All Music Guy, Michael Erlewine
By Barbara Flaska (July 2003)
If you’re at all curious about music and have access to the Internet, chances are good you’ve already encountered the All Music Guide, the free online music database that provides both record reviews and artist biographies for countless thousands of records and artists. Now meet Michael Erlewine, the man behind that vision.
Michael Erlewine’s had an interesting and successful path through life. A self-described “refried hippie” (which in his case might better translate into “Renaissance man”), he’s crossed paths with some tremendously interesting people.
Yet, music was the center for him from which all other interests seemed to radiate. Erlewine began playing music in the early ’60s, trekked the folk music and beatnik coffee-house circuit, hitch-hiked with Bob Dylan, and dubbed a certain proto-punk “Iggy.” Erlewine helped get the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival off the ground and built a poster shop to make the posters for his own blues band. In fact, it was his love of the blues that first fired him up to even begin writing in any way at all about music.
Erlewine disappeared from the performance side of music and fell down the rabbit hole of computer programming back in the early days, when computer rooms were more like digital Siberias and computers were not yet consumer friendly appliances.
The All Music Guide, the ever-expanding online database that aims to detail every single record ever made, started off innocently enough. It was during his early programming period that Erlewine began buying music in the new CD format with the idea of preserving the life of his massive vinyl record collection. His epiphany took the form of a collection of greatest hits by Little Richard, which Erlewine elaborates upon in the interview below. It was about then, if not exactly that single moment of revelation, that Erlewine began formulating an idea about developing a way for music lovers to share such information with one another. Back in those earlier days of computing, computers were the new sturdy steeds just begging to be saddled with databases. If the computer was the answer, the All Music Guide was the end result. When taken together, Erlewine’s is an especially intriguing history to visit as you don’t often get to chat with a true technological visionary.
Studying the Blues
Barbara: With the success of the online version of All Music Guide, you’re recognized as one of the bona fide Internet pioneers, most assuredly when it comes to getting music content online. But can we start off by going back to how it all started for you; how did you get involved with music and then start writing about music?
Michael: I am, at this point, an old hippie, but back in 1965 when my brother Dan and I started the Prime Movers Blues, I was young and hippies were unknown. We all hungered after the ‘beats’ and the beat movement.
Our band was the first non-frat/pop band in the Ann Arbor area, and probably the first white blues band in the Michigan area. The main early members have all gone on to work in music in one way or another. Our drummer, Iggy Pop, you all know about. Only then, he was called James Osterberg, and we gave him the name “Iggy,” when he joined us from a local frat band called the “Iguanas.”
My brother Dan Erlewine, our lead guitarist, went on to make guitars for Albert King, Jerry Garcia, Ted Nugent, and many other stars. Today, he is the front man for Stewart-MacDonald, the largest guitar repair/maintenance parts company in the U.S. Our keyboardist, Robert Sheff, became “Blue Gene Tyranny,” an avant-garde classical composer of international reputation, and our bass player, Jack Dawson, went on to play for Siegel-Schwall Blues Band.
As for myself, I was the lead singer. When the band kind of petered out, I became a solo act for awhile, playing piano and singing, but eventually [I] wandered into computers and taught myself how to program. I started a software company that, along with a little company called Microsoft, is one of the two oldest software companies on the Internet still in existence.
I have always been a collector, and so it is not surprising that when CDs started coming out, I wanted to check them against my large vinyl collection. To my consternation, I found that, for example, the CD I just bought of the greatest hits of Little Richard, were his greatest hits all right, but recorded some 20 years after the fact. They were terrible.
This bugged me, so I started keeping track of what was good and what was some kind of a rip-off. This led to my contacting various music free-lance writers and co-ordinating with them. Soon, many of them were writing for me, and we put the material up on the Internet, before the World Wide Web ever existed, in what were then called ‘gopher’ sites. I had e-mail in 1979, if that helps to triangulate me.
Barbara: Who were some of your early music influences, and when did you catch the music bug?
Michael: My earliest musical influences were the folk music and light jazz piano I heard around my home. Folk artists like Josh White, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Marais & Miranda, and others.
But my real influences came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was part of the folk music scene in Ann Arbor, and all over the East Coast. I hitchhiked with Bob Dylan in 1961, and generally was on the road to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Greenwich Village, and other college or ‘beat’ spots early on. I hitchhiked to Venice West, California in 1960, and then on to North Beach, San Francisco, and on around.
