If you are seeking artist discographies or are simply trying to find out more information about a particular release, the chances are you will find yourself at one of four websites: Amazon, AMG (All Music Guide), RYM (Rate Your Music) or Discogs. The first two are longstanding players on the web, with AMG’s databases originally available in book or CD-ROM form. Amazon is useful if you want to see what’s currently in print (and obviously if you want to make a purchase), but it’s of limited use for discographical purposes. Dates, for example, are for the release of that pressing and don’t necessarily tally with the original issue. But then it’s a shop, not a research tool! AMG is very much out of the Rolling Stone school of “rock history – the authorised version”. Great for your heritage rock needs (and good for jazz too), but it has huge holes when it comes to marginal musics, and very often track listings are wrong or absent. It’s also very US-centric, and singles are more or less ignored.
The new kids on the block are very different beasts to their elders. Both RYM and Discogs take the Wiki approach of having their users also act as the authors. This is heavily moderated. It has to be, otherwise they would just descend into unusable and useless anarchy. The differences between the two sites are much more pronounced than appear on the surface, though.
I’ve been a contributor to Discogs for something like seven years now. I have no connection with the site, or anybody there. I once thought about offering my services as a site moderator, but decided I spend enough time on the net without that extra burden. No, I’m just a humble contributor, adding the odd release here and there when I spot things that are missing, or just wrong. I’ve found it a useful tool over the years. It started out as a dance / electronic database, and other genres were only featured when there was an element of crossover. This has long not been the case, but dance, electronica and the avant-garde remain the site’s strongest suits. Its coverage of other areas can be patchy and, in the case of a lot of pre-1977 music, often threadbare. One of its greatest strengths is the accuracy of what it does have. Dealing with the moderators can sometimes be soul-destroying as they can seem the most nit-picky folk you have ever had to deal with. The upside of this, though, is that the stuff that does get through is pretty much watertight. The process can be a long one, so in order to ensure that up-to-the-minute information is provided, unmoderated entries and those with questionable verity are also shown, but colour-coded so you know to proceed with caution.
RYM hasn’t been around as long, but probably has the bigger database of the two. It very obviously originates from the rock / metal end of the spectrum (something that is endlessly moaned about) – it’s far weaker in the areas where Discogs is strong. One of the crucial differences between the sites is the emphasis placed on rating everything. Rate Your Music is the name of the site, and the name of the game. Discogs has a rating system, but it is modest – you can’t use it to sort releases, for example. RYM have complex algorithms that mash everybody’s markings together to make every release be held up in merit against every other one through the ratings system. Suddenly everything is turned into a competition. Discogs reviews tend to be genial, whether good or bad. Often they are not reviews at all, but simply provide a bit more info, or some moderately interesting asides. RYM has some reviewers who are thoughtful and balanced, some who are skilled, and some who are subjective, even cruel, but in an entertaining way. But a lot of them are redneck scumbags who pour bile over anything or anyone they don’t like, very often accompanied by misogynist, homophobic and borderline racist comments (and am I alone in noticing how misogyny and homophobia on American websites are accepted without comment, with only outright racism raising eyebrows?). This puerile behaviour inevitably extends to the ratings, as 0.5 stars are dished out willy-nilly. Despite the site’s authors’ claims about the integrity of their algorithms, it really makes the whole system meaningless.
It’s a shame, because there is some genuine scholarship to be found on the site. A user called Paddlesteamer has lovingly compiled a fascinating list of very early recordings with extensive photos of wax cylinders and the like. There are fantastic label scans of old 78s, and lots of really well-researched information hard to find elsewhere (and certainly not to be found on Discogs!). The database is probably the largest of them all, and if more error-ridden than Discogs, it’s probably as reliable as Wikipedia. Used strictly as a research tool it’s excellent – just don’t get involved with the ratings and reviews. They lead to a much more unpleasant side of the site. And, I suppose, of humanity. Which is a pretty depressing note to end on.