, furniture finishes and glues, and was the key ingredient in the manufacture of 78 records. After Pearl Harbor the supply from Asia was cut off and, since it was an essential commodity for the war effort, record labels were limited to a percentage of the amount they used prior to the war. Asch Records, which had not been in business for very long before World War II; suffered badly from the rationing. Out of necessity Asch entered into an agreement with Stinson Records who had a greater shellac allotment than they needed. Throughout the period of this arrangement with the more financially powerful Stinson, Moe fiercely maintained Asch Records' independence, retaining control over his materials [11] Nonetheless this arrangement was beset with misunderstandings and lawsuits, ending badly. Combined with the difficulties Moe had with the Jazz At The Philharmonic deal he had struck with Norman Granz the Asch Records era came to a close with Moe having very little to show for his years in the recording business.
The experience with Nat King Cole's record on Disc Records would teach Moe a lesson from which he would never again deviate. There is no certainty when it comes to best sellers. In the popular music market; the window of opportunity is small, fast moving and unpredictable. After the Nat King Cole problem Moe would manage his costs tightly and restrict releases to niche product that would sell in manageable quantities and predictable patterns. When Moe believed that a record could stretch his systems beyond breaking point, he encouraged those artists to record for a major label.
This was the genesis of Asch's Long Tail philosophy which was rationalized and implemented decades before the term would be coined and a book of the same name written by Chris Anderson. In a 1978 interview with Folkscene Magazine Asch said to interviewer Jim Capaldi:
I can't afford to have a best seller, because I have 1,600 items and if all my efforts go to one record, what will happen to the other 1,599? My interest is to keep the catalog alive, the whole thing in print. It's more interesting for me to sell two each of l,600, that would be 3,200 records, than 3,200 of a single release. [12]

In fact Moe went even further in his desire to step away from commerciality as observed in a February 25th, 1946 Time magazine article entitled Offbeat:
[Asch] has almost a fear of hits and he brushes off commercial jazz as if it were an unmentionable disease. Unlike most record companies which have lavished their scarce shellac on surefire songs, Asch frequently stops making an album just when it is selling well, so he can put out something else-which may or may not sell....Asch calls his albums "basic music" to distinguish them from popular swing or the Gene Autry-BobWills kind of folk music. [13]

Compounding the difficulties of running a record label on such a fundamentally different principle, and as if to deliberately defy conventional business wisdom, Asch did not delete titles. It is standard practice in the music industry as in the book publishing industry to delete titles from the catalog when sales drop below a certain level. A common determinant is when the sales drop below the point where a minimum reorder of stock will exceed expected sales over a predetermined and reasonable period of time. In recent times major labels and others have been maintaining very tight inventory, such as a three month supply, especially on non-best selling titles. From a business perspective this makes perfect sense, less cash tied up in inventory, less risk of having to destroy surplus stock at some point in the future and less warehouse space occupied by slow moving titles.

Clearly Asch was not immune to considerations of cash flow and space but, his philosophical objection to this methodology was best expressed when he later said "Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don't take it out of the dictionary." [14] In order to keep everything available he would sometimes allow orders to build up until he had enough to justify a very small manufacturing run (as low as 25) and he found ways to make short runs of 78s and subsequently LPs, well below normal factory minimums. Print and packaging is also a problem with short runs and Asch ultimately solved this problem, in the soon to arrive vinyl LP era, by using generic, thick, black card sleeves with the artwork printed on a paper sticker that became distinctively Folkways. Presumably to save money, he would often run the same cover art on different colored paper; apparently using whatever was on the presses at the time. His determination to keep everything available would become another major factor in the negotiations for sale of the label prior to his death. [15]

As if he had not stacked the odds against himself enough, in addition to releasing titles with very little commercial potential and keeping everything available Asch insisted on including comprehensive notes in every release. By contrast, the major labels printed their meager marketing blurbs on the outside of the packaging, as many of them continue to do today. Moe minimized the cost of having extensive notes by printing them separately and slipping them into the sleeves. Asch wrote "today more than ever, music is music in context." [16] In a perfect example of how adversity can be turned to advantage he would sometimes run out of liner notes for a particular release. Instead of incurring the immediate expense of another run he slipped a postcard into the sleeve with a note indicating that he would mail the liner notes upon return of the postcard. This had the benefit of creating a mailing list, according to, Folkways historian, Peter Goldsmith, perhaps as substantial as ten thousand names. Asch either didn't have the time or maybe wasn't organized enough to take advantage of these lists but Irwin Silber ex-director of People's Songs, political organizer and co-owner of Sing Out magazine came to work for Asch in a marketing capacity. Silber created an abbreviated catalog, which offered special pricing on multiple purchases, and sent it out to the mailing list of proven Folkways buyers who had, as we now say, "opted in". [17]

Moe was also among the earliest of labels to use cover art. He touted this in many interviews and it was noted as a news item by Downbeat's Bill Gottlieb in his 1947 article Cover Art Sells Albums. Asch was insightful enough to utilize New York's pool of radical artists to design his covers and the quality was such that many of them have recently been featured in a traveling exhibition. One of his first designers was David Stone Martin whose drawings for Asch Records and Disc Records were foundational in the brand new world of cover art. Martin eventually left Asch to work for Norman Granz in what Downbeat described as "a choice bit of larceny" when Granz also took the Jazz At the Philharmonic brand away from Asch. Martin went on to design the iconic Verve and Clef covers for Granz. [18]

Both the Asch and the Disc labels released only 78s, Columbia did not make microgroove LP technology available on the market until 1948. This was just in time for the launch of Folkways. LPs were the perfect medium for Asch who had been releasing 78's in sets or albums because he was primarily interested in groups of songs. He did continue to release 78s into the fifties and his LP releases were on both the ten-inch and twelve-inch formats.