I was familiar with folk and cool jazz, and stuff like that. I also played some guitar, but I mostly traveled and just hung out. I graduated from folk into folk blues and then into modern, electric, Chicago-style blues in the mid 1960s. I was lucky enough and near enough to Chicago, to go the black clubs and hear people like Magic Sam, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, and dozens of other blues performers live.
We studied black music like other people study in college. That is all we did. Our band did not play anything else, and we were content to study the Chicago blues and try to play it. We were, of course, greatly influenced by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and we got to know those guys to a considerable degree. Our band traveled to San Francisco in the Summer of Love (1967), where we played at all the main clubs, places like the Matrix, Straight Theater, and the Fillmore Auditorium. We opened for acts like Cream, and so on.
And later we helped to put on the first two Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in 1969 and 1970. These were the first large electric blues festivals, and the first time these great black blues performers received this kind of attention from a mainstream audience. I was lucky enough, due to my experience with the performers and the music, to be put in charge of taking care of the performers backstage, serving them food and drinks, mostly drinks. I also was able to interview them on audio (and later, on video) tape, for several years running.
So I would guess it was this interviewing that gave me the confidence to become a writer and editor on this material.
Barbara: When did you start writing about music, and where did you publish your first article? And do you remember what and who it was about?
Michael: Again, as explained above, I was always more of an editor, than a writer. My view was that I had just about nothing of importance to say, compared to these great artists, performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Johnny Shines, and so on. It was what they said that interested me. Although I was never a very good academic student, I like to feel I am a very good student at the feet of people who have real experience. I had the chance to stay up all night, talking with people like Big Mama Thornton or Arthur Big-Boy Crudup, and people like that. That changed me.
I interviewed dozens of these performers and out of that, what I heard from them, I had the impulse to share this material with others. It meant so much to me, that I knew others would want to listen to the voice of experience in these matters, just as I did. But to answer your direct question, our first All Music Guide, the book, came about in 1991.
Barbara: When, and perhaps why, did you think of assembling such a huge ongoing resource as All Music Guide? How long did it take for you to move from the abstract idea level into giving the project a real shape? This all started up back in the early days of computing, before computers were a household item in the U.S.
Michael: When I started co-ordinating writers, I was laughed at, in particular when I told them the name of our project was the All Music Guide. Who did I think I was? No one could tackle all of music.
Well, they were right in the larger sense. It was kind of arrogant, and we bit off a lot. But the long and the short of it is that we have come pretty close to covering all the main kinds of music out there. It was never conceived of as arrogant, but always as wanting to give justice to all kinds of music. I felt that if you could know what the best examples of any style of music were, you would be better off.
The idea was this: If you finally got it up to try a new kind of music–let’s use the example above of the music of Little Richard. Now, Little Richard produced, in about a three-year period, some of the most intense and profound rock music that was ever laid down. He has no imitators. No one could get to the place inside music where he was and do that. Period.
Now, if you want to listen to Little Richard, and you pick up some warmed-over remake of his songs by him, and don’t like it, what a shame! There goes your chance to discover a real musical genius, just because you got the wrong recording.
So 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.
Treat all artists and music styles the same. Just show where the best stuff is. That was it.
When the Saints Go Marching in
Barbara: Did you face any memorable challenges trying to explain the AMG database concept to other people? Did they catch on right away and understand why you thought this was a valuable idea? I guess what I’m asking is why is something like AMG important? And can you tell me a bit (well, more than a bit) about how this site came to be what it is today? Is there any philosophy underpinning your reasons for making the content freely available?
Michael: Sure, people made fun of me, going after an “all” music guide. When I first approached Phonolog, which used to be the huge binder of yellow sheets in every record store and said, “How would you like to have the music rated and reviewed?” they said. “What would people want reviews for?”
It took a couple years before they caught on, and a few more before people began coming to us, instead of our trying to flag their attention.
As for making the content free, I already told you I am an old hippie. We believe in sharing resources. And popular culture, like music and movies, are some of the most important national treasures that we have. I have kind of devoted my life to documenting and sharing popular culture. At first I did it so that I could use it myself. I was always the best user for the content.
Barbara: Are you still actively hands-on with AMG?
Michael: I am no longer actively involved with AMG. I sold the company some years ago, and other people are running it. When I ran it, there was never a charge for it and not even any ads on the site. It is not too different today.
