Crate diggers are the unlikely backbone of the music industry. They keep labels alive, keep record stores open and buy great records no one really cares about; scouring flea markets, back rooms and car boot sales until they get their hands on a bag worthy of the hours spent hunting. Often unearthing the most glistening diamond from the rough of Euro Disco cuts, or instigating a wave of reappraisals for forgotten African gems and unappreciated krautrock.
In some ways though, thanks to the internet, we’re all crate diggers now. Most of us have spent a few hours, searching for that one jam we failed to Shazam the previous weekend because it was a basement club and your reception was shit. So you get the laptop out, and go gleefully cartwheeling headfirst down an internet k-hole of Soundcloud tags, YouTube recommends, abandoned rare groove, Afro Portuguese ghetto house and J Pop vocaloids - only closing tabs when your conscience nudges you into remembering you should have eaten dinner three hours ago.
A new web app called Cratedigger.FM aims to play into the hands of those rampant internet music hunts. Cratedigger.FM utilises the database of Discogs, the world’s leading music database. It turns anything you can find on there - which is pretty much everything ever released, rare Japanese-only EPs included, then produces an album by pulling audio from videos of the tracks on YouTube. From there, you can go forward through an artist’s career, seeing how an artist like Weezer has had ups, downs and undeniable singles, or even delve into everything their label has put out.
After about five hours of trawling, I decided to talk to Matt Newberg, the technical guru for Cratedigger.FM, about the importance of digging, the limitations of streaming sites, and what music you can discover.
Noisey: Hey Matt! So I’m wondering what your opinion is on real life crate diggers?
Matt: They’re music fans who regularly dedicate time to sifting through records that they’ve have been looking for or new ones that have been found by chance. Diggers are always in search of attaining particular records while remaining open to finding new material through serendipity. There’s something amazing about that.
So it's all about the pursuit of finding new music?
Mostly used vinyl records and older releases, the more obscure the better.
Do you feel online crate digging exists to a smaller extent?
Online crate digging never really existed because when music came online legally, a lot of the licensing dictated the catalog. Most of the music services don't offer a deep catalog of old 45s (7" singles) or LPs. It exists more-so in tiny communities of invite-only torrent sites like what.cd which has probably the largest collection of vinyl-ripped music. It also exists on YouTube through the many fan-uploaded nostalgic videos that people put up to support their favorite oldies.
What about the sites that sell physical vinyl?
You have communities like Discogs and eBay, which sell everything from 10 cent records to $500 singles but they are purely transactional. There's no real way to listen to those records easily nor discover them through those avenues. You can pretty much find any record to buy online, but recreating the feeling of walking into your local record store and digging through the latest arrivals was something I thought was really lacking online.
And that was the genesis for Cratedigger.FM?
It really came from my personal experience of moving to New York after college and my love of hip-hop. Hip-hop is so sample-driven and it opened my mind up to funk, soul, and eventually disco - having not been alive during the days of parties like Paradise Garage and the Gallery.
What did you want to do about it?
Well, I had to do a lot of research. I'd go to the three usual stores in East Village: Big City, Academy, and A1, and buy random records of things I didn't know about before. Then I, embarrassingly, started using my phone to look these records up on discogs while digging and get a better sense of the story behind them. I started buying better records, and realised that the information online and the record digging experience could live hand-in-hand.
So, both the physical and the digital.
Yeah, on the one hand you have this very fluid, old-school way of digging through classic bins categorised by some vinyl head at the store, and on the other hand you have all this information online about how rare this record is and the history that complements it. You have tons of these videos on YouTube of old (and new) records, all this discography and market data, but no way of easily melding the two.
So how does Cratedigger.FM work exactly?
You type in an artist or label to kick off a search, and we return all of the releases chronologically with the original album art in a crate-like fashion along with the format, year, label, etc. You see one that catches your eye, just as you would in the store, you flip it over to reveal the tracklist and you can play through the entire album. Pretty cool as a utility, but then the real digging comes in when there's a hotlink you click to spawn a new crate.
So, if you search for Grover Washington Jr, find a release on Kudu Records, click "Kudu" to reveal a whole new crate of just Kudu records. That process can repeat indefinitely, and that is our grander vision for Cratedigger FM; to create a better music discovery experience.
What about the technical side?
What's going on in the background is that we're searching the release data from discogs, then searching track by track on YouTube (and hiding the video) to deliver the audio stream. Together, it forms an engine for online discovery of millions of physical releases.
What music have you discovered whilst using it?
One of the coolest things I found was by looking at the Now Again Records' crate. They re-issue and distribute a lot of rare stuff and through that I found a 70s Nigerian psych group called Question Mark. You'd swear it sounded like a high pitched white guy singing soul, but sure enough they are Nigerian.
Another cool thing I found was a label called TMT records which put out a few releases of RAH Band, which is kind of electro disco-y multi instrumentalist guy. The label put out some other great releases from disco group Klein & MBO as well as Peech Boys – a NYC 80s classic project of Larry Levan.
What genre do you think will attract the crate diggers?
To attract the existing IRL crate digging audience it'll be funk, soul, disco, house 70s-80s stuff. To educate newer diggers, I think they'll start with something more current. We'll really attract people by picking up where the likes of Spotify leave off.
If you want to listen to a lot of great music, it's simply just not available on Spotify. If you're into house music and finding Ron Hardy edits, you'll only find a few singles that were taken from recent compilations on Spotify. On the other side, from a discovery standpoint, sure there's radio on Spotify but you can't really tell a story. You're not getting adjacent stuff from people who collaborated, there's no six degrees of separation; it's an algorithm that doesn't look at the "hidden network" of artists and releases that exist on Discogs.
Spotify is very limited in that respect. Do you think Discogs is the best catalogue to draw from then?
They have 5.5 million or so releases cataloged and counting, so yes. Unfortunately, obtaining the digital rights to all of those songs is quite the challenge. Not even Jay Z can do it.
So, you're also a kind of modern Napster?
Ha, I feel like a pirate but the reality is we're not doing anything illegal. YouTube is still getting all the attribution for plays and Discogs has all this data available to developers like myself for free. YouTube isn't an exact rip, in many cases, someone is recording a video of an album playing on their home stereo system. I would love to find a way to get the actual songs, but that would require lots of relationships and a business model that works.
What's the future for Cratedigger.FM?
We want to create the digital equivalent for the age-old pastime of record digging, and have that proliferate as a superior means of discovery than what's out there. Eventually, I want people to be able to form crates around the musicians of their favorite tracks. The data is all there, it's just not easily accessible quite yet from Discogs. It could be drummers, vocalists, producers. Soon we’ll be exposing the network that exists behind the music, which in turn will be an amazing proxy for finding more music you'll enjoy. Chances are if you like the producer of one track, you'll want to hear other music he made. That's the power of the network we're trying to build on top of.
Awesome. Thanks Matt!
You can follow Dan on Twitter.