This is taking notes for a larger post that I’m hoping to write some day, on my activities and searches as possibly the maddest label discographer in the history of mankind.
I maintain, I don’t know (I don’t count), I guess a hundred of label discographies, labels ongoing or labels defunct, from (in alphabetical order) Abseits, Acanta, Accent, Accord, Adda, Adès, Aliavox, Aliénor, Alpha, Altarus, Ambroisie, Amon Ra, Anemos, Aparté, APR Appian, Arabesque, Arbiter, Arcana, Argo, Arion, AS Disc, Assai, Astrée, ASV, Attacca Babel and Audiofon to Zig Zag Territories, in various stages of achievement. Originally, those label discographies were only meant to serve my own, private and very selfish purposes as a music lover and buyer and collector of CDs: knowing what there is, listing what I have and more importantly, what I don’t have. Now that I’ve created this website, well, I’m progressively expanding them with a view to making them eventually public and useful to others, and it’s lot of work (going from, say “901614.15 Bach Mass in B Herreweghe 794881416523”, which is enough for my own use, to giving complete credits of performers and release year, or from “ONF” to “Orchestre National de France”, because not every music lover may know what “ONF” stands for). I avoid what were known in the LP era as the “Big Five”, DG, Philips, Decca, CBS-now Sony, and RCA, because there’s too much (and too much junk too) to make it possible to maintain a discography (but I do maintain discographies of some of their budget series or other interesting and limited sub-series, like Philips “Early Years” or “Dutch Masters”). I don’t “do” Teldec, Hungaroton, Supraphon either for the same reasons, but I “do” (at least tentatively) Denon, which is totally unreasonable. The catalog of Naxos is also so large that I only keep a discography of the releases I have (and that by itself makes a sizeable discography), but I go for completeness with Marco Polo, Naxos’ original flagship label. Some of those labels are small and their catalog numbers less than a hundred releases, some are huge, like the great independents Hyperion, Chandos, Harmonia Mundi (and, once independent but no more, Erato). Some of those large independent labels I don’t do and I don’t even know why, probably awed by the magnitude of it, like Nimbus or BIS or the Dutch Channel Classics, and some I do, and it’s very arbitrary, like the Dutch Challenge Classics (in fact, it’s because they are obliquely related to Vanguard Classics) or Etcetera.
I’ll recount in another post how the activity of a CD discographer is a game of “following the barcode”. Right now I’d just like to do, by way of tribute and expression of gratitude, a little presentation of the best online resources I’ve found online for compiling my label discographies.
Because of my many grudges with the not-so-“most-customer-centric-company-in-the-world” (at least not for buyers of classical music CDs), I hate to do so, but I always start with Amazon. Depending on where the label is based, I’ll use .com, .fr or .co.uk. The advantage of Amazon is that it’s very complete – not every CD of classical music ever released is listed, especially with those that came out in the early days of the CD, before Amazon was even created, say between 1983 and 1995, but I don’t know any other website where more are listed. The other advantage of Amazon is that you can make searches on the barcodes, which (story told in a future post) is the best, and sometimes only way to find a CD on Amazon. Another important advantage is that, once you’ve found your CD entry, you can use its ASIN number to retrieve its barcode; it’s a little convoluted, you need to go to your seller account and use the function “find your product in Amazon’s catalog”, but it’s EXTREMELY useful in order to establish or check a barcode – and also to know exactly what’s being sold on the entry, which more often that not is NOT what is publicized by product image or product information.
