The Big Data Jukebox

When AllMusic launched 25 years ago, it wasn't an obvious big data play. But it became one. Hidden in its millions of entries is music's collective history.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Discovering new kinds of music is easier than ever, something we can credit Napster for—along with its later legal followers, particularly Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. (Oh, and eMusic. That site was great back in the day.) But having all this music at our fingertips was only part of the equation—we needed to be armed with information. I think I realized that point during the early 2000s, when I found myself in the music section of a Barnes & Noble store. I was curious about a record by a band called Whiskeytown, but didn't really know much about it. Fortunately, there was a barcode-scanner kiosk that could help. I put the CD under the scanner, and it pulled up a fully-informed review of Ryan Adams' first brush with fame, along with some rad audio samples. I bought the album, and it became one of my favorites. The technology that enabled that kiosk? That's still with us today, and it makes Spotify and Apple Music even better than they already are. Today, we talk about AllMusic, one of the internet's first—and best—archival projects. — Ernie @ Tedium


The number of album entries in the AllMusic database. The database also has more than 30 million tracks—with much of this data collected over the past 25 years. In comparison, Wikipedia has approximately 5.2 million articles of all types in its English edition, and approximately 41.6 million articles overall. Not every song or album in the AllMusic database has the level of organization or depth of a Wikipedia article, but the database is nonetheless loaded with valuable data.

AllMusic swag

How AllMusic highlights the value of the "long tail"

Perhaps it wasn't actually built for that purpose, but Wikipedia is often seen as a key source for all things pop culture. But AllMusic, which was actually built to classify popular culture, beat Wikipedia to the punch.

The site, which actually started in dead-tree form as a series of books, was active online in the '90s as a Gopher site, and then as a website, all years before Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger had a somewhat similar idea.

But being a for-profit business, unlike the Wikimedia Foundation, adds some wrinkles to the mix. The All Music Guide, as it was originally called, has gone through a variety of iterations over the years, along with a number of owners.

AllMusic Circa 1996

One of the earliest online iterations of All Music Guide. (via AllMusic's Facebook page)

Initially started in the early '90s by Michael Erlewine, an entrepreneur whose prior claims to fame include giving Iggy Pop his famous name (as he told Wired in 1994) and a computerized astrology business that dates back to 1978, the business has passed through a variety of hands over the years—enough that tracking the full history of AllMusic would probably be complicated without a chart.

To keep things simple, I'll explain the current setup of AllMusic, which has a fairly interesting split:

The actual database platform, including the album reviews that are distributed to a variety of services, is owned by a firm long known as Rovi, though it recently changed its name to TiVo based on a recent purchase you may have heard about. That database, due to the caliber of clients that license it, is immensely valuable and can be delivered to licensees in a variety of ways.

The AllMusic website, the site that the public is likely most familiar with, was spun off by Rovi a few years ago as part of the All Media Network, and now licenses the database content from its former corporate parent. The All Media Network also includes a number of other verticals, including the TV-watching-tool SideReel, AllMovie, and the video platform Celebified. (SideReel wasn't formed by AllMusic original parent firm, but otherwise complements it well.)

Zac Johnson, All Media Network's senior product manager, has been on both sides of the table: For years, he was an editor with AllMusic, and since the spinoff happened, he has played a key role in maintaining the website.

(Fun fact: That album review that convinced me to get into Whiskeytown? Written by Zac. Weird coincidence, huh?)

Johnson says that, even as the data-licensing business picked up—with clients from throughout the past quarter-century of the music industry, including defunct platforms like CDNow and Borders—the website remained online as a free resource., as he puts it, became something of "the world's most elaborate business card," because it highlighted just how elaborate its database was.

"If an online store or streaming service wanted to know how much info they could license from All Media Guide," Johnson explained, "the folks there could say, 'Look at and you'll see all of the reviews, ratings, biographies, catalog info and anything else you might want to help your customers decide which Miles Davis album to buy or what our editors think about the latest Strokes album.'"

Not that everything can get in—there's just too much stuff, and the editors have to pick and choose their battles as a result.

"The tough answer is that we only have so many folks able to cover so many albums and artists and they have to prioritize accordingly," Johnson adds.

"It's easy to hate Paris Hilton—lord knows that she and her friends like Brandon Davis are walking advertisements against the repeal of the estate tax—but any pop fan who listens to Paris with an open mind will find that it's nothing but fun."

— An excerpt from a 2005 review of Paris, the pop album Paris Hilton released that year. The review, written by frequent AllMusic scribe Stephen Thomas Erlewine, holds something of a controversial place among music fans, who can't believe that Paris Hilton might get a 4 1/2-star review on a platform like AllMusic. But the thing is, the review highlights the fact that the database is not about playing to the hipsters (some of whom, like me, are quietly smarting over some of AllMusic's other reviews) but to the genre. In this case, if you like pop, Paris is a high water-mark. "If you think about the concept of rating an album within the style and within the artist's catalog, our treatment of Paris totally makes sense," Johnson told me. (By the way, Stephen is related to Michael Erlewine—his nephew, to be exact.)


