The Story of AllMusic, Which Predates the World Wide Web

How a guy who hitchhiked with Bob Dylan and gave Iggy Pop his nickname founded a veritable encyclopedia of audio art.

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Jan 30 2015, 11:00am

Screencap: AllMusic.

One of the internet's most important, and most infuriating, improvement for the world of words is a total lack of limits. Aside from the artificial limits imposed by a (smart) editor, a web writer can spew forth forever without the print writer's space constrictions. That's led to several projects that simply wouldn't have been possible otherwise, and which seem nearly impossible even with the indexing powers and limitless space on the internet: a desire to completely catalog a topic. Wikipedia, for all its faults, is an astounding resource, with over 4.7 million articles. (Here's a picture of a human standing next to the number of books Wikipedia would take up if it was printed.) IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, catalogs every actor, every director, every writer and crew member who's ever appeared in a movie or television show. And AllMusic, formerly known as All Music Guide or AMG, seeks to do the same for music.

Every band, every artist, in every genre, gets a biography. Every album, single, EP, and live album that gets a release, no matter how obscure, is catalogued, and AllMusic tries its damndest to review them all, too. AllMusic has quietly become the kind of resource that's so intrinsic to the internet that it's hard to imagine the internet without it.

That's partly that's because the internet has never really existed without it. AllMusic predates the World Wide Web, having been founded in 1991 in Big Rapids, Michigan by one exceedingly interesting guy: Michael Erlewine.

Erlewine started as a musician, first as a folk singer in Michigan, where he met Bob Dylan; the two hitchhiked together to the west coast. When he got back to Michigan in the early 1960s, he founded and became the lead singer of a blues band called the Prime Movers.

The band's eventual drummer was an 18-year-old named James Osterberg, recruited from a local band called the Iguanas. Erlewine and the other founding members of the Prime Movers called him Iguana, which was eventually shortened to Iggy. (He later added a last name and became known as Iggy Pop.) As a white group playing what was then seen as black music in the Midwest, the Prime Movers were an anomaly in their time and place, but remained a sort of behind-the-scenes promoter of blues, even turning down the chance to record with Motown.

At the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Erlewine began interviewing his favorite artists, dozens of them. The interviews were really to satisfy his own curiosity, but they'd eventually help him in his future projects.

In the 1970s, Erlewine's music career faded and he got heavily into astrology. He became one of the first to mix astrology with the then-nascent computer, founding Matrix Software in 1977. Matrix wrote astrological guides and resources and published them for the community.

The real revolution of All Music Guide was to create a database on computers

Erlewine founded All Music Guide in 1990, releasing the first All Music Guide book, at a whopping 1,200 pages in 1991, along with a CD-ROM. But the real revolution of All Music Guide was to create a database, on computers, that could be accessed by anyone, that included literally every recording in history. It was an insane project, one that may not even technically be possible, but Erlewine and his team of freelance writers attempted to do just that. The first version was available on Gopher pages, Gopher being kind of a precursor to the World Wide Web, basically a file system. It was moved to the World Wide Web as soon as it became clear that that was the future.

Interestingly, it was never known as music.com, though certainly Erlewine was around early enough to snag supposedly high-level domain names like that. But the name, All Music, showed what the company always sought to do: it is a guide for all of the music. Music.com is currently a semi-janky site for sharing music videos. According to Quantcast it receives a paltry 19,000 unique visitors per month. (Few, in fact, of the most expensive domain names ever sold are major companies in their own right.)

AllMusic's origins as a resource make it inherently different from other resources that review music, whether they be Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. He said in an excellent interview with RockCritics.com: "That is what was in my head for the All Music Guide: what if we could point folks to the best recordings for each artist, no matter how obscure they were, and regardless of what style of music?" AllMusic's guiding principle was to provide a service, not to provide artistic criticism; the reviews are a means to an end, that end being helping music fans find the best music out there. That means that its reviews rarely are passed around in the same way that reviews from Pitchfork or the A.V. Club are; its reviews could even be considered dull or businesslike, and it's because crafting artistic, shareable reviews are simply not one of AllMusic's main goals.

The site has always been free, and is barely even ad-supported today; according to Quantcast (which is not entirely reliable, but is the best public option), it receives between 1.5 and 2 million unique visitors per month, making it a very large site but smaller than, for example, Pitchfork. AllMusic survives, and pays its hundreds of contributors, by leveraging its status as the world's most complete music database, selling its data to everyone from Amazon to Microsoft to Apple (though Apple also uses the similar service Gracenote, formerly known as CDDB).

Today it is a backbone of the artistic internet. Every music critic and, I'd say, almost every music fan visits AllMusic regularly. Erlewine is no longer directly involved with AllMusic, the company having been sold a few times since the early 2000s.

In 2013, Rovi spun off AllMusic and its sister sites, including All Movie Guide, which are now owned by All Media Network. The first president of All Media Network was a former Rovi employee, and Rovi continues to license AllMusic's data to various sites and services. As a matter of fact, Rovi continues to maintain the database, and the various reviewers, like Erlewine's nephew, are employed by Rovi. All Media Network handles the daily editorial content, like interviews, blog posts, and also handles the design of the site.

AllMusic tells us that their traffic actually averages 9.5 million unique visitors per month, and has fewer reviewers than it once did.

Erlewine's nephew, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, is a senior editor and prominent reviewer on the site. And in accordance with the impetus for the original project, AllMusic remains completely free, a seemingly endless repository of music information.

Correction: AllMusic reached out to us with some clarifications and a correction regarding the current ownership of the company.

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