Now, to counteract those advantages, there are so many problems with that online retailer’s website(s) that I’m not sure I’ll remember all of them: missing cover photos (oftentimes); missing backcover photos (many, many times), which is where you find the indispensable information about barcode, label number, artists, copyright year, track listing, and possibly recording date; illegible cover photos, where even if photo is provided, the resolution is so lousy that it is impossible to decipher that vital information; wrong photos (many, many times) corresponding to another edition of the same recording (and, for that reason, very misleading), or (sometimes) to an entirely different CD; sketchy, missing or downright wrong product information (performer, composer, label, release year….), and, finally, label number seldom given outside of the front or backcover photos. There used to be a time, long long ago and far, far away, when customer could submit to Amazon product information updates or correct cover photos. In one of those typical and frequent moves designed apparently to make the website worse, Amazon suppressed that possibility, one day. The explanation given to me back then was that many sellers complained that the entries on which they were selling their wares had too many wrong customer-submitted photos. The explanation strikes me (as with so many decisions of Amazon) as totally asinine. It’s not like they just accepted your photos blindly. You had to give proof that it was the correct cover photo, for instance by providing a backcover photo with the same barcode as the one to which the entry was indexed. Now that customers aren’t allowed to do that any more, has the situation of sellers improved? No, it’s gotten far worse, by my guesstimate.
The only possibility now to change or submit a product photo now is through a seller account, and the process is so tedious that I’ve given up (other than the fact that, by way of principle, I now refuse to serve Amazon). Personnally, I don’t care if the wrong product images or information adorn the entry; in fact, I find great advantage to it: since nobody knows what’s actually being sold, nobody buys, so sellers have to offer their CD at low prices, and as a buyer knowing (thanks to the barcode) what exactly is sold, I can take advantage. Compiling my discographies and going through entry after entry, I’ve found incredible bargains on Amazon.
Another glitch, which I hope will be only temporary (writing on April 10, 2020) is that the search engines of Amazon.fr and Amazon.uk are disfunctioning at the moment, and have been since early this year. Searches on barcodes don’t yield anymore, which may lead you to think that the product isn’t listed or doesn’t exist – not so: it’s just that the search engine is disfunctionning. I’ve found the go-around: using the “find your product in the Amazon catalog” function in my seller account (see my March 29, 2020 blog post for details on that). In fact, for my discographic purposes, it’s surer. It used to be, even when the normal search engines did work, that they wouldn’t yield when a product, though listed, wasn’t currently offered. Even in those cases, the seller account search engine does yield. So, if it’s listed on Amazon, it’ll show there.
Note that, occasionally, even if a CD is listed on Amazon, it doesn’t prove that it really exists or has existed. I suppose that some labels create an entry because the CD release is in the works, but ultimately, for some reason, it’s never issued. Here’s an example from the ending days of the French label Dante, what should have been LYS 587/591 (6 CDs) “Glazounoff intégrales des symphonies” (1999), barcode 3421710465878, or LYS 592 “Hommage à G. Sebastian vol. 2 Bartok Le Château de Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard’s Castle) Szekely Palankay Budapest live 1951”, barcode 3421710415927.
Bottom line of this ranting: for the discographer, Amazon is, most of the times, only a starting point, an indispensable one, but one from which he needs to complete the information by going to other websites.
If I don’t find all the information I need on Amazon, I go to Melomania. Melomania is a small boutique of used classical music CDs and DVDs on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, and they have (or, sadly, I have to say at this point: “used to have”, see anon) a very useful website and search engine. What makes it so useful are a number of features:
1. The abundance of its data base. If the CD has gone through Melomania for resale, it will be listed, and throughout the years a lot as gone through Melomania for resale.
2. The information provided is, by and large, correct and complete – a HUGE advantage over Amazon. Label number, performers. I’m less trusting with indications of release year.
3. Likewise, many (not all) entries display front AND the indispensable back cover photo. With very few exceptions that I’ve located, the cover photo is the correct one (HUGE advantage again over Amazon).
4. Searches on the usual criteria – perfomers, work’s title – are not always effective because, in order to yield, you have to use the exact labelling that Melomania has entered in its date base (have they used “Mass in B” or “Messe en si” ? “Histoire de la résurrection du Christ” or “Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi”?). But, for my discographic purposes, searches on both barcode AND label number are (were….) possible through Melomania’s “advanced search” engine: VERY useful.
5. Melomania’s entries ALWAYS indicate the CD’s label number, making it possible, when you have the CDs barcode, to determine said label number, even in the absence of cover scans: indispensable.
