One decade at Discogs

Niki Belucci for Discogs!

So today is my 10th Oggsday.

I’ve been a member of discogs.com for a full decade.

It has become as much a part of my daily online regimen as checking my email or Twitter feed. No other site has grabbed my attention in the way that Discogs has, nor has any other online resource infuriated me in the same manner.

Discogs is as fascinating as it is frustrating.

But why did I sign up for the torture? How did it get this far?

Well, around the turn of the new millennium a DJ friend and I were mucking about with a series of transcontinental mix CDs, and he always got the track names wrong (especially the exact version titles). This irked the trainspotting grammar nazi in me to no end.

Remember, children, there was no Facebook or YouTube to refer to in those days. Wikipedia was still in its infancy and as useless as Amazon or last.fm for researching what Americans called “rave music”. With the exception of a few dedicated sites or detailed pages like Lazlo’s Discography Machine, there was nothing that could help fill in blank metadata fields. MusicBrainz and RateYourMusic, in turn, had already accumulated loads of data — but not what I was looking for at the time. It was Discogs which specialised in “electronic and underground dance music”.

Forget about looking for Beatles or Beethoven records here!

Despite this restriction, Discogs openly invited you to get involved and contribute. It was clearly still a work in progress — with loads of potential. What started as a one-man operation (it was founder Kevin Lewandowski who personally checked each user contribution in the early days) quickly became a vibrant community. It contained more and more useful information.

Soon enough it supported hip hop, and there were talks of opening up the site for rock music, too. It’s at this point that I got very interested and signed up.

Mock-up of the main page from 2004

Ten years ago Discogs was a very different beast. It had far fewer members, and they largely knew one another (online). Each edit, each picture, every new record contributed was scrutinised for eligibility, accuracy and quality. It was a slow process; a new submission required as many as four (Y)-votes by appointed “moderators” before it appeared in the live database. “Editors” were able to rename entire labels.

The submission forms were as crude as they were brutally effective.

Even though moderators wielded their super powers with condescending fervour, users somehow knew that they were being guided through the entire process: they had their mistakes pointed out, got a slap on the wrist, were told to read the guidelines, and resubmit. It was a challenge to submit a “correct” entry and appease the gods moderators. Thrilling was the moment when you received a confirmation email that one of your submissions was finally accepted, and getting it right on the first attempt felt like a virtual pat on the shoulder. Feedback like “interesting item, nice work” was always welcome. Users took pride in their contributions.

Forgeries, vandalism and undue changes by “outsiders” were kept to a minimum, so much so that Discogs was regularly accused of elitism.

“We got both kinds. We got Country and Western!”

In time, the site began to support every imaginable musical genre/style.

I, personally, jumped right in to methodically submit everything I could at the time before making an effort to clean up all South African releases and labels. There was much to do and even more blanks to fill in. In February 2007, via peer review, I was awarded a “moderator statue” for my work. Achievement unlocked!

Although the database was reasonably accurate (given the current structure), it was far from complete. It showed weaknesses and didn’t properly support some of the more unusual audio carriers or combinations such as shaped mini-CDs with enhanced content. Kludges and workarounds became too many.

“PLEASE HELPME I´M FROM SPAIN”

Owing to an increasing and increasingly international user base with their exotic glyphs and own idiosyncrasies, the site began to buckle under its own weight. The mantra of “as per release” couldn’t be upheld. Moderators weren’t able to keep up with the “pending queue”.

And thus, in late 2007, the “submission limits” were removed entirely — much to the chagrin of the old guard. This version became known for its “yellow turds”.

Barely a year later the infamous “version 4” update was forced down our collective gullets.

There was no checking of submissions any more, there was no moderating — in fact, existing moderators and editors were demoted to mere “voters”. All changes, whether correct or not, went live immediately.  This perceived step towards “wikipediafication” was met with such disgust that many of the original users disappeared in protest or closed their accounts entirely — never to return again. I was one of them.

Moderator stats until the day before v4

Yes, I was among a group of mutineers who abandoned the sinking ship and seriously considered setting up an alternative site before returning with tails between our legs because, well… quite frankly, it wasn’t as easy as we had thought. During our absence and since our return Discogs hadn’t stood still either: We have Master Releases, additional credit roles (including many for non-musical functions), and index tracks and headers. Artist pages have been reorganised based on involvement or type of release. The submission form has undergone substantial improvements, and there are much better error checks in place. The system supports Unicode, and there’s place for dead wax data.

The level of detail possible for each release has become overwhelming.

Landing page from October 2009

Contrary to initial fears, the database did not blow up — it ballooned.

As a matter of fact, most of the changes in recent time have been remarkably positive. “Additional” fields for companies, studios, locations and pressing plants offer a far more granular view of almost every audio carrier or product since the invention of audio recording. Edison Records and cylinders? Yep, they’re here, and there are some for sale.

Ever heard of the PlayTape? It was a short-lived tape cartridge format from the late sixties, just before the more familiar (Philips) compact cassette took off. Have a look here. Want to see what’s been recorded at the Notre-Dame Cathedral? Have a look here.

There are also user-created “lists” (either public or private) to keep track of whatever you feel like grouping or bookmarking. For instance, take a look at some of the weirdest “recordings” you’re bound to find, or some of the companies one wouldn’t have expected to output audio goodies.

