Is The Day Of The Encyclopedia Dead?


I have just completed writiing a review of ‘The Encyclopedia Of Popular Music’ for publication early next year. I have copied the essay below, but it made me think when I was writing this – “Is the day of the encyclopedia dead? I am not sure if it is my generation, or general fitness when attempting to move these mammoth texts around, but I really can’t see a place for these texts in the future. Please read my comments below and let me know what you think.

Edited and principally documented by Colin Larkin, this 4th edition of The Encyclopedia of Popular Music can only be described as the culmination of what is unquestionably a labour of love. Indeed this volume represents the pinnacle of what is almost an obsessional herculean effort which has developed over a 14 year period. Initially published as a 4 volume set in 1992, this current edition has now expanded to a mammoth 10 volumes, now boasting some 8.5 million words and 27000 individual entries. Unquestionably the largest project of its type undertaken on the subject, this edition is around twice the size of the 1998 third edition, and includes over 6000 new entries and updates. In addition to the artist/album/subject biographical information one would expect, the publication also includes to a greater or lesser extent details on supplementary factors such as selected styles, record labels, compositions, music related films, musical instruments, performance venues, theatre productions and music festivals. All of this is complemented by a useful song, album and general index that list the factors discussed in the text. The edition is organised in a logical A – Z format that enables (relatively) easy cross-referencing of material. Although inherently subjective, selected recordings are subject to a ‘five-star’ album rating system that acts as a useful starting point for readers just discovering a particular artist.

As can be noted from the brief description above, the breadth and depth of this volume represents a further significant contribution to the study of popular music and I congratulate Larkin for that. The breadth of a publication such as this is always going to be open to debate, but I certainly consider the range of musicians and groups to be extremely commendable. However, there is still room for expansion in areas such as music festivals, styles, and music related films and I am sure these will be part of Larkin’s plans for future editions. I was surprised to note that there was no entry for Rock, Folk, Jazz or Country, but this may have been the result of the differentiation process when deciding the demarcation line between style and genre? Although the word count of specific entries tended to vary, quality and accuracy was generally very good throughout. Being an ex member of The James Taylor Quartet provided an interesting opportunity to examine the authenticity of at least part of a history I experienced from the inside, and I can confirm that the background information was accurate, aside from the section regarding the “recruitment of two rappers” for the May 1989 single “Breakout” (p.63,v8). Having performed on the single, I can unreservedly say there were no rappers, but a collection of band members and session players who mainly reiterated the songs title several times. I mention this not to criticise the publication, but to highlight the means by which some of this information is gained

Not surprisingly at this particular evolutionary juncture of the encyclopaedia, my main concern is not content, but that of format. Despite the many commendable factors this publication has, my question is at what point does it simply become logistically impossible to produce hard copies of multi volume publications such as this? Having undergone what can only be described as a rigorous keep fit session simply moving the 10 volume set between offices, my observation is that if the word count expansion continues at a congruent rate as previous years, the 5th edition may follow the example of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, consisting of 20 volumes, and simply taking up too much shelf space to be spatially viable. Although I realise these texts are intended to be housed in the reference section of libraries, discussions with my local music library did not quell this concern, as they confirmed that there is a general trend to move away from the space intensive hard copies to online editions of these texts. Indeed my local LRC had already purchased the online stand alone version of The Encyclopedia of Popular Music that was launched in 2007. This version is fully interactive with other Oxford Online products and is cross searchable alongside Grove Music Online within the Oxford Music Online gateway. As expected it has the benefits usually associated with online texts and includes features such as rapid and detailed search facilities, hyperlink cross referencing, flexible and competitive subscription rates, regular periodic updates, and an export citation function.

In the preface of this edition Larkin recounts the numerous hurdles he had to encounter to get the inaugural edition published. Initially considered to be a reckless and over ambitious project by many who doubted popular music to be worthy of serious study (p.vii), I have absolute respect for his doggedness and determination in raising the profile of the discipline. However, when discussing some of the issues facing future publications, Larkin concedes himself to never being able to catch up to the ever changing landscape of popular music, describing it as the “impossible task always ahead of us” (p.vii). He encapsulates this problem concisely when stating

“- I am still not satisfied. I know that minutes after we have gone to press on this edition another important artist or band will pop up out of nowhere, or another Gene Pitney will suddenly leave us” (p.vii).

This is an inevitable and understandable consequence of documenting historic change as it is occurring, and although Larkin accepts the internet revolution with reluctance and prefers “a book printed on real paper” (p.viii), we live in a world where analogue and physical domains often have to concede to the digital and virtual. This is in fact a problem that both the recording industry and the music retail industry are facing at present, and although I agree with the vast majority of Larkin’s nostalgic reminisces, we are both products of a digital immigrant generation which is grappling to come to terms with technological change. As many record companies, music publishers, and music retailers have discovered over the last several years, in order to be competitive in the current market place you have to submit to the age old maxim: “if you can’t beat them, join them”. The fact is that just as music’s consumption habits are changing rapidly, so too will the ways we access information such as text based knowledge, and although there may be another hard and soft edition of this encyclopedia, I fear there will be an inextricable centripetal pull toward what will eventually be an exclusive digital presence.

In order to obtain a balanced inter-generational perspective, I decided to discuss the work via a focus group with some of my students. The general contentious verified that although some entries were not particularly comprehensive, many students were reasonably impressed with the breadth of the publication, and considered it a good introduction to the various subject areas. It was also noted that some of the entries were written in a ‘journalistic’ as opposed to ‘academic’ voice, a deliberate intention of Larkin’s, who intended to cross-reference the style of writing to match the subject area. Despite my view regarding the emergence of digital text, the student opinion was surprisingly divided. Although some preferred the flexibility of online texts, many conversely mentioned the notion of ‘heavy duty’ publications such as this “lending themselves to academic study”. Some of the cohort also believed that the reading of ‘real’ texts offer less distraction than their digital counterpart. There was also a general feeling that the “easy to read” introduction to popular music on pages xv to xxi of volume 1 could serve as a useful addition to reading lists, acting as a whistle stop tour and introducing students to the chronological development of popular music over the last 100 plus years.

In conclusion, this publication appears to be an honest attempt at the near impossible task of appeasing everyone involved in the study or appreciation of popular music. Despite my admiration for Larkin, in many respects I personally feel the rapid development of free internet sites such as ‘All Music Guide’ and ‘Wikipedia’ will eventually result in hard copies of publications such as this becoming the equivalent of the body’s vestigial structures, having lost all of their original function through the process of evolution. Despite the amount of information available, these web sites are always subject to dubious quality control, and this is where an online version of this encyclopaedia may come into its own. Finally, despite Larkin’s attempts to avoid it, this publication also has the potential of indoctrinating linguistic imperialism into the minds of its readers by accentuating the dominance of First World/Anglo European/United States musics. I realise that this is an inevitable consequence of a ‘popular’ music publication such as this and that if this issue was addressed it would exacerbate some of the factors outlined above. Despite my reservations regarding the hefty price tag, format and range of content, it is important that this information is compiled and I can think of no one better than Larkin to oversee this process. If anyone can address my observations, Larkin’s absolute dedication to this project positions him perfectly to manage the progression of this publication into the future.

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About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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