I use (or rather, I used to use) Melomania’s search engine A LOT, especially when I need(ed) to do searches on label numbers. There are a few glitches to the way the website functions which makes it a little irksome at times, but it’s a small matter compared to the services it gives. Now, the website’s shortcomings : 1. unlike, for instance, Amazon-japan (Amazon.co.jp), Melomania doesn’t list the barcode number, only the label number. So, if you’ve chanced on a CD using its label number and Melomania doesn’t provide a (legible) backcover photo, there’s no way to find the CD’s barcode and I have to look elsewhere.
And… 2. For some reason (and Melomania hasn’t responded to my request for information – but P.S. about that, see comments), the search engine is OUT-OF-ORDER since, at least, the end of December (I sent them my inquiry in early January). Four months! VERY IRKSOME. I mean, that a search engine breaks down, ok, shit happens, but why FOUR MONTHS in disrepair? And when WILL it be repaired? Will it ever? No response from Melomania (I know they are still in business – or were, before the coronavirus lockout, because I called them to inquire, and I got a response, although to my query “what’s happening, when will it be repaired”, the response was only a sigh). The demise of their search engine has made my activities as a discographer, especially when it comes to establishing the label number of a given barcode, more complicated. In addition, in this time of lockdown, absent a functioning search engine, how do they maintain their online business??? I would HATE to see Melomania go because of the virus…
With Melomania unavailable, I find myself using the online platform for maketplace sellers Rakuten (former Price Minister) more than I used to. Frankly, it’s not a good website, and I should hardly be mentioning them. I seldom buy from them (I do occasionally), because usually I find better prices on Amazon. Their entries are a mess, making them close to useless. BUT: sometimes, they will list a CD that Amazon has omitted, so when the entry doesn’t exist on Amazon I’ll always check on Rakuten, just to make sure. AND: their entries often have cover photos that are NOT the stock cover photos used on Amazon, and some (far from all, though) have the indispensible back cover photo (not always legible, alas). A further problem with Rakuten is that it used to be that you could search also out-of-stock products (a discographer doesn’t care if the product is currently sold); apparently, no more. So if search on a barcode doesn’t yield on Rakuten, I never take it as a proof that the product doesn’t exist. It’s only if it DOES yield that I take it as a proof that the CD exists.
Muziekweb.nl “Muziekweb is the music library of The Netherlands”. In the absence of Melomania I find myself using it more and more, and I am VERY grateful to them. It is a very useful and helpful data base because it contains many, many entries, and ALWAYS displaying front AND the treasured back cover photo [well… not so. Just today, April 19 2020, I chance on an entry missing its photos, Chopin’s Polonaises by Roger Muraro on Accord], ALWAYS legible (and always with a magnifier function): thanks the Netherlands! Searches are possible on label number, thanks the Netherlands! Label number is also always provided among the product info (and so is track listing), very useful in the very rare case where it is not displayed on front or back cover photo.
Now, perfection is not of this world. Muziekweb’s disadvantages : 1. though abundant, the data base is far from complete. In particular, the website documents only first releases, not reissues of same material. Not blaming them: they’re a library, not a catalog, so if they have first edition in their inventory, why would they need the reissues? And 2. The search engine responds to searches on label number, but NOT on barcodes. So whenever I’m desperately looking for the backcover photo of a CD that Amazon or Google searches don’t show, I first need to establish the CD’s label number, and when I have only the barcode, it isn’t always an easy task (in the absence of Melomania).
Discogs.com is a website that I used a lot. The advantage is that its entries are usually very well documented, with full track listing and complete credits of performers, producer, engineer, and more; front and back cover photos are usually provided (although not always, and I find it very frustrating when they are not, because somehow, when I go to an entry on Discogs, I expect the entry to be fully documented). Its data base is abundant.