I am currently building a site for concert music posters. Not for the record promo slicks, but for the kind of posters you see tacked up around town advertising the Rolling Stones or some other group. This is an important part of our culture, too, and I want to make that available to people, just as I did with music, film, and video games.
Barbara: Your guiding principle at AMG?
Michael: My motto has always been: “A rising tide raises all boats,” which means to me, try to do something that will not only benefit yourself, but will benefit your community as well. When I was younger, I kept thinking about that line in the song “When the Saints Come Marching In,” which goes, “I want to be in that number, when the saints go marchin’ in.” That is kind of my philosophy. I don’t have to be the center or the most important person in a group or project, but I want to be included, to “be in that number,” however large it is, of those who share in a work. All persons want to be recognized and included. That should not be the problem it sometimes seems to be.
Barbara: It’s fair to assume that nearly every music journalist connected to an ISP has visited your big electric library for reference at one time or another. What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about AMG?
Michael: It is safe to say that millions of people have used AMG, and all of the professionals I know use it as a reference all the time. Probably the nicest thing I have ever heard said about AMG, is that it is giving people their own culture, making it available to them, not losing it to history–keeping it alive.
Barbara: About how many readers do you have per month at AMG on average? How does AMG attract readers?
Barbara: With AMG, you must have dealt with thousands of freelancers. Do you have any pointers, tips, or tricks as an editor (or as a writer yourself) that you’d care to share?
Michael: When I stopped managing AMG, there were something like 150 full-time on-site employees and over 500 off-site, free-lance writers. As for tips to would-be music/film writers: Go with what you know. Don’t try to cold read or second guess your readers. Be direct and say what the music or film means to you. Go from the heart. It will allow you to find out quickly if you have something to offer or if you are fooling yourself and should try some other line of work. People say that music writers are critics, and many of them are. And by critics, they mean someone who picks things apart or who stands way back to see the larger picture.
Well, these people do exist, for a fact. But the writers I like best are not ones who are “sharp” or “smart” or in any way threatening. I like the writers who tell it like it is, from their heart, from their view, despite how it might appear on the outside. They give you a feeling, and put you in touch with the music itself, through their words. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
Barbara: What are some of the frustrations and joys of being an editor? What makes a “good editor”?
Michael: A good editor is someone who can help a writer they are editing show to the best advantage, and keep themselves out of the equation at the same time. I see editing as a loosening or slight rearrangement of material, to let it breathe and flow, much like a massage therapist leaves you feeling looser. In this case, the writing is exercised a bit, and just feels better to the reader.
The joy of an editor is assembling really good content that satisfies the reader. The frustrations come from working with people who don’t know how to write or are not really enjoying writing. It is one thing to loosen something up, and another to have to do major surgery on a piece. An editor is not a surgeon, but an enabler. If the writer does not get it after a few suggestions, the editor had best turn them loose. Otherwise, you get into something akin to therapy, which is no fun and for which people should pay.
Barbara: When you’re reading other people’s work, what do you look for in writing about music? What makes a “good” article?
Michael: That’s easy. A good piece of writing makes sense, in that it puts you in touch with yourself or with the feelings of the writer. You have a little experience, while reading it. It takes you on a little trip or, as they say, tells you a story. You get absorbed in it, and come out with an experience.
Please Release Me: Enthralled by Englebert
Barbara: Once AMG got too big for any single person to easily handle alone, how did you go about rounding up the writers to continue adding to the massive content?
Michael: Well, first you reach out to anyone you can, and after that, when a lot of the main stuff has been covered, you have to get more methodical about it. You find writers who are specialists in one or another area of music. Or, you find writers, who can listen to music and write about it, whether it was their favorite or not. I can tell you a funny story about that. When we were putting the All Music Guide books together (there are something like 15 editions of the books to date), none of the writers wanted to cover any of the music performers of the kind you saw on late-night TV ads, people like Roger Whitaker, Yanni, and Englebert Humperdinck, that kind of performer. So, as Editor-in-chief, it fell on me to do something about it. I said, I will hold my nose, roll up my sleeves, listen to their music, read about them, and write something about their music, which I did.
But like most of the writers working with me, I thought of this music as the worst of the worst, so to speak. Still, we wanted to cover it and show you the best of each of these artists, whether they were my favorites on not. After all, they had sold untold millions of records! So I wrote the bio and stuff on Englebert Humperdinck, and bunch of the others.
Well, one summer we were taking a vacation in Northern Michigan, and after about the 2nd or 3rd day, I was getting pretty antsy. I can only take so much vacation, you know.