The guts of AllMusic's massive machine

AllMusic may have been one of most ambitious sites of the early-internet era—and it's one that is fundamental to our understanding of pop culture.

Because, the thing is, it doesn't just track reviews or albums. It tracks styles, genres, and subgenres, along with the tone of the music and the platforms on which the music is sold. It then connects that data together, in a way that can intelligently tell you about an entire type of music, whether a massive genre like classical, or a tiny one like sadcore.

(Looking for a starting point? Johnson recommends the Editor's Choice page. I recommend the "Obscuro" genre page.)

All this information requires a massive database, one that has had to upgrade to keep with the times more than once. (These days, the database is powered by a combination of MySQL and MongoDB, in case you're curious.)

The sheer scale of the platform makes backend changes not a small endeavor—and on the side of things, developers do much in the way of testing to keep things working properly, especially to keep its passionate fans—a small section of whom are ardent advocates for the site's classical section—happy.

"Making sweeping changes to a site that has something like 60 million URLs and over a hundred page types is not undertaken lightly," he says.

Cub Koda

Cub Koda, as presented in AllMusic's database. (Guenther Studios)

Five interesting facts about AllMusic and its massive database

  1. The database features content written by a number of professional musicians, most notably Cub Koda, whose claim to fame was fronting the band Brownsville Station and writing their biggest hit, "Smokin' in the Boys Room." (Koda died back in 2000; like his most popular song, the legacy of his words lives on.) Some of these musicians are native to the music scenes in AllMusic's home base of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as nearby Detroit.
  2. Yes, AllMusic occasionally changes its reviews, and sometimes its ratings. But its reason for doing so has less to do with a change of heart and more to do with a change in culture. Sometimes, Johnson says, albums may at first receive reviews that poorly capture the album's role in the zeitgeist, requiring a rewrite. Coldplay's Parachutes is a key example of this. (The original review, 1 1/2 stars, was brutal.) Additionally, albums rarely get a five-star rating initially, but only tend to earn it over time when cultural significance has coalesced around an album.
  3. If you're willing to dig enough, you'll find a few Easter eggs in the AllMusic database, some of which help surface the personalities of the authors. Perhaps one of the greatest Easter eggs is this biography of Brian Austin Green, the Beverly Hills, 90210 star and onetime rapper who is still married to Megan Fox. "Beverly Hills 90210 ended production in 2000, and Green has no doubt been totally busy and stuff since," the biography ends. (All the good stuff comes before that ending.)
  4. The corporate-parent split I mentioned above does sometimes create confusing situations for artists and labels that are trying to get albums added to the database, or for folks trying to get something corrected. (To help suss out the confusion, an important bit of advice: Check the FAQ, which goes over these issues in depth.)
  5. The company's offices were home to a very early Taylor Swift performance. She performed in the firm's lunchroom back in 2006, when she was 16. ("I had two strong feelings of the performance at the time," Johnson recalls. "One was that she was so tiny and skinny I feared for her health, and the other was that she seemed so sweet and naive I thought, 'You'll never make it in this industry, kid. They'll eat you alive!' So, clearly I am a terrific judge of someone's talent and ability.")

It's been suggested that writing about music is an idea as absurd as "dancing about architecture."

(By whom, we have no idea—Elvis Costello is generally considered the source for this quote, but he denies having ever said it. The best guess is Martin Mull, a guy best known for making comedy about music.)

In a lot of ways, AllMusic has proven this argument wrong. It's become a key part of the way we understand music online. It's an important resource for journalists, musicologists, and casual music fans alike. If we didn't have it, streaming music would be a lot less useful.

Johnson says that the role that plays as a platform is somewhere in-between what you might get from Wikipedia (written by the users, often focused on just-the-facts-ma'am) and what you might see from Pitchfork (opinion-driven, narrower in focus).

"Many music sites are becoming more news-oriented while AllMusic has stuck to [its] guns of trying to be both an archival resource about the history of music, and also offering guides to find the new stuff that our users should listen to (just like when the idea started 25 years ago)," Johnson says. "So those other sites are definitely in our space, but I think we each offer something different to a different audience."

A quarter-century ago, the All Music Guide must have seemed like an absurd idea to the outsider, one with an unrealistic scope—think of the sheer number of man-hours that go into listening to all of those songs! But AllMusic persisted because, ultimately, we needed something like it.

Databases are our collective memory—with a lot more finality than a tweet, and more flexibility than a book or encyclopedia. In a hundred years, AllMusic is going to tell the story of music far better than it has any right to be told, with far more depth and nuance than a single Rolling Stone article could ever sum up.

And honestly, that's a pretty great cultural spot to hold.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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