Asch began with his "H" series (Jewish material), and then began recording jazz employing the considerable expertise of the jazz critics and authors Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey. He identified the talent of the musicians of the first folk-music revival in the 40s-Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie and combined with his willingness and ability to document, disseminate and keep available recordings of their material, those artists stimulated the folk revival of the 1950s, in large part, through Asch's early recordings. [19]

Although Disc had started strongly with good reviews and 54 releases in the first six months, by 1948 the business failed dramatically. This was not a repeat of the difficulties that ended Asch Records. This time the demise was due to excessive production costs associated with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic and the expensive Nat King Cole recording that didn't make it out in time for the 1946 holiday season. This mistake was costly and never to be repeated by Moe. He claimed the business ended $300,000 in debt. Under the terms of the bankruptcy Moe was not permitted, legally, to run another record label for an extended period of time. Folkways began as an independent operation in late 1947 and early 1948, the official owner being named-on the 30th of July, 1948 business certificate, filed with the New York County Clerk's office-as Moe's trusted assistant, Marian Distler. [20]

Folkways was a term coined in 1907 by American sociologist, William Graham Sumner, in his work entitled Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals in 1907. The meaning of the word folkways was significant to Asch as he recounted:
What opened it up was the word "folkways" means that everything occurring on the earth and in the contemporary time is being recorded.  I became conscious of history and that folk music always gave you a sense of something that happened before that someone set down for us to remember, for they always felt that there is a moral, a universality, a truth to something that people pick up and sing and talk about and bring back from generation to generation. [21]

Asch preferred to record artists "flat" with one microphone and minimal production intervention. The studio was in the offices and in the early days he operated on an open door basis; people could just walk in and say "I want to record." [22] He would record them at no cost and this approach made it easy for him to obtain material from those who were more interested in having a voice, rather than the money. [23]  He would record everything; Mary Lou Williams said, "If you only burped, Moe recorded it" [24] According to Fred Ramsey, "Moe could make artists very comfortable by being warm and welcoming and asking them questions about their background." [25] Since he was not trying to produce hits but seeking authenticity, he built relationships with artists who had been discarded by other labels or who couldn't get a record deal in the first place. [26] As, Folkways producer, artist and historian, Richard Carlin puts it "Moses Asch had a high tolerance for eccentrics; he valued those people who had a strong sense of individuality, who refused to conform to 'group' standards." [27] Asch was successful because his quest for legitimacy in recording matched the vision of artists he chose such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. [28]

Considering the relationships he developed with artists and the proximity of many of the venues to the studio it is surprising how little time he spent going to see his or other performers in a live setting. Goldsmith postulates that, "Asch avoided social settings in which the control of the situation was relinquished to others, most especially music clubs, which (to the puzzlement of many of his artists) he assiduously avoided all his life." [29] Apparently "[he] hated coffee houses, and his artists were sometimes hurt by his refusal to attend their performances." [30] It is impossible to glean the motivations for many of Moe's actions but it is well documented that he regularly worked 12 to 14 hour days. There were considerable time and financial pressures involved in maintaining a label operating on the fringes of the music business and he had an undeniable passion for recording and the documentation of sound. Considering the challenges of running the business and his desire to maintain an open door studio policy for artists, his apparent aversion to leaving the office to attend live performances may be more understandable.

Asch had a conflicted, contradictory or, at least, confused relationship with some of his artists and compilers. Some were afraid of his explosive outbursts but he has also been reported being capable of kindness and warmth. He offered opportunities to those who had none, creative autonomy and small amounts of money from time to time, usually as needed or when demanded. He gave many of his artists almost complete control over what they recorded. He would set them up in the studio, put the machine into record mode and let them play, and he allowed the compilers immense amounts of freedom to find and record materials that they found to be interesting. He would edit in the sense that he would make choices as to which artist and what material would be considered (he didn't favor electric instruments), what was released, which tracks went together with others and he would either accept the notes from the compilers, write them himself, or commission an outside expert. Once he trusted a contributor he would accept their materials without intervention. [31] This methodology is in complete contrast to the tight, creative control that most labels maintain over the production process. It is not uncommon for labels to radically change an artist's musical direction in pursuit of commercial success. One such example from this period is Frankie Laine who worked as a jazz singer through the forties but achieved massive pop success when he combined forces with Mitch Miller's production machine first at Mercury Records then Columbia. Miller was a highly accomplished musician and an influential A&R executive who churned out one highly polished, and some said gimmicky, pop hit after another throughout the fifties. Miller's production sensibilities occupied the other end of the creative, musical and political spectrums from Asch and Folkways. Moe's production techniques were minimalist and consistent with his anarchistic views. He allowed his artists and compilers to express their unvarnished musical, political and social viewpoints through their recordings.

Asch championed artists that very often would not have been signed by the majors or even another indie, as Olmsted points out "[Moe] 'picked up' Lead Belly after Lomax [32] dropped him, seeing that he had been used." He goes on to say that, "Moe felt very protective of Lead Belly." [33] Carlin notes: "Typical of the way he treated artists who he admired, Asch often advanced Lead Belly small amounts of money-$20 here, $50 there-with little attempt to reconcile these 'advances' against income made from recordings." [34] But Moe's paternalistic attitude towards artists and compilers didn't extend to being reliable with royalty payments. He would sign a contract promising the artist a percentage of sales and then, subsequently, would not send accountings or a checks. Artists and compilers would write to both Asch and Distler complaining about non-payment of royalties. In one such letter Lead Belly said, "I don't think you are treating right about the records I made for you." [35] Woody Guthrie had written many glowing letters to Moe about many of the Folkways releases and about what Moe had done for him (Guthrie) over the years. But even that relationship became strained over finances, as Goldsmith states, "Guthrie's relations with Moe soured in the later 1940s when money came between them, but throughout Guthrie's misunderstood illness [36], Folkways was the only source for some of Guthrie's best-loved songs." [37] There was a comfortable, sometimes confrontational but familial aspect to Asch's relationships with artists such as in this letter he sent to Woody Guthrie over a missing copyright notice:
Now you fornicating bastard you write about ashes (no pun) of your fire brought forth a phoenix in the form '40 copyright to this song - well you darn well know that a copyright is never lost as long as it is registered in the Library Of Congress even if you lost your copy, and Marjorie has more than enough business sense to know this.