Disadvantages: 1. the data base, though abundant, is not complete, so while Discogs is very useful, it doesn’t answer all the discographer’s questions. 2. there is no uniform system for indicating the barcodes, some entries reproduce them as they appear on the backcover, e.g. with blanks. For instance, “3 149025 039804” rather than “3149025039804”. The problem with that is that a Google search on “3149025039804” (which is how the discs are indexed on Amazon, Melomania and most commercial webistes) will not yield the Discogs entry. So you’ve got to fiddle around sometimes to find an entry on Discogs. 3. The release years are not to be trusted, I often find errors, some indications just seem be guesses (and wrong ones – I can establish with some degree of precision the release year using the barcode sequence), or they confuse recording year and release year, or, in case of reissues, they follow the back cover information by indicating the year of release of original issue, not of the specific reissue (again, that can be determined using barcode sequence). Occasionally I correct some of the wrong info. But gratitude to all those who fill out those entries.
Google. When I don’t find the info I need on all those websites, a Google search is always on the order. If barcode doesn’t yield I’ll try label number, associated or not with composer and/or performer’s name. Sometimes it is the odd online library catalog that provides the sought information, or an online retailer. Google doesn’t ALWAYS yield though, even using that variety of criteria, and it doesn’t mean the CD doesn’t exist. In particular, Google doesn’t find as “deep” as Amazon barcodes, as if Amazon had established some kind of anti-Google firewall. Google search a given barcode associated with, say, “Amazon.com”, and although the CD is duly listed on Amazon and a barcode search on their search engine will yield it, Google doesn’t. But none of the above yield AND Google also doesn’t, I take it as a strong indication (but not absolute proof) that the CD doesn’t exist, and that the given barcode or label number was left blank and unused by the label.
My Google searches will occasionally lead me to MusicBrainz.org (barcode AND label number usually provided, as well as full track listing, but no backcover photo), Allmusic (no backcover photos, sketchy product information), Pickclick (sometimes links to eBay sales and photos), WorthPoint.com, Cdandlp.com, and I’ve found them occasionally useful, but I don’t use them systematically. When I’m looking for Japanese editions, I’ll use a combination of Amazon-Japan (Amazon.co.jp) useful for providing the barcodes, and Tower.jp, where, if you have the barcode, you can find the label number (not possible the other way around, unfortunately: if you have only label number, the public pages don’t provide the barcode). On both, you can do searches on both barcode and label number. There seems to be more CDs listed on Amazon than on Tower, especially with early releases from the 1980s and early 1990s, so when I don’t find on Tower the information missing from Amazon, I’ll try a Google search. [Addendum 23 May] On the other hand, working on my great CD-discography of Christian Ferras, I saw that Tower has the more accurate and complete information and better indexing: a search on the name Christian Ferras (in Japanese characters!) yielded a number of Ferras CDs, not only in Japanese but also in Western editions, that didn’t show up on any of the Amazons, Western or Japanese.
In the last resort, I may do searches on eBay. The interest of eBay is that sometimes you will find CD backcover photos that are not the stock photos of Amazon, but individually- and, so to speak, tailor-made by seller. When searching on eBay I fish “large”. Barcodes will yield sometimes but not always, label number will yield but not always, so I’ll use large criteria like “Bach Christie Harmonia Mundi” and just sift through the results hoping to find what I’m looking for – and sometimes I do.
A postscript from 13 August 2021: I’ve been using the spare time of summer to work on my discographies of EMI’s early budget and mid-price series, and I find that eBay is in fact a great resource for finding backcover photos – probably because, with these early issues from the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few are provided on the Amazons, and even on eBay the big sellers (Momox and the likes) use stock photos of front cover, but there are enough individual sellers on eBay, providing their own entry for their product rather than, as on Amazon, using the existing listing warts-and-all, to allow you to find what you are looking for. Doing my research on those EMI releases, I find that search on barcodes usually provide the requested results.
Okay, so, now, I need to complete and publish all those discographies I’m working on.
Post-script from 23 August 2021: of related interest, another blogpost (link will send directly to it, no new tab) about my methods of online discographic research, with examples (of time wasted!)