Conjunction Junction

The All-Music Guide Wants To Make Scrabble out of Babel

The All-Music Guide bills itself as "an ongoing project to review and rate all music"— emphasis on the all. Statistics posted at its Web site, www.allmusic.com, claim the AMG has catalogued over 350,000 albums and 2 million tracks, reviewed 120,000 records, written biographies of 30,000 artists, cross-linked the album appearances of 180,000 sidemen, divided music into 1400 subgenres, and for dessert tossed in 300-plus essays and 250-plus "musical maps." Michael Erlewine, president and publisher, actually suspects the true numbers are now much higher— there are 250,000 vinyl classical albums alone, he says, in varying states of processing.

The funnest part is, any idea for adding new information to the pool is a good idea. "Classical music is pretty new. We're still just fleshing it out. One thing we did is we took a famous avant-garde pianist, sat him down for a number of months— in fact I had to cook him dinner every night— and he played 20,000 themes from all the major classical musics as Midi files." Erlewine's manner tends toward starstruck futurism delivered with an aw-shucks tonality. "It's kind of jokey until you actually go in, try to remember something: 'What's the 39th Mozart symphony, E-flat, what's the theme, what does that sound like?' A lot of it's never even been recorded; he read it from scores. It just doesn't exist. That's the kind of level we're trying to go at."

The pianist in question was "Blue" Gene Tyranny, whom the 57-year-old Erlewine played with in the 1960s Michigan blues-rock band Prime Movers, along with a drummer later known as Iggy Pop. By the '70s, Erlewine was a computer programmer and businessman; his astrology hobby turned into a business called Matrix that was the first to do readings online. But his music fanship never flagged, and the deceptive inanities of back-catalogue reissuing in the early CD era prompted him to begin, with the help of friends, creating a computer archive of album reviews. Then it just kept growing. There were All-Music Guide books as of the early '90s, a general one and eventually editions for rock, jazz, blues, and country, with an electronica volume due shortly. A dozen or so CD-ROMs. A gopher site before the Web existed. The Web site is the crown jewel, however, drawing 4.5 million hits from 175,000 people daily. The music info alone, he estimates, would require a book 12 feet wide; these days, the bound volumes are just known as "calling cards" around the company, a tactic for drawing attention from the mundanes offline.

AMG stands for All-Media Guide, too, which includes an All-Movie Guide a year behind the music wing in scope, a fairly new games division, and plans for books and other collectibles. The funding comes from Alliance Entertainment, Inc., a music distributor Erlewine sold out to a couple of years back. But AMG is already a proven money earner. It's about "relating value." Yes, most people consume the same records and books. More and more, though, we demand that the rest be available as well— so some grunt has to do the inputting that lets you link everything to everything else. It's easier to sell records than keep track of them; music chains and online retail sites are compelled to purchase from AMG some mix of formal data, ratings, reviews, descriptive categories, biographies, song credits, album-performer associations, and general reference, available in monthly and weekly updates. "Unlike some Internet companies that are mostly talk and no profit," Erlewine declares, "our assets are solid. Things that we've built, like the databases, are here to stay."

Which only raises the question: what's worth building? Discographical information is compelling for its own sake: it's trivia heaven to run a search on Lee "Scratch" Perry and discover an earlier musician, same exact name, in James Reese Europe's seminal 369th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band. AMG's album lists dwarf the online sites and skirt the law; Al Jolson fans are given an address for a cassette collection made by a fan clubber who taped a canceled box set, and there are plenty of bootlegs for Dylan and Neil Young fans. Not to mention the Kurtis Blow album Dylan appears on. One starts to resent the remaining, plentiful gaps: with Jetset due to release an album of early Go-Betweens, why can't I get a track listing on the Able Label Singles EP for cross-comparison? Why hasn't the Radiohead bio been updated to include OK Computer? In general, current albums aren't reviewed quickly enough. And still no Haysi Fantayzee appreciation? Scandalous!

It's where AMG crosses from cataloguer to aficionado that the conceptual questions get harder. The writing, a product of pittance wages, generally reads like word-of-mouth advice, fine for obscurities where any info is welcome but frustrating for albums and artists of stature. The best contributors, like former Option editor Richie Unterberger, grind out way too much. Coverage is undeniably immense, yet rock remains overrepresented; the site publicly advertises for more hip-hop, mainstream country, and Latin pop experts. Many of the 1400 subgenres seem barely hypothetical: Wedding Music, which I found under Easy Listening, listed all of three albums (though one was a Sudanese ceremony) and cited Kathy Lee Gifford as the category's most frequently accessed artist. Brief essays that try to cover all of punk or rap read as specious, though not more targeted stuff like John Storm Roberts on Middle East Vocal Styles or Cub Koda on Country Humor.

Erlewine acknowledges the median lameness of AMG's initial writing, but argues he had to start somewhere. He's already added a Views feature that supplements standard bios with additional vignettes, to make the writing around the biggies read more like a debate than a low-rent encyclopedia. Next month he's starting a magazine on the site, tentatively titled Allmusic.com Zine, under the journeyman stewardship of Jas Obrecht, formerly of Guitar Player, and Thom Jurek of The Detroit Metro Times. It sounds awfully rockish to begin with—Wilco, Ben Harper, and Howlin' Wolf features— but the plan is to make it far broader; we shall see. More intriguingly, Erlewine intends to hold a symposium in Ann Arbor this spring or summer to hash out the conceptual questions in full. Immersed in the multitasking imperatives of the Net, he argues that writing, in the traditional sense, is only a piece of the challenge of finding "new ways of amalgamating, creating a unity... see the whole thing just spinning into the future, growing and refining itself. These are new problems that have never been approached before."

AMG plans to unveil a rock family tree linkup soon, just the sort of enterprise that gets them excited. Nuanced criticism that brings the Talmudic, subterranean nature of the best music writing over the years to the surface will have to wait for someone else, probably. This is something different, an attempt to harvest bushels of data and the fact that some listener out there has the commonplace skinny on just about anything. There's something romantic about a bunch of Middle American collectors, the sort who once might have kept index cards, turning into a major new staple of music media. Database accumulation—it's the new jukebox!

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