Guthrie fired back in response: "You ought to hire out as a foreign ambassador and a humorist both... no heavy hard feelings.-Woodrow" [38] A recurring theme in conversations with Folkways artists is that, regardless of Moe's volatility and the lack of regular royalty accountings, they had a deep and abiding respect for him and an understanding of the fact that without him their music may either not have been recorded or kept available. [39]

Asch's relationships with compilers could be equally contradictory. With Harry Smith, Asch clicked on a fundamental level because of their mutual belief that "documentation was important to the understanding of music." [40] Moe could be quite confusing and difficult to deal with at times and "Smith's relation with Asch was typical of many who worked for the volatile label head; awe, fear, frustration, and affection were all part of his reaction to Asch's sometimes abrupt changes in mood." [41]

It does not appear as if Moe was trying to take advantage of the artists and compilers or that he did not respect the contracts. Olmsted says, "Moe was in fact quite diligent concerning the creation of contracts with performers or other companies...but Moe sometimes assumed rights that perhaps were never explicitly contracted"..."He often felt it was more important for recordings to be heard than adhering exactly to specific terms, particularly if he had the chance to sell a few albums in the process." [42] Artists can sometimes have an inflated idea of how much they should have earned from sales. Asch's tardiness in sending out royalty statements would not be fairly read as a sign of dishonesty in his dealings with performers; he was simply pragmatic in understanding what it took to run a label such as Folkways, especially after the failure of his first two record companies. He didn't have the time or the staff to calculate royalties on a regular basis so he would wait until someone requested a payment, do the calculations and make the payments as necessary. He favored upfront buyouts of rights, a practice that was common leading up to this period. When big hits are involved buyouts are generally unfair to the artist. The majority of Moe's releases sold in such small quantities that very often the buyout favored the artist. In the cases where the contract did provide for a royalty Moe very often paid an upfront advance against future royalties where the advance would exceed expected sales. It was the exception rather than the rule that the royalties due would be greater than the advance paid [43]

Asch became a pivotal figure in the fifties folk revival and in ethnographic circles. Like many artists, "Seeger came to think of Asch as 'not just an employer, but a close friend" [44] Folkways, via the artists and music it promulgated and by stimulating the fifties folk revival, influenced the boomer generation of sixties folk musicians. This was the generation that would carry folk and folk influenced music to great commercial success while, at least in some cases, retaining the social and political messages-unlike earlier commercial folk artists such as the Kingston Trio. Bob Dylan sought out Folkways' artists when he went to New York. As he said in his autobiography, Chronicles:
I was there to find singers, the ones I heard on record- Dave van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, [Ed McCurdy,] Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Josh White, The New Lost City Ramblers, Reverend Gary Davis [and a bunch of others]-most of all to find Woody Guthrie. [45]

Dylan goes on to say, "I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records. That was the label that put out all the great records." [46] Unfortunately he went to what he thought was the Folkways office to try to talk to Irwin Silber of Sing Out and Moe Asch. Dylan was apparently snubbed; told to "Go," and he did not even get to see Moe. Goldsmith points out that Dylan may well have gone to the wrong offices. He bases this notion on Dylan's recounting of the story in which he commented that the door had a Sing Out sign on it. By the time of Dylan's visit, Sing Out had moved out of the Folkways offices to another building. Nonetheless Bob Dylan had respect for Asch, saying "Moe Asch, who is old and hip. He's the only one who knows that he's not a clown, that the whole world is not a circus. He knows" [47] Goldsmith goes on to point out that it may have been a moot point since, "Dylan was fabulously ambitious even in his earliest days in New York and likely had his eye on a deal with a major label from the start."

In a 1946 Time magazine article Asch is reported as saying, "I'm not interested in individual hits. To me a catalogue of folk expression is the most important thing." [48] In addition to his philosophical position of placing the value of the overall catalogue above that of individual successes there was the matter of survival. Very early in his record business career Asch had formed this view that a hit record could be a danger to his continuance. This was the, perhaps Pavlovian, lesson of bitter experience based on the Nat King Cole release that failed to ship in time for the holiday season and cost him many thousands of dollars. In a 1971 interview Asch said that a 'hit' record "would be the end of Folkways. It would be better for me to license a best seller to a company that can merchandise and can fulfill than it is for me, because once you start in that kind of a set-up, you have to have the personnel" (promotion men, warehouse men, a factory)." [49] It is certainly true, in a 'sale or return' industry, like the music business, that a fast selling record can strain a small label's resources beyond the breaking point. Almost invariably the manufacturing plant, and printers demand payment before revenues flow back to the label via the distribution networks. There is always the risk of overestimating public demand and having much of the stock returned unsold. Distributors go out of business with disturbing regularity which can deny the label income and access to stock that was in the distributors' warehouses. In such a situation, that stock may then be sold for a few cents on the dollar in a bankruptcy sale and can be resold by the purchaser for considerably less than suggested retail list price. This can have the effect of flooding the market with cheap product and damaging sales further. Bankruptcy stock, bought for cents on the dollar, has been known to be returned through the distribution chain for the full wholesale price-with potentially catastrophic results for the issuing label. The process of pursuing 'hit' records also, usually, requires significantly greater upfront investment in recording costs, promotion and marketing dollars.

Judging by his actions, Moe seems to have held firmly in front of him his vision of documenting the sounds of the world's people in order to create an encyclopedia of sound, He learned from his mistakes and avoided risks that would abort the mission. His first label, Asch Records, foundered largely due to unfortunate circumstances; the combination of the shellac rationing and the apparently uncontrollable partnership relationship with Stinson. Causal factors in the Disc Records bankruptcy appear to have been the failure of some overly optimistic risks taken and the consequent debt that became unmanageable. Although Asch would continue to borrow money from time to time, Folkways Records and Service Corporation could not be described, in present day terms, as highly leveraged, it was essentially a bootstrapped, cash-flow dependent and, at times, hand to mouth, business. Keeping costs and risk to a minimum was a sensible strategy given Moe's apparent lack of financial resources and his past experiences. He kept his recording costs to a minimum; his recording sessions were typically three hours long and rarely more than six, using one microphone, without equalization, recording straight to mono. His impressive number of releases (about one a week for forty years) was possible because he did not attempt to document everything himself leveraging his own considerable expertise by buying rights outright (when he could) very inexpensively (typically $100 for an album), and, depending on the contributor, finished notes might be included. He would request that the master tape be delivered in the final order and the notes laid out, as closely as possible, ready for printing. Moe then pressed as few as 100 LPs and printed the notes separately. If he ran out of stock, since he wasn't competing in a time dependent 'pop' environment-and there was little competition in the early days for the type of material he issued-he could afford to make the distributor or retailer wait until orders built up enough for him to justify another manufacturing or print run. [50] Moe was pursuing the Long Tail business model far ahead of its time.

On top of this fiscally conservative, risk-averse, business model was the self perpetuating, promotional nature of the brand that he built. Moe had started in the record business serving a very narrow Yiddish market. As his ambitions and genres widened he still focused his catalogue on niches that were not being well served by other labels and so established a reputation with consumers, artists and compilers alike. As Goldsmith puts it,
Asch realized that the only hope he had for competing against the industry giants was to recognize small, easily targeted markets with which the majors could not be bothered and to meet the specific and dependable needs of those markets.  Folk music constituted one such market. [51]

With regard to the artists and compilers Olmsted says, "[He] attracted all the necessary elements to create a unique product, but it did not cost much in up-front expenses." [52] The compilers and artists who were most likely to be attracted to Folkways were also likely to be the most suitable. They certainly didn't come for the money. Once the label reached a certain critical mass and acceptance in the market place the personal connection that consumers felt with the brand and the unique nature of the overall catalog created a momentum that helped to carry the business forward. The momentum did not just result in sales but generated a continuous supply of new material from contributors who had emerged from the ranks of academics, collectors, fans and consumers. A small handful of artists on the label eventually became household names but the artistic fame was consequential, not Asch's primary objective, and, for the most part, Folkways was branded by label not by artist.

This branding is often referred to, in discussions within Smithsonian Folkways as the 'Folkways moment.' This refers to the experience that consumers and fans of Folkways Records had when they first realized that this was a label that actually fulfilled their needs. This little record company satisfied musical, cultural and intellectual curiosity in a way that could not always be said about other labels, and certainly not the majors. The defining factor in Folkways' appeal has been the curatorial approach and the documentation and contextualization through the extensive liner notes. Many labels specialize in a style or genre thus producing a homogenized catalog that appeals to specific listeners. Folkways' catalog was, literally, all over the map. This was not only geographical, cultural, and stylistic diversity but Moe jumped from music to spoken word, sounds of nature and society, and electronically generated music and sounds.

The extent of Moses Asch's influence may never be fully understood but one measurement of it might be to note the interconnected circumstances that led to Folkways Records becoming a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Other record labels were interested in acquiring the label. Rounder made overtures by letter and several universities were having dialog with Moe, including Rutgers and the University of Maryland. As old and as frail as Moe was becoming there were some important criteria that had to be met before he would consider transferring control of the label. Many of the public institutions expected the collection to be donated or at least had not offered to buy it. The business had not been profitable enough that Moses and, his wife, Frances would be secure for the rest of their lives. Asch's son, Michael, had the collection valued at $1.5 million. The idea that a major or substantial independent would purchase the catalogue and, using their usual business model, cherry pick the more commercially valuable titles then delete the rest was not going to be acceptable to Asch. He was adamant that the entire collection be kept available and that the business should continue operating. Moe was unimpressed with the Transaction Books operation that Rutgers had acquired and operated, commenting that Folkways generated more revenue than Transaction with half the staff and there was still no proposal to purchase the collection. The Smithsonian Institution came into the picture in 1984 during the University of Maryland negotiations prompting a letter from the University warning Asch about the potential danger of Folkways not getting sufficient attention within an organization as large as the Smithsonian. [53]

Spearheading the campaign for the Smithsonian to acquire Folkways was Ralph Rinzler. At the time, 1984, Rinzler was the assistant secretary for public service, having been the founding director for the Festival of American Folklife which became the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the director of the Office of Folklife Programs; now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage of which Smithsonian Folkways is a part. Rinzler was a musician (member of the bluegrass group The Greenbriar Boys) and a folklorist who was a protégé of Alan Lomax and A.L. (Bert) Lloyd in England. Along with many other important folk revival musicians such as John Cohen and Mike Seeger, Rinzler had been heavily influenced by Folkways Records, The Anthology of American Folk Music and Moses Asch's work in general. Rinzler had first met Asch when he collaborated on the notes for Mike Seeger's production of The Stoneman Family album. Of Asch, Rinzler commented, "I had never encountered in my life anybody who was so intimidating." [54] Nonetheless, when the opportunity arose, Rinzler was relentless in his determination to acquire the collection and the business of Folkways for the Smithsonian Institution. He needed to convince the powerful regents of the Smithsonian and counter negative attitudes on two fronts; the conservative elements within (and outside) the institution and then Asch himself. [55]

The highly respected conductor, composer and musician Gunther Schuller, who was an advisor on music to the Smithsonian, opposed the acquisition calling Asch a "nefarious wheeler and dealer" [56]. On the other side Asch's lifelong distrust of large organizations and big government also did not augur well. Rinzler made a powerful and inspired plea, by letter, that struck right at the heart of Asch's long held beliefs; stating that Folkways "is-or should be-a public trust." [57] Rinzler's persistence, political savvy and his longstanding relationship with Asch paid off finally, "The regents approved the purchase of Folkways September 3, 1986. Asch died on October 19, without witnessing the conclusion of the sale." [58] As Carlin puts it, "[This was] a perfect union: 'The Smithsonian had the cultural clout; Folkways had the resources" [59] The final terms of the agreement have not been made known but it is believed that Smithsonian paid in the region of $800,000 for the collection, rights, business and papers, guaranteed a royalty to Moe and employment for longstanding Folkways employees for a period after the acquisition. [60] Part of the money to pay for the collection was raised by a CD and Showtime TV/DVD project called Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. This came out of a meeting between Ralph Rinzler and Bob Dylan. Dylan offered to help bring in artists to donate a recorded cover version of a Guthrie or Lead Belly song. The album was issued on Columbia with all proceeds going to the Folkways acquisition fund. It featured a wide range of important contemporary artists such as Dylan, Pete Seeger, John Mellencamp, Little Richard, Wille Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Emmylou Harris and Taj Mahal. The collection would finally have a new home in the archives of the Smithsonian Office of Follklife Programs and would be known as The Moses and Frances Asch Collection. [61]