I looked in the paper and lo and behold, at the Interlochen Music Camp, that night was Englebert Humperdinck, performing live. What the hell, I thought, so I talked my wife into it and we went. I thought this would be good for a laugh.
Well, there we were, sitting pretty much down front, and he comes out, resplendent and all and starts to sing. And to my total surprise, he sang beautifully, deep from the heart, with sheets of sound coming out of his mouth. I mean the hair was standing up on the back of my neck and there were tears in my eyes. He was just incredible.
Serves me right for being judgmental. To me that is a funny story.
Barbara: What every writer wants to know: How many writers are associated with AMG currently? What’s the selection process for taking writers on at AMG? (And what they really want to know): What’s the starting pay scale at AMG for artist biography and album review?
Michael: I am not at the helm, so I don’t know the figures any longer. There are many hundreds of writers, that is for sure. As for how to apply to write for them, that is easy. Go to allmusic.com and look for the music you know the most about. See if it is correctly represented, covered well. If it is, there is not much I can tell you.
If it is not, write something better and send it to them. They are in the phonebook in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and there are all kinds of ways to reach them electronically. Look on the site for contact info.
If you have something to say that they don’t have better covered, they will give you a listen. Don’t be afraid. They are just writers like yourself, and were hired the same as you might be.
At first, you probably might get to write some short reviews, and that could work into something better. But be prepared to work hard, and you better know your stuff, because they know their stuff. Good luck!
Barbara: What are some of the ways AMG earns the money to pay all those writers?
Michael: AMG licenses their data to companies like Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, and other online and retail stores, so that those companies can sell music and movies. It is that simple.
The Future: Right Here, Right Now
Barbara: Do you think that the Internet has changed music criticism and journalism in any way, and if so for the better or the worse?
Michael: Well, sure it has. Before the advent of Internet content, we had music books like the Rolling Stone Record Guide, and a few others. Nothing wrong with them, just no attempt to cover a very broad spectrum. And some of those books suffered from the cult of the writer. The opinions of the writer were more important than the music, and often tended to be too opinionated and with more than a little attitude.
AMG helped to change that, and bring a more equal-handed treatment to the subject, which after all is ‘music’, not some critic’s personality. To my mind, that is much better.
Barbara: Will there ever be a way for music magazines to become economically viable if published only on the Internet?
Michael: I don’t know when that will happen. When they finally get incremental online payments, such as a few cents for this or that, then magazines could let you read what you want, for a few pennies, that would be automatically debited from some master account. Without that, I don’t know how it will happen.
Barbara: Care to predict where the Internet, music, and writing about music might intersect next?
Michael: Sure. I predict that there will be a successful business built around the concept that Apple Computer is currently trying out, the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the right to download and make a fair number of copies of music that you want to own. When these song tracks are freed from albums, you will be able to buy just the tunes you like. And, in order to locate, and select those tracks, you will need music writing to make your decisions. Companies like AMG, should be pivotal in providing the information you would need to find and select the tune. And, you would be sure to get the correct recording, and all of it, not some truncated version like many of the MP3 tunes that are pirated today. This is of the day, happening now.
Barbara: You’ve no doubt read many thousands of articles, just through dealing with AMG. Do you still read about music for pleasure? Are there any favorite writers who had an influence on you?
Michael: I was not influenced by any particular group of writers. Most of the well-known writers at the time I came along were very opinionated egos, who like to hear themselves talk (I mean, who doesn’t?), so I did not get much from them. I still read about music for pleasure. Right now I am reading about the Idlewild Community in mid-Michigan, which was a resort for black musicians that came to exist in the mid part of this century. It was a summer place for performers, where thousands of African-Americans came to celebrate life, away from the white majority. It is only a few miles from my home, so it intrigues me.
Barbara: Any other projects you can’t wait to get started on? Tell me more about your long-time interest in classic posters.
Michael: I have been preparing a site for collectible concert music posters for a number of years. It will be up in the early part of July 2003. It will contain all of the most significant posters and art from the 1960s on up to the present. Like my other database ventures, we will try to cover every artist, venue, and style of poster out there. These concert posters are another important part of our culture. Not only are they prime nostalgia, but many are important historic documents, and most of all, many are great pieces of commercial art, worthy of being considered next to any other art of the 20th Century. The site is ClassicPosters.com, and while right now there is just a web page, soon there will be an enterprise-level web site.