— 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.)
"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."
The guts of AllMusic's massive machine
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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 recalled. "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 AllMusic.com 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 said. "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.