Asch's skepticism of governments, authorities and large organizations may be understandable given the problems his family had experienced in Poland during the 1905 uprising. Conditions did not improve for Jews in Poland after the collapse of the revolution and in 1912 the family had fled to Paris. After only a couple of idyllic years there, Germany declared war on France and-barely ahead of the advancing German troops-Moe, his two brothers and his aunt escaped by sea joining his father, mother and sister who had traveled ahead to New York City. [62] Asch had, justifiably, railed against New York State excise taxes for years because they were unfair to businesses that operated on a sale or return basis. Major labels dominated the music business in the late thirties and when a record's sales were waning they would cease to make it available. Deleted recordings were anathema to Asch. He sincerely believed in the 'public's right to know' to the extent that he would knowingly release deleted materials. He frequently cited the constitution and the absence of a pre-1972 copyright for sound recordings to support his appropriation of deleted materials. This is one practice that could not transfer over to the Smithsonian; it being impossible for most large organizations, and especially a quasi-governmental one, to knowingly risk breaching someone else's copyrights. Asch's, arguably admirable, support of the dissemination of knowledge and cultural heritage was regarded by some as piracy. It could also be seen as somewhat of an ideological contradiction in undermining a most fundamental capitalist principle of ownership (of intellectual property) on which he built, ran and sold his business. It would appear that he did hold a consistent position in standing opposed to the abuse of ownership that enabled companies to withhold valuable materials from the public. It is not evident that he transgressed copyrights that were still available in the marketplace. Sometimes he would have to bow to the legal might of a major label in which case he would pay a license fee. This still satisfied his belief that cultural materials should remain available to everyone. It is perhaps not surprising that Asch did not approach labels for licenses. Large record company can be slow to respond to license requests for commercially marginal materials and high minimum license fees, in addition to the time involved in negotiations, can make the process uneconomical for a small label like Asch's. Undoubtedly it was difficult for Moe to understand how a risk-averse, conservative institution such as the Smithsonian could continue his legacy. To that end, one of Rinzler's biggest challenges was to "assuage Asch's concerns about any interference with Folkways or its mission should it become part of the largest museum complex in the world

For both financial and legal reasons Moe had often protected his labels from creditors and lawsuits by creating layers of companies. This is why he began RBF Records and why he maintained the separate but wholly owned Pioneer Records as a distribution vehicle.
He continued to keep his options open right up to his death by developing a plan to set up Folkways as a non-profit trust with his son, Michael, as the executor. As the Smithsonian negotiations progressed "they asked Asch if Folkways was profitable to which he replied "Folkways is able to continue. Whether it is profitable-that's a question of semantics." [63]

It is impossible to know what the outcome might have been if Rinzler had not been successful in his bid to bring Folkways to the Smithsonian. The records indicate that the Smithsonian was the only entity that was prepared to meet Asch's criteria. First and foremost was the requirement to keep the entire catalog available. This would seem like a natural benefit of placing the collection at a museum. But because Smithsonian Folkways was setup as an independent, self-funded label within the institution, in meeting Asch's requirements it would encounter the same problems and financial pressures that Asch and every independent label faced. The first two employees, director Tony Seeger (nephew of Pete Seeger) and archivist Jeff Place had to be creative in order to keep the business solvent and everything available. The second criterion was payment for the collection which Rinzler had persuaded the institution to do. Finally the contextualization of the audio via comprehensive liner notes, which was so important to Asch, was a natural fit for an educational institution such as the Smithsonian. With Seeger's musical and academic background and Place's expertise in American roots music, notes for future releases would not be a problem.

The original plan was that Moe would continue to produce recordings for which Smithsonian Folkways would have first right of refusal. The Smithsonian took charge of the inventory from Folkways which comprised vinyl and cassettes (no CDs) [64]. The agreement was signed transferring ownership of Folkways to the Smithsonian in 1987, at which point the music business was four years into the compact disc revolution. This was a boom period for the industry because of the rush to replace favorite vinyl LPs with the more portable and, allegedly, durable and better sounding CD versions. The initial challenge confronting Seeger and Place was to continue servicing the transferred inventory to the public. Tony Seeger's experience as an archivist and his academic, musical and family credentials made him, in so many ways, the perfect choice as the first director of Smithsonian Folkways but as he said in a conversation with Richard Carlin "I had no credibility at all in terms of running a record company." [65] Archivist Jeff Place, who is also an avid record collector in his own right, had worked for many years in a record store and had a good understanding of the retail process. They were the only two employees for the first couple of years. Seeger chose to continue the independent distribution model favored by Asch, and the first US distributor was the Birch Tree Group Ltd, a company that owned the song Happy Birthday to You and specialized in music education publications. Birch Tree was brought in as part of the acquisition process and they actually owned the stock. Smithsonian Folkways had to buy the inventory from them sometime after the 1988 sale of Birch Tree to Warner Chappell in. Within a year or so Rounder replaced Birch Tree and then from the early nineties to the end of 2004 domestic distribution was handled by Koch International.

In the interim period between the signing of the agreement and when Seeger and Place began work in January 1989, Nick Spitzer [66] oversaw matters under the aegis of Richard Kurin, then director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The first new release was Musics of the Soviet Union. This is an album of indigenous music from countries of the former Soviet Union that came out in the summer of 1988 to coincide with a Soviet Union component of the Festival of American Folklife on the national mall. The album was issued initially on cassette and carried the catalog number SFW40002. The intention had been to make the first release SFW40001 Folkways: The Original Vision, but that recording actually came out later that year. [67] The Original Vision comprised the source recordings, by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, of the songs that were covered on Folkways: A Vision Shared-the Columbia release by major label recording artists that had helped to raise the money for the Folkways acquisition. Place had some difficulty locating some of the original masters for the songs and it was only after some serious detective work and digging through boxes that he uncovered the tape for Hobo's Lullaby, the song covered by Emmylou Harris on, A Vision Shared. The song was thought never to have been recorded by Guthrie, but Place found the original acetate in a sleeve marked Weary Hobo.

The distribution companies immediately recognized the opportunity to take advantage of the industry format change to compact disc. CDs, in many ways, offer similar levels of improvement over vinyl LPs as LPs did over 78s; longer playing time, more compact, portable and durable, and in both cases, arguably, better sound quality. Tony Seeger elected to spread out the reissue of the iconic titles; Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White etc. His rationale was to use the reissues of the more popular titles to support the operation while allowing Smithsonian Folkways to continue Moe's policy of issuing obscure but curatorially important titles. Seeger's network is impeccable and he was able to attract the highest levels of contributors. Ethnomusicologists such as; Ted Levin who produced Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia, Philip Yampolsky, with his definitive set on the music of Indonesia, later in the nineties Steven Feld brought Bosavi (recordings from Papua, New Guinea)-and there have been many other contributors on a par with Asch's Courlander, Charters, Cowell, Carawan,  and Ramsey. [68] Seeger also set about acquiring other catalogues and over the next ten years added Cook, Paredon Dyer-Bennet, Monitor, and Fast Folk. Seeger's successor-Director, Dan Sheehy-subsequently added Joe Glazers collection of labor related songs, Collector Records, and Roberto Martinez's Latino label M.O.R.E..

Titles were sold on vinyl as long as the inventory from Folkways was available. For a time Birch Tree was remanufacturing LPs but after Rounder took over distribution, and as the vinyl stock ran out, titles began to be moved to the custom cassette program. The concept of carrying no inventory was an extension of Asch's ability and desire to keep stock to a minimum. Inventory ties up cash and warehousing space. As early as 1988 Seeger had the foresight to catalogue the collection by track. Around the same time, several years before the invention of the MP3 and the advent of digital downloading, Seeger explored the possibility, with Panasonic, of creating a system that would allow customers to call in and "download" individual Folkways tracks to their answering machines. Seeger again proved to be forward thinking when he augmented the custom cassette program (that had begun in 1988) by instigating a custom CD program for the archival titles as early as 1996. This was only about a year after CD duplicators ( burners) dropped below the $1000 mark and became commercially viable. For nearly ten years these discs were available on demand in a generic slipcase which contained the duplicated CD in a jewel case with the original notes, as issued by Moses Asch, photocopied and inserted into the slipcase. This was a time-consuming, manual process, the CDRs had to be loaded into the duplicators, transferred to the label printers, and notes had to be located, photocopied, folded and inserted into the slipcases, which also had to be assembled. These packages were not suitable for retail environments because each album looked almost identical from the outside. The only distinguishing feature was the title on the spine of the jewel case and, inside, on the CD label.

In order to conform to distributors' and retailers' needs each recording needed to have a UPC code assigned, and in some cases new or modified catalog numbers. New and less expensive packaging that looks somewhat like a miniature version of the original Folkways LP packaging, complete with the artwork on a sticker that wraps partially around onto the back of the packaging, was identified, tested for durability and practicability. Every one of the more than 2200 LP covers was scanned at high resolution and reconfigured to fit the new stickers incorporating: the barcode, track information, and Smithsonian Folkways branding. A simple CD label template was created that carried forward distinctive elements of the original Folkways LP labels. All the liner notes had to be scanned and because of the range of types and sizes of these notes the decision was taken to embed them as pdf files on the CD along with the audio. This would allow the consumer to print out the liner notes or read them on a computer. To maximize the educational reach, the notes were also made available on the Smithsonian Global Sound website (more of which later), and now on Folkways.si.edu. Interested parties do not need to make a purchase in order to read, download or print any liner note from the collection. For accessibility purposes anyone who cannot download, read or print the notes can call a toll free number or write in, and a customer service representative will print a copy and mail it free of charge.

The newly packaged custom CD series was branded Smithsonian Folkways Archival. When a title is ordered a robot burns the CD, complete with the audio and notes, and prints the label on the CD while a second machine prints the album cover art onto a sticker. All the necessary information is pulled from a central server minimizing human intervention. The majority of orders are from the web but they can be taken by mail or by phone. Assembly and shipping is a manual process: the cover label is applied to the generic black-card package, the CD is inserted, and CDs destined for retail customers are shrink-wrapped. This process has reduced costs, manufacturing and delivery time by a significant percentage. It has also saved large amounts of storage space where the original paper liner notes were filed, and where the master discs for copying were stored. If an order is received before 4pm it will usually ship the same day. This retail-friendly packaging has allowed the Smithsonian Folkways sales team to sell archival titles directly to specialty retailers, independent distributors and one-stops.

The fact that the entire collection had been digitized for the custom CD program would have an additional benefit. As the millennium drew to a close an idea that resembled Lomax's, unrealized, global jukebox and would be called Smithsonian Global Sound was discussed in an advisory board meeting. The program was championed by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's, then director, Richard Kurin. This was an ambitious project, many years prior to the launch of iTunes, with the goal of providing instant digital access to audio archives from around the world complete with extensive categorization, documentation and advanced search and browse functionality. It would be the subject of a Masters Thesis entitled, "Alan Lomax's Ipod?" Smithsonian Global Sound and Applied Ethnomusicology on the Internet. [69] Preparations began in Seattle with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and folkwaysAlive! at the University of Alberta. The project ran into funding challenges not long after the 9/11 attacks when financial resources became more difficult to find. This required some rapid, and creative restructuring which resulted in the project being moved to Washington DC and becoming an initiative of Smithsonian Folkways.

