Calabash Music: The world's record shop

Calabash Music is the online equivalent of your favourite backstreet music store. Andy Morgan browses through the racks
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Rumour has it that Elvis Costello is a passionate, even obsessive, music collector. So when he declares in an Los Angeles Times interview that his favourite download site is the little-known global music portal Calabash Music, you can be sure that he's tossing us a 24-carat tip.

With its motto "Easy access to hard-to-find music", Calabash Music is the online reincarnation of that long-lost, backstreet specialist record emporium whose walls were plastered with community music notices, whose access was by means of some rickety old stairs from street level and whose salespersons were almost as keen to talk to you about what they were selling as they were to part you from your money. I almost expected to see a tatty old notice saying "If you've got nothing to do, don't do it here" Blu Tacked to the corner of my screen, except the Calabash door policy is probably quite the opposite. Something like: "Aimlessly curious? Step right in!"

Calabash Music deals in global sounds of every hue and provenance. "We do not limit ourselves to the ill-defined box that is 'world music'," claims Calabash's second-in-command, Erich Ludwig. "We try our best to work with and select artists that move us, rather than restrict our content to any single genre." Sure enough, the site stocks mp3 files of everything from Senegalese hip-hop to Indian monsoon songs to Cambodian rock, all downloadable for just 99 cents, and all passed through the filter of a selection panel of producers, DJs, journalists and music-obsessed Calabash employees. The current top-sellers include Kekele, Bilal, Tinariwen, Mercan Dede, Susana Baca, Ojos de Brujo, Thomas Mapfumo and Sara Tavares. Never heard of them? Good.

Early on in the revolution, Calabash's founder, Brad Powell, had the sense to realise that in a marketplace where everything was potentially available, too much choice could easily become tyrannical. Guidance and filtering would become increasingly important, and so would a sense of community, or the ability of consumers to interact and be informed by the people they trust most: other consumers like them.

The other secret of successful music entrepreneurship that he learned was to keep things simple. At Calabash Music, doing all those boring net-shopping chores such as registering user names and entering passwords is child's play and searching through the catalogue is as easy flicking through the racks in the mythical basement record shop.The idea of community is at the core of Calabash Music.

Whereas the bread and butter of the site is mp3 downloads and ye olde physical CD and DVD sales, the jam consists of playlists, blogs, online videos and chat spaces. "Music has always been a community affair, with artists drawing inspiration and income from their local communities," Ludwig says. "With the expansion of the digital age, these communities have gone global. With our technology and social network platform, we are providing artists with an immediate connection to their global community."

Powell and Ludwig set up Calabash in Arlington, Massachusetts, when the boom was still in full-blooded, irrational effervescence. They started selling mp3 downloads before iTunes even existed, and were the first download site to implement a fair-trade policy, which they call their "equal exchange model". This means they share half of the price paid for each download with the artists and labels, a far greater proportion than most of their rivals.

It's hard to understand how a specialist like Calabash can swim in the same digital waters as monstrously powerful generalists such as iTunes or CD Baby. "We survive by focusing on the global music niche," Ludwig explains. "iTunes and the big boys are surviving by selling hardware and by dominating the major-label music world. But the majority of artists don't stand a chance of gaining access to that world. All of the music in our catalogue is licensed from independent artists or small, independent labels. We also offer many musical gems that are not available elsewhere."

In the early days, Calabash had trouble convincing smaller labels, especially European ones, that downloading was an honest and honourable way to sell music. The tide is turning. The Arctic Monkeys and Gnarls Barkley have proven that artists can completely bypass the pricey chore of manufacturing physical product en route to the loot and global recognition. With this brave new world bearing down on us at billions of bits per second, it's reassuring to know that sites like Calabash Music are out there trying to keep things focused on music from beyond the mainstream.

Not only that. With Calabash, you can also float in the guilt-free reassurance that everything you buy is entirely legal, there's no digital rights management software involved that restricts how and where you can listen to it, and at the other end of the chain, the artist is getting properly paid. Globalisation ain't all bad, see!