Advice to Music Writers, WaPo Style: Be Careful Fact-Checking with allmusic.com
A pretty incredible correction bedecks a recent Washington Post review of an album by the indie-rock band Quasi:
This review of the album "American Gong" by the band Quasi misstated the name of the album's first song. It is "Repulsion," not "Revulsion." Also, the album is the band's first in four years, not seven years, and it is the group's eighth album, not its seventh.
The review's writer, WaPo Music Editor Joe Heim, is understandably red-faced about the errors—the source of two of them, he says, is the exhaustive online music guide, allmusic.com. "It's an embarrassing triple whammy and there really aren't any excuses for it," he writes in e-mail. "I have used allmusic.com for years and have found the info there to be reliable. But I should've doublechecked it anyway."
The site, which is owned by the Rovi Corporation, is pretty widely recognized as an authoritative guide to music styles the world over. But like any reference tool, it's not infallible: The Discography tab in the entry for Quasi omits the band's 2006 album, When the Going Gets Dark. Hence, a glance at that page suggests that American Gong is Quasi's seventh record (if you count the compilation Early Recordings), and that between 2003 and 2010, Quasi released no albums. Those are exactly the mistakes Heim made.
(As for misidentifying the song "Repulsion," Heim writes, that was "just carelessness. In my head the song was 'Revulsion' and that's what I wrote." And Heim's review, at least, ran on the date of the Quasi album's release; Washington City Paper's review of the same disc didn't run until this week, thanks to a scheduling snafu by yours truly.)
Functionally, allmusic.com is the IMDB of many music scribes, a valuable source for checking basic discographical facts, like release years and track listings. (The former site, whose company also produces reference books, has writers and an editorial staff; the latter's data is user-submitted.)
"I do indeed use allmusic.com as my primary go-to all-encompassing reference, in much the same way I use IMDb.com for any TV or movie stuff," writes Marc Hirsh, who contributes album reviews to Washington City Paper and also writes for the Boston Globe, NPR, and other venues. "I am also aware that both are fraught with errors, some minor and some not-so-much. Random example: I went to look up some information about the Buzzcocks just this very morning and was baffled to find that Love Bites was listed under Compilations, rather than Main Albums, where it most certainly belongs."
Hirsh, like other music critics interviewed for this article, says he double-checks any information he obtains from allmusic.com. But he's been burned in the past. "I have indeed made mistakes"—mostly typos involving song titles—"in my reviews due to inaccurate information that I find there."
Phone and e-mail messages to a representative of allmusic.com were not returned.
Marc Masters, a regular Pitchfork writer who wrote a heavily researched book on the no wave movement, is necessarily skeptical of allmusic.com, but says he generally trusts its information. "I try not to let it be my only source for something, but I have found it to be pretty reliable. I don't think it's ever led to an error in anything I've written, and I haven't heard of it doing so for any other writers," he writes in an e-mail. "I consider it pretty authoritative overall. I know a few of the writers for the site and they are all solid journalists."
But for all of allmusic.com's many merits, the lesson is clear: While the site is the closest thing the Web has to a one-stop shop for music information, journalists should still double-check facts they find there. And if they find an error on the site, they can inform allmusic.com's editors here.