The a la carte download store finally launched after iTunes in 2005 with the Smithsonian Folkways, ILAM (African) and ARCE (Indian) catalogues in place and the site was hailed as "the ethnographic answer to iTunes," by the New York Times. [70] A subscription service was in the initial plans but proved to be beyond the technical capabilities that could be provided by the available funding. A creative solution presented itself in the form of a strategic partnership deal with Alexander Street Press to launch a parallel subscription service for libraries and Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries is, at last count, available in 438 universities worldwide. In order to present a more unified identity the public Smithsonian Global Sound site was fully integrated with Smithsonian Folkways in a comprehensive 2009 design and branding revamp. As the world moves deeper into the age of digital delivery the original conceptual elements that were so important to Moses Asch: keeping everything available, and the documentation and contextualization of the audio through extensive notes are still in place. In fact global accessibility has been greatly improved. Thirty-second samples can be streamed for free, liner notes can be read online or downloaded and printed for free, and downloads are available by individual track or as complete albums as either MP3s (256K) or in the lossless FLAC file format for $0.99 per track or $9.99 per album. Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries provides free streams of the three catalogues for all students of the subscribing universities. As with, Asch's, Folkways and as required by the Smithsonian all this has been achieved within a framework of a self-sustaining non-profit business unit which now employs about sixteen people.

The Smithsonian is a trust instrumentality of the United States-a public trust which was established by Congress to carry out the fiduciary responsibility assumed by the United States in accepting James Smithson's bequest to set up an "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The institution is accountable to the general public as well as to its multiple stakeholders. [71] Smithsonian Folkways is not supported by federally appropriated funds but mostly from revenues earned from the operation of the non-profit business, and a small amount of grant funding. Folkways, following Asch's stated mission to "document the world's sounds," fits very comfortably into the Smithsonian's culture except for its entrepreneurial underpinnings. [72] [73] Smithsonian Folkways describes its mission as being dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound. [74]

There are inherent challenges in running an efficient and efficacious, entrepreneurial operation within the non-profit Smithsonian environment. Parts of Asch's catalog, such as the RBF label (Records, Books, and Films Sales) can no longer be made available because the Smithsonian cannot transgress other organizations claims to copyright. Moe setup RBF as a separate entity in order to protect Folkways from potential lawsuits. He issued titles on the label that have potential copyright claims by other labels (materials they issued and then deleted) or from transcriptions of radio broadcasts that have no legitimate rights histories. Occasionally Smithsonian Folkways will withdraw titles from its catalogue because of cultural sensitivities. If a supportable claim of ownership is made the disputed title will be deleted unless the Institution has a legally defensible position or a new deal can be struck.

Smithsonian Folkways is at its core a programmatic, collection based, curatorially motivated, research, and educational unit with a disseminative, public outreach function. The process of dissemination conveniently serves to support the mission financially, and also quantifies the efficacy of the program. Current Director, Dan Sheehy, describes each release as a traveling exhibition and as such the documentation needs to, not only be extensive, but of the highest scholarly standard. The administrative burden is much greater in an institutional environment, contracts and bidding must conform to general Smithsonian and government accountability requirements. Royalty statements are prepared biannually in accordance with music industry practice and every effort has been, and continues to be made to trace and contact royaltors and heirs. Agreements that were considered to be below ethically acceptable levels have been upgraded and artist and compiler contracts are significantly more favorable to the royaltors than most major and independent label agreements. Royalties are based on SRP (Suggested Retail Price) but the standard agreement does not allow for the many deductions and reductions that are widely accepted in the music business. Marketing costs are not routinely recouped from the artist's or compilers royalties unless there are some exceptional and pre-agreed terms. Artists and compilers are consulted at every stage in the process leading up to the issue of a recording. Their wishes are always considered; balanced with the curatorial and marketing needs, and strenuous efforts are made to arrive at a consensus on critical issues, including notes, design, layout, packaging, mixes, and sequencing.

Moe has been referred to as an obstinate man, the term being intended, somewhat, as a compliment. Obstinacy may have been a necessary personality trait to achieve his goals but clearly Asch had a vision and was prepared to devote his life, in a determined effort, to realize that vision. The dual facts that he started a record label, and was in the music business, may somewhat obfuscate his true objective, which was to document the sounds of the people of the world. Folkways was the first audio scholarly press, or, perhaps more accurately, the first multimedia scholarly press. Asch achieved and supported his mission by conducting a form of cultural arbitrage. A music or custom may be well understood and have considerable value where it evolved as a part of the social fabric of a community but by shifting it geographically and/or culturally and by exposing and explaining that content to a new audience Asch was able to extract value from the spread or differential. Like the financial arbitrageurs this enabled him to buy at one price and sell at another. He was not competing in a hit seeking environment, like most record companies, where he would have to bid against other labels for talent. There was no necessity to spend large amounts of money to promote one record or artist over another. Most remarkably, he was never tempted to change the music to fit the market. His grand gamble was that there was a sufficient demand for unvarnished authenticity in audio recordings.

An integral part of his business model was to be in the 'forever business' and this allowed him to think in terms of not only geographical and cultural translocation but also time displacement; a buy and hold or futures investment strategy. Sounds of the Office, or Tony Schwartz's Sound Effects, Vol.1: City Sounds may not have had much appeal when they were recorded but now they are unique artifacts from another time. Mostly museums wait to collect artifacts from a previous period. Asch had the perception, the intelligence, and perhaps the temerity (all of which may add up to obstinacy) to identify future value, and buy and hold. He clearly understood that, in audio terms, he was the potter, the painter, the mason or metal worker who was fashioning or collecting artifacts that would accrue value and encapsulate knowledge for future examination. He applied this rationale not only to the recordings and their documentation but to his business methodologies and their documentation. He fully understood the potential future value of what he was undertaking. It is fascinating to look back over the twenty years of Folkways within the Smithsonian, sixty years since Folkways began, and seventy years since Moe's first venture into the record business, and note how many of the lessons he learned, from Asch, Disc and Folkways, that are still relevant and still form the blueprint for Smithsonian Folkways today.

As Olmsted points out, there have been pejorative comments about Moe's business practices, his lack of regular accountings to artists and compilers, his rumored back door deals with manufacturers and printers that allowed him to print short runs, that he would stretch the terms of the contract beyond the included or explicit rights. These practices could be interpreted, as Schuller chose to do, as "nefarious wheeling and dealing," and if there had been a profit motive there may have been some validity to such a judgment. Time and comprehensive documentation have established that Asch was not a profit taker, if anything he was a donor; a funder of cultural research, collections and museum methodologies. Asch was a highly intelligent man, with marketable skills who determinedly devoted his life to the documentation, preservation, dissemination and contextualization of the sounds of the peoples of the world-and the world itself. On that basis his whole life was dedicated to this research. He has left us with, not only an priceless collection, but a comprehensive model for how to create, frame and support such a collection. His prototype has been duplicated, at least in part, by other entrepreneurs and is being carried faithfully into the future, in name and in disposition by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. [75]

2009 marks seventy years since Moses Asch founded his first record label, Asch Records. 2008 was the 60th anniversary of Folkways Records and Service Corporation and the 20th anniversary of Smithsonian Folkways. The world and the music business are vastly different than seventy, sixty or even twenty years ago. Yet, many of the basic principles that Moses Asch put into place, in order to achieve his mission of recording the music of the world's people, continue to work well for Smithsonian Folkways. Smithsonian Folkways has maintained an entrepreneurial modus operandi within the institutional framework. Just as Moe did, the label still uses a highly diversified distribution model, every title is kept available and although some titles sell much better than others it is still the totality of the sales across the entire collection that keeps the label afloat financially. Inventory is kept to a minimum, especially for slow selling titles, marketing expenses are assessed on a strict cost/benefit basis and highly targeted. Licensing has become a significant revenue center for the label and the education market is a vital source of income as well as a mission critical element. Moe was instrumental in developing the children's music market and, most years, Smithsonian Folkways releases a new children's album. The label maintains a strong connection with children's music publications, conferences and retail outlets. With CD sales declining by double-digit percentages every year and digital revenues increasing exponentially, this is clearly the end of an era, and it remains to be seen whether the current or other business models are sustainable. Mission is always the number one priority and revenue streams are viewed as support that maintains the diversity of the publications; there is no profit motive. The digital realm offers many benefits that would have appealed to Moses Asch; zero inventory, close to zero distribution costs, no returns, no manufacturing or printing costs, no warehousing expenses, potential for automated reporting, easier analysis of sales patterns, the ability to market directly to known consumers and much more. With these advantages and the proviso that digital music, whether in the form of ala carte downloads, subscriptions or streams continues to produce adequate per unit revenues, Moses Asch's legacy looks set for the next seventy years.                                               

Richard James Burgess
Washington DC September 25th, 2009


1 Chris Anderson's article in Wired Magazine and book of the same name which refer to the concept of selling small numbers of many titles or SKUs as distinct from the blockbuster model of selling many units of a small number of titles or SKUs
2 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p2
3 Folkways Records and the Ethics of Collecting: Some Personal Reflections, Asch, Michael, p3
4 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p66
5 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p15
6 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p91
7 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p17
8 this was not actually an album of Christmas songs, it was a double 78rpm album of the King Cole  Quintet.
9 Folkways Records and the Ethics of Collecting: Some Personal Reflections, Asch, Michael, p4
10 Folkways Records and the Ethics of Collecting: Some Personal Reflections, Asch, Michael, p4
11 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p25, p30
12 Folkscene magazine, 1978, Moe Asch, interview with Jim Capaldi, http://www.folk.org/Awards/1996.htm
13 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p177
14 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p10
15 Moses and Frances Asch Collections, Ralph Rinzler Archives, Center For Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Insttitution, Washington, DC. personal  research
16  Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p43
17 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p282 to 285
18
19 Ibid p35
20 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p62-66
21 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p16
22 Ibid p39
23 Ibid p38
24 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p5
25 Ibid p5
26 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p38
27 Ibid p61
28 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p38
29 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p286
30 Ibid p293
31 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p71-2
32 Alan Lomax was the son of pioneering song collector and folklorist John Lomax, and was a musician, folklorist and ethnomusicologist in his own right
33 Ibid, p36
34 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p41
35 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p196
36 Huntingdon's Disease which was often misinterpreted in Guthrie as drunkenness in its earlier stages
37 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p49
38 Ibid. p232
39 Author's personal conversation with Folkways Records artists
40 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p65
41 Ibid, p70
42 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p118
43 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p121
44 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p55
45 Chronicles, Dylan, Bob, Simon & Schuster , New York, 2004, p99
46 Ibid, p159
47 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p232
48 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p1-2
49 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p191
50Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p74
51 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p206
52 Ibid, p74
53 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p401-407
54 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p359
55 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p252
56 Ibid p252
57 Ibid p251-255
58 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p414-415
59 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p255
60 Olmsted, Tony, Folkways Records; Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound, Routledge, NY, 2003, p179-180
61 The archives of the Smithsonian Office of Follklife Programs were named the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections [0](at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage) in 1996
62 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p24-39
63 Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Goldsmith, Peter D. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. p413
64 There were more than 170,000 pieces of vinyl and CDs were, by now, beginning to dominate the marketplace. Retailers were replacing vinyl bins with CD bins and disposing of this quantity of vinyl was problematic for Seeger and Place
65 Worlds of Sound, Carlin, Richard, Smithsonian Books, 2008, p255
66 Nick Spitzer is the Producer and host of American Routes as well as a folklorist and professor or American studies and Communications at Tulane University
67 SFW 40001 has subsequently been reissued with additional tracks and updated notes as SFW 40000
68 Some of Asch's original contributors have subsequently worked with Smithsonian Folkways anthologizing their earlier works
69 Font, David, Thesis for Master of Arts, University of Maryland, http://www.lib.umd.edu/drum/bitstream/1903/6969/1/umi-umd-4474.pdf
70 Pareles, Jon. "This Is the Sound of Globalization." New York Times. (Late Edition
(East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Apr. 15, 2005.
71 http://www.si.edu/about/policies/documents/ethicspostedstatementvaluesethics_final.pdf
72 http://www.folklife.si.edu/center/legacy/asch.aspx
73 http://www.si.edu/about/mission.htm
74 http://www.folkways.si.edu/about_us/mission_history.aspx
75 Labels such as Monitor and Paredon used similar business models and even packaging and design concepts. Other labels subsequently specialized in folk, roots and traditional music such as Arhoolie and Rounder serving niche markets.