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Make it or break it

How a small-town music fetishist turned an obsession into a multimillion-dollar All Media Guide

Aran Ruth: Music heads kick it with AMG.
Founder Erlwine: From playing with Iggy, to astrology to AMG.
A sampling of the AMG crew: They dig crates.
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Published 1/24/2007

Pittsfield Township sits just on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. It's a standard sort of middle-American sprawlburb, filled with strip malls and business parks. Valley Ranch is one such park, home to companies called Essen Instruments and Humantech Workplace Ergonomics Consultants.

Here, in this soulless part of town, sits a soulless-looking

edifice that appears to be some sort of light industrial complex. But this, the world headquarters of Internet giant All Media Guide, is more like the most gargantuan reliquary of pop culture imaginable.

Inside that 32,000-square-foot building, a staff of 150 well-trained media and technology geeks set about the task of obsessively cataloging every piece of music, every movie and every video game ever produced. It seems like a Sisyphean task, but after 15 years, the company has amassed an amount of data that's difficult to describe. Consider the following:

Deep within the bowels of AMG headquarters is a locked-down room that would make any record geek's knees go weak. Inside that room is the AMG archive. It's 7,000 square feet of cabinets, with boxes stacked on top of cabinets. A whiteboard keeps a running tally: as of Jan. 12, the archive was home to 461,550 albums (multi-disc sets count as one album), 75,259 DVDs and 3,477 games.

"We're actually running out of room," says Zac Johnson, product manager for an AMG project called Tapestry.

And those are just the physical items AMG owns. The growing database at the moment holds information on more than 8.5 million songs and 900,000 individual albums. If an individual song clocks in at three minutes, it would take 25.5 million minutes to listen to all of those songs — and that computation ignores longer tunes like "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and the works of Fela Kuti.

The company compiles formal data like artist names and titles as well as descriptive content about genre and style. It adds bylined reviews, biographies and ratings, as well as data about similar products and influences.

It's a project born of obsession — a wacky idea from the mind of estranged founder Michael Erlewine. And now, this compulsive cataloging of content is paying off for AMG. What at one time must have seemed to many as pointless fetishism is becoming increasingly useful, given the increasing array of digital doodads consumers can use to store and play content.

With the company's biggest Web site — the All Music Guide — receiving 120 million monthly page visits, it has become a go-to reference for the masses.

Heather West, a publicist at Chicago's Bloodshot Records (home to the Detroit Cobras and Gore Gore Girls), says she uses AMG primarily as a research tool.

"I'm not sure if it affects sales in the sense of the way Pitchfork breaks twee, sensitive, quirky bands from Canada," West says. "I think if you are one of the featured artists in their weekly newsletter it would have a impact on sales, but not in comparison to, say, a piece on NPR. I believe the catalog sales situation might be even better if an artist is on the radio, television or with substantial national coverage. Their exhaustive coverage and cross-referenced musical relationships might take a fan of, say, Willie Nelson's new album Songbird to Ryan Adam's Gold to Heartbreaker to Whiskeytown and then on to the rightful originators of that whole scene, Uncle Tupelo."

West adds: "They are incredibly hardworking people over there, the volume of information they are processing is unbelievable — even if you only count new releases — it's the equivalent of an information avalanche."

We Are the Robots

Most people who are familiar with AMG know it through its Web sites — allmusic.com, allmovie.com and allgame.com — and reference books. But that's merely the public face of the company. Behind the scenes, it licenses its data to companies like Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Borders and Barnes and Noble.

The licensing works like this: When a customer goes to, say, barnesandnoble.com and looks up an album, the information displayed about that record comes from the AMG databases. Windows Media Player uses AMG's data, and, in November, Sony announced that AMG's LASSO software (see sidebar) would be the media-recognition service for the new PS3.

"People are building these boxes that you put CDs or DVDs into. It rips the whole thing to a hard drive, and then at that point you need some way to manage your content," Johnson says.

It's hard to remember what technology was like when AMG was founded in 1991 — when compact discs were still considered new-fangled. It branched out with the All Movie Guide in 1994 and the All Game Guide, launched in 1998.

"These are the kinds of things we were dreaming of 15 years ago," says Chris Woodstra, AMG's vice president of content development. "We didn't know it would come to this so quickly, but it's this sci-fi thought of, 'Wow, what if you have this big screen and all this stuff, all your music, all your movies. How could we help that experience?

"It was kind of this far-out idea, and it worked out for us, Woodstra adds. "Now everything is catching up to the point where there really is a need for what we've done."

The term "corporate culture" is a putrid piece of business jargon, but the staff of AMG definitely has a culture. AMG employees include members of area bands the Great Lakes Myth Society, the Avatars and Porchsleeper. Ryan Sult, the blogger behind motorcityrocks.com, works in data processing. Filmmakers Jason Buchanan and Matt Tobey are also on staff. Judging from the obscure movie and music posters, madcap album covers and other tchotchkes decorating the cube farm, it appears the whole staff is consumed with records and movies and games.

"'Everybody's just a real fan," Woodstra says.

We all know the types — they used to be the know-it-all record store clerks who helped shape the musical tastes of the less knowledgeable. The problem is, as big box chains put tiny indie stores out of business, we don't have access to these minds like we used to.

"You can't go into a Best Buy and ask the guy with the ponytail behind the counter what's cool, because he doesn't know," Johnson says. "That sort of relationship is hard to find anymore, so you need to use technology to help people find stuff."

According to AMG's vice president of technology Greg Smith, part of the company's strength is that it groks the implications of how technology is changing the way people listen to music.

"To do something with a digital music collection is to attempt to do something new," Smith says. "We have for 15 years been in the business of helping people find music, and that has extended to movies and games as well. With each new iteration of technology in the marketplace, the way AMG fulfills that mission has changed."

"In a world where you have 800 tracks on your hard drive or a couple thousand tracks on your MP3 player, you need tools to quickly and easily find songs that you want to listen to at any give time, because scrolling through the artists associated with 3,000 tracks is difficult," Smith says.

That's the way things have worked out, but it probably didn't seem as useful at the beginning.

Space is the Place

AMG's founder Michael Erlewine is a compulsive archivist, noted astrologer, Buddhist scholar, musician and all-around Western mystic. In the early '60s, he hitchhiked with Bob Dylan. His band the Prime Movers featured a young Iggy Pop on drums. He played harmonica on Bob Seger's '60s hit "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man."

By the early '70s, Erlewine's pursuit of a musical career was over. He developed a new interest in computers, driven by his work as an astrologer. Before computers, Erlewine says astrological computations were done using complex log tables and pocket calculators.

"I would spend an entire day doing trigonometric stuff on a pocket calculator for one chart," he says.

So Erlewine — a high school dropout who professes no talent in math — set out to harness the power of computers to help ease his astrology work.

In person, Erlewine is mild but intense — plain-spoken and confident, with a compassionate sense of cosmic humor that comes from years of Buddhist meditation and study.

"I was the first person in the world to program astrology on microcomputers and make the programs available to people," Erlewine says. He founded a company called Matrix in 1977. He adds proudly that the two oldest software companies on the Internet are Matrix and Microsoft.

Erlewine — who's no longer affiliated with AMG — quickly took to the computer work. "Early on I had a waking vision or a trance vision that it would be OK if I became a computer, that a computer could have feelings," Erlewine says.

And so it was that, in 1991, Erlewine decided to combine his love of music with his desire to create order through technology. The oft-told story is that as vinyl turned into CDs, Erlewine wanted to pick up some of his favorite music in this new digital format. At one point, he bought a Little Richard CD, only to discover that it wasn't Richard's explosive early recordings but instead some flaccid latter-day rehash.

"I was appalled at the BS," Erlewine says. "There would be a CD of Little Richard's greatest hits, but they weren't the originals and it didn't say so, and it really pissed me off. What hurt me most was that someone out there who's younger — who doesn't remember Little Richard — is going to buy that and listen to it and say, 'Gee, what's with Little Richard? I don't think he's such a big deal.' They're going to miss the point that Little Richard is an inimitable singer."

That experience provided the a-ha moment that led to the genesis of AMG. Erlewine decided that he wanted to compile a database that would help users find the good stuff. In an innovative step, it also acknowledged that there's a great diversity in musical tastes, so artists weren't compared to each other.

"Before AMG, there was the Rolling Stone Record Guide, and that was it," Erlewine says. "The idea was that they would tell you what the good music was and you would trust their word. That was how criticism was done. I think what we did that was so important was we said, 'No, we're not going to compare artist to artist, we're only going to compare the artist to himself.'"

So it doesn't matter if users are looking for the best work by Bob Dylan or Winger or Miles Davis or Kenny G. — the database will tell you what the best of that artist's work is. That aspect remains part of AMG's soul.

"Earlier this year, on the blogs we got a lot of heat from people for giving the Paris Hilton record a positive review, because in theory it should have been a vile piece of garbage. But what she did is she spent a lot of money and put a lot of effort into getting some of the best producers out there to manipulate her voice and her songwriting skills and ended up with a real solid teen-dancy pop album, very clean, very crisp," Johnson says. "If you're a fan of that type of teeny dance pop stuff, this is right up your alley."

Erlewine set out to catalog as many CDs as he could in his home office in Big Rapids, by making lists upon lists. One of his early staff members was his nephew Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the ubiquitous writer who remains a part of the AMG team.

That's when database engineer Vladimir Bogdanov came on the scene. Erlewine was overflowing with information, and Bogdanov knew how to build a bucket to hold it.

"He had really sophisticated database skills and quickly showed me how we could set it up and gave us the framework in which we could put data," Erlewine says.

That set up the essential path the company follows all these years later — constantly compiling better information and building better buckets to hold it.

Another essential characteristic of the company that remains from its inception is that the information is accessible to the public. The World Wide Web was still in its infancy in 1991, when the All Music Guide was initially available through Gopher, a text-based system for looking up files over the Internet. But AMG eventually switched to the Web with its graphic, user-friendly browsers — and as the Web boomed, so did AMG.

Born of Passion

Chris Woodstra, who holds a physics and mathematics degree from Hope College, came on board in 1993.

"I guess I'm pretty lucky," Woodstra says. "At the time AMG started, I was working as an engineer by day designing material handling systems, but also working at a record store at night and on the weekends, trying to keep my sanity."

Woodstra had been writing for some small zines and West Michigan alternative papers, but his main credential was an encyclopedic knowledge of music. "Mostly my background was as a music geek or record collector," Woodstra says.

Erlewine says Woodstra's combination of skills quickly made him an important part of the organization.

"Chris began just as someone who could enter data. He had an engineering background and was really appealing, really gentle," Erlewine says. "He gradually emerged as someone you could count on to actually do stuff. And he really cared about music."

If the business was born of obsession, the participants were zealous believers.

"A lot of people were very passionate and worked very hard on this project," Woodstra says. "It really wasn't a sound business at the time — it was a crazy idea. We were idealistic, but I think we were focused on the thought that we were doing something really important and really necessary. And it was in line with what we loved. Music and film was all of our lives, our passions."

In those early Big Rapids days, Erlewine provided free communal lunches and made dinner each Friday for the staff. He printed up special menus, many of which are still framed on the walls around the old headquarters.

"When I came up, AMG was a very small operation. We worked out of a few houses up in Big Rapids," Woodstra says. "Most of the people I was working with and sitting next to were working on astrology software. There was a small group of us working on this crazy music idea at the time."

Erlewine still owns those houses in Big Rapids. There's the house he lives in, a community house next door where visiting musicians and others stay. There's a small Buddhist temple building in the back yard. Then, a few blocks away, is a group of three buildings that house a recording studio and a restaurant.

"This house has seen a lot of activity," Erlewine says as he opens the door to the community house. He explains that this house is where much of the early AMG staff lived. Even now, it's filled with musical instruments, CDs, photo equipment, astrology books and vintage concert posters.

These days, Erlewine works as a consultant for NBC and its Web sites iVillage and Astrology.com, helping develop programs and content. He's also writing celebrity-related astrology items for the tabloid TV show Access Hollywood.

"It's very bizarre, but actually I've gotten to like it, and I think I do a really good job at it. People like it," Erlewine says.

Future/Now

In 1996, the music and movie distributor Alliance Entertainment Corp. agreed to buy AMG from Erlewine for $3.5 million, the founder says.

Woodstra says Alliance purchased AMG to help with its growing Web-based business. That need forced AMG to try to be even more comprehensive in the amount of material it covered. That increased workload led to a period of brisk growth for AMG, and soon the company was looking to move.

"We had sort of exhausted the resources we had up in Big Rapids," Woodstra says. "It's a small town."

The company picked Ann Arbor for its rich talent pool, thanks to the university and the robust local culture. It moved in 1999, first occupying two floors of a building on Liberty Street.

"That's when we really started to grow," Woodstra says, adding that a dozen people came down from Big Rapids, twice that number started work on the first day in Ann Arbor, and the staff quickly scaled up to 100 people.

After the move to Ann Arbor, Erlewine says he was pushed out of the company over disputes with Bogdanov. Erlewine says he was working on starting an AMG-branded magazine featuring noted writers like Bob Doerschuk and Jas Obrecht — a project he says Bogdanov didn't approve of.

Erlewine describes a divorce that was less-than-amicable. He says others rewrote many of the original reviews he had written so his name wouldn't appear as often in the database (although there remains a quite glowing biography of Erlewine available in the AMG database). And he also says he missed out on some of the proceeds from the sale.

"The money that I made from selling AMG was taken away from me by Alliance, the mother company, declaring bankruptcy," Erlewine says. "When they came out (of bankruptcy), they claimed to own AMG but didn't have to pay me what they agreed to pay me — which was $3.5 million — for AMG. I got very, very little for it, which was sad."

While it's clear when he speaks about it that it still stings, in a post-interview e-mail, Erlewine wrote: "The bad parts of it are really not as important as the good parts — what was accomplished. I am over it, for myself."

Woodstra confirmed that shortly after Alliance purchased AMG, Alliance filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but says he doesn't know any of the details of what Erlewine was paid or how the bankruptcy affected that payment.

Woodstra clearly holds Erlewine in high regard, but when pressed about his feelings about what happened, Woodstra says: "That's a tough one to address. I wasn't so closely involved in what happened. I can't confirm things that Michael says, and I can't give you another opinion on that."

"I see it as a fairly smooth continuum," Woodstra continues. "I think it's the classic story of a startup where the founder sells the company and eventually the founder doesn't stick around for some reason."

And, Woodstra adds, the acquisition by Alliance was needed. "The sale of the company was absolutely necessary for us to do all the great things that we're doing now. It made all of these things possible."

In its new home, the company was able to weather another drama — the big dot-com bust circa 2001.

"It had something to do with Midwestern values. We didn't let it get to us," Woodstra says of the company's survival. "We started so much earlier than so many of those startups that blew up quickly. That's not why we got into this business. We had a passion for the content and a mission. We didn't spend a lot of time picking out foosball tables."

Alliance was acquired in 1999 by flashy self-made billionare Ron Burkle's Yucaipa Cos. private equity fund. Two years ago, Yucaipa sold off Alliance but pulled AMG out of that deal, keeping it under the Yucaipa umbrella. AMG is now partnered with a sister company called RedDotNet that makes music listening kiosks for retail outlets. It's hard to gauge what the company is worth. But a tantalizing clue about AMG's value comes from a report published in November by Information Access Company, a database firm that compiles financial articles. It pegs AMG's 2005 sales revenues at $23.9 million.

People still associate AMG mainly with its music guide, but much effort is also put into its movie and game guides, Smith notes.

"There were some other Web sites out there previously that got traction in the games and movie areas and got traction prior to All Game and All Movie coming out," Smith says. "Because the music site has such a large following there's a natural tendency for people to think of us not as the All Media Guide but as the All Music Guide."

The days of communal living and free lunches may be gone, but the staff still finds ways to keep loony in the face of daily cubicle dwelling and data entering.

The cafeteria has a stage where musically inclined staff members sometimes play. Johnson says there's a committee dedicated to scheduling social activities. They have Oscar contests, which are naturally always won by people in the All Movie staff. They had a party to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday. They even have events called "boot sales" where everybody puts their garage sale stuff in the trunk of their car — or the "boot" in British parlance — and the staff wanders around the parking lot "rooting through a staggering amount of vinyl," Johnson says.

"This summer I bought a pristine Gemini XL-400 turntable for $15 at our boot sale," he adds.

AMG is still cataloging new product — data entry manager Will Myers says his department processes about 1,000 CDs and 250 DVDs a week. But the company also devotes much of its effort toward developing new ways to use that data. Last week it announced a partnership with LyricFind, a company that licenses song lyrics for online applications.

The big buzz around AMG is over its new Tapestry application. Unveiled in January 2006, Tapestry merges music files with the data compiled by AMG staff. For years, they've been creating data files to describe pieces of music. Is it bop or ska? Does it have mandolin, tambourine or hurdy-gurdy? Is it whimsical or aggressive?

All of those elements can be used to make a playlist that's frighteningly intuitive. There are more than 6,200 possible descriptive elements, including information on styles, tones, themes, instruments, production elements and structural attributes. It lets listeners build playlists around songs, moods or situations. It can also use that data to recommend music to purchase.

For example, in a recent demo, checking some boxes asking for "late night" music that is "swaggering" and "street-smart" brought up a surprisingly spot-on playlist that featured songs by Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders, Raekwon, Tampa Red and Mack 10.

It's not currently available for consumers, but Smith says AMG is negotiating with partners who would ultimately offer Tapestry on consumer-level devices.

In a significant way, Tapestry is the next step in AMG's evolution, because at that point it has stopped looking backward to create a historical record and is instead looking forward at how people may use technology to interact with their music.

"There's really not that big a difference there. The obsessive archiving was the groundwork that was needed for this. That was a first step," Woodstra says. "I don't think that ever was an end to itself. But you do need all of that information to make this step."

Smith speaks of "crate diggers" — those fixated collectors who spend hours in used record shops going through the boxes looking for those rare, obscure records that are undiscovered slabs of greatness.

"Maybe the point of obsessive archiving is to help people who aren't crate diggers to get past the surface level of the culture and find things that are interesting to them. In many ways this technology is an evolution of that," Smith says.

 

AMG products

Web sites: AMG runs three public Web sites: allmusic.com, allmovie.com and allgame.com. On a recent check of the Web tracking service alexa.com, All Music has a traffic rank of 1,168 of all Web sites, All Movie has a rank of 13,558 and All Game has a rank of 88,419. The traffic rank is based on three months of aggregated historical traffic data from millions of Alexa Toolbar users and is a combined measure of page views and users. The rank of a site reflects both the number of users who visit that site as well as the number of pages on the site viewed by those users. Also according to Alexa, All Music is the sixth most visited music site on the Web (just behind allofmp3.com and ahead of Aol Music, Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone) while All Movie is the 40th most visited movie site.

Reference books: AMG's comprehensive All Music Guide is in its fourth edition. It also publishes genre-specific guidebooks to rock, jazz, blues, country, electronica, R&B and soul, hip hop and classical.

LASSO: A media recognition service that automatically recognizes CDs and DVDs. It can also recognize music from audio files based on acoustic analysis of the track. LASSO's main competitor is the Gracenote database that most iPod users are familiar with. Once the item is recognized, it can be linked to the data in the AMG database.

Tapestry: A playlist recommendation engine that organizes and recommends music based on more than 6,200 musical genres, styles, themes, moods, instruments and other descriptors. It is currently not available to consumers, but is available for companies to use in online stores, music services, and other applications. There is a demo online at amgtapestry.com/radio.

Data licensing: More than 25,000 retail outlets, both online and traditional brick-and-mortar stores, license AMG's databases.

AMG stats

   •   Employees: 150

   •   Freelance writers: 900

   •   Songs cataloged: 8.5 million

   •   Descriptive elements for profiling      music: 6,200

   •    Streaming sound files: 6 million

   •    Cover images: 500,000

AMG customers

   •   Online companies: AOL, Yahoo, MSN, New York Times, CNET

   •    Media players: Sony Connect, iTunes, MusicMatch, Windows Media Player, Napster, Full Audio, MusicChoice, XM, BeMusic, Virgin Digital, EMusic, Cox Radio, Clear Channel, Mercora

   •    Retailers: Amazon, Borders, Best Buy, Circuit City, Barnes and Noble, FYE, Fry's Electronics, Blockbuster Video

Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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