I’d love to see more use of the wealth of information the site contains, something similar to what Amazon’s own short-lived Soundunwound initiative (2008 to 2012) attempted — but perhaps that’s best left to those who can make use of the data via the API.

U2's page on Soundunwound

Now, having sung its praises, let me go on to declare that Discogs is far from perfect: Many users complain about the search engine being buggy. I’m personally not happy with the way that classical, composer-centric music is treated in the same manner as modern, performer-centric music. It still isn’t possible to describe images. There is no really useful way to “manage” unchecked edits and new submissions, nor are those prominently marked as being potentially incorrect. Issues raised in the forums can fall on deaf ears while horrible mistakes might go undetected for months (if not years) — often propagating towards external sites such as, ironically, RateYourMusic, eBay, or MusicStack.

The trained eye need not click far to find mistakes en masse. It remains a constant work in progress. What’s in it for me? I suppose some people are just fascinated by train wrecks.

There have been quite a few missteps but none as severe as its current level of “inclusion”. Discogs’ single largest mistake was to permit “digital releases”. Files. Downloadable stuff.

It’s become a free-for-all. Anything goes. Almost any random audio clip is “eligible”.

While I’ve certainly submitted my share of netlabel material (and other, random bootleg remixes and telephone interviews), the only tears I would shed are those of happiness if every single digital release were to be removed and banished from the database overnight.

“Croatian Trance”

In its own strange way, Discogs has opened an interesting window into the human psyche via the oddities people endeavour to create, output and document as musical releases. It’s the members, however, who often provide the bulk of an evening’s entertainment — and facepalming alike. Some users are hopelessly thick. Military-grade stupidity.

Number 1, make it "correct".

Over the last decade I’ve discovered and/or removed hundreds of fake releases. There have been a number of mischievous attempts at vandalism and history revisionism because, seriously, it’s the very artists that are actually the worst offenders: First they join up and submit their entire catalogue of everything they’ve ever been remotely involved in, bleating that it’s all correct because “I am the artist, I know better, your guidelines do not apply to me”, adding the longest ego-stroke of a biography to their artist page before attempting to remove everything again a few years later under another user account, as if they and their albums never existed and magically disappeared off peoples’ CD shelves.

One particular irritating kind of artist hijackers are those who claim solitary dominion over a certain name, as if they are the most important “Mike Brown” or “Tim White” in the music business, then proceed to vandalise all others of the same name, branding them “imposters”. This brings me to another favourite cause for hissy fits: Real names.

Some artists vehemently object to appearing in Discogs. They hate it when their fans talk about them. No, not because they’re ashamed of their dodgy dance music, gangsta rap or similar but because they’ve aged. They’ve grown up and no longer wish to be attached to their younger years as the drummer in a death metal band because, well… you know, head hunters of the LinkedIn and social media kind don’t make job offers to those who’re keen to slaughter goats and rape hoes. Temper tantrums and gnashing of teeth ensues once it’s pointed out that their real name does, in fact, appear on other sites (such as their neglected MySpace profile), in printed media, mug shots, and on the one split EP they released.

Then, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are those self-serving ones who do nothing but add partial entries that feature their names, and nothing but their names. “Vanity submissions” is what we call those, and they’re usually horribly incomplete, link to incorrect artists/labels/companies, can seldom be verified, never respond to requests for corrections or advice given, have trouble telling a CD from a downloadable file, and are generally one big, fat pain in the ass. So long as their name appears on Discogs. Bravo!

At least, until they decide to remove it. This European phenomenon called “the right to be forgotten” becomes a god-given privilege once they realise Discogs doesn’t bring fame and fortune. I’m sure Wikipedia editors have similar stories to tell. Cloudcuckooland ahoi!

The site isn’t primarily here for the musicians, in the same way history books are not primarily there for the people contained within. We love having [knowledgeable] people on the site to help make the database the best it can be, be they artists, label owners, record collectors, or anyone else – but everyone has to follow the guidelines and respect the data entry methods, and be open to polite discussion and willing to provide citable evidence for additions, updates, and amendments.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, then the best bet is for musicians to focus on making the music they love, not to worry about how others record that history on Discogs.

– nik (database manager)

I could name and shame dozens of history revisionists, pranksters, frauds, privacy nuts (who list full name and address in all correspondence), techno vikings and other drama queens, but I won’t. Not now. Most are insignificant nobodies. Most are Europeans.

Some even you may have heard of. I’ve had my fair share of insults and threats.

But there’ve been gratitude and freebies, too. It must go without saying that the majority of oggers (users) are regular music fans. There are many polite, generous, intelligent, helpful, diligent and insightful collectors, trainspotters, sellers and yes, even real artists in the userbase upon whom nothing but positive attributes can be bestowed.

Although I’ve witnessed just about every imaginable situation and dealt with most any kind of user over the past ten years, there’s one thing that’s eluded me:

I have yet to meet a fellow ogger in real life!

Image credits: Screen captures + scans by hmvhDOTnet + thefoureyedfox, Facepalm via [unknown]

This entry was posted in Music and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to One decade at Discogs

  1. Sdevo says:

    Well said… agreed with the post!

  2. Jayfive says:

    Nobody – you say that like it’s a bad thing :)

  3. Nobody says:

    Actually, there’s another thing that’s eluded you – a life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *