UW-TALK Recorded music selection: criteria, tools, methods

Anna Seaberg, music selector at KCLS, large public library
The components of selection are:
What you select--your criteria
Where you find out about it--your tools
How you get it--your methods

Criteria Selection criteria will follow from the type of institution and its mission: who are you serving? What does your library do? Whose collection is it?

On your handout, Iím showing you one definition of what a library can be or do. I like this definition, because it covers so many bases as far as institutional purposes go. Naturally, you will buy differently depending upon where you are--whether a public library, school, college, or something more specialized. And you will use different sets of tools.

I work for a public library system that has 40 agencies of all sizes; the element they all have in common, from the smallest to the largest, is a browsing collection that serves the cultural curiosity of the recreational listener. In our larger libraries we add educational and research elements for concertgoers and all types of musicians, students, and professionals. We do very little curriculum support. For the buyer at a school, college, or university, the priorities might be exactly reversed--largely educational, with a small recreational component for some members of the community.

Selection tools

Which ones are useful, and how? Very few music selectors listen to everything they buy, although the web is making it easier to do so. The main thing I do is review the review tools. I also rely on sales charts and vendors, colleagues, and patrons with particular expertise.

Billboard is universal and indispensable for buyers of current material. It's the trade paper for the recording and broadcast industries. As such, it's the music librarian's equivalent of Publisher's Weekly and Forthcoming Books. Its reviews are brief and timely. They cover all genres from classical to rap and grunge, and are good predictors of sales. Its sales charts--bestseller lists-- cover these significant styles: classical, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, Latin, new age, world music, contemporary gospel, Christian pop, and rock. There is also an interesting new chart called heatseekers, which covers albums by new artists. It's especially helpful for alternative styles.

In summary, Billboard is written for broadcast and purchasing professionals who want their information in the quickest way possible. Their featured reviews and sales charts are reliable pointers to must-buys for nearly any size library.

Stereo Review also covers mainstream musical genres for knowledgeable music enthusiasts. It is the kind of source thatís found on a newsstandand aimed at a wide readership.

I've just updated this list to include an especially interesting website, tunes.com. This is an online music store that really shows what the web can do for music. The biggest problem with the print sources was that you couldn't listen to them. Tunes.com brings together a huge library of sound clips with the content of the All-Music Guide, the first great Internet-based reference work on sound recordings. This site shows everything that's best about the web, especially for music, where it can shrink the distance among the different kinds of information--verbal, visual, and sound, the way airplanes once shrunk the distance between continents.

The other magazines on the bibliography are specialized in some way. Optionís specialty is the independent label. It's the equivalent of a small press review for recorded music. It originated at Evergreen State College in 1980 and reviews hundreds of titles each issue that everyone else misses. It's also a very good place to look for ads, addresses, and lists of related periodicals.

The rest of these magazines specialize in a particular area of music. Bookstore Journal is a trade paper for Christian book and music store buyers. Itís a good source of news and reviews of new and forthcoming. All of the rest are newsstand publications. Dirty Linen and Sing Out, for world music and folk. Dirty Linen also includes concert reviews and tour dates, Sing Out also lists recently published books and music. Down Beat covers jazz, some rock, world, avant-garde. Public library buyers might look at any of these; so would some college and school buyers , especially if there were curriculum tie-ins to music ministry, jazz, or world music studies.

Fanfare. For classical music. Public and college buyers both use this. Fanfare illustrates quite a few good points about review journals. The reviews that I find the most useful as a library selector are the ones that tell you about a titleís strengths and weaknesses, so you can measure it against your own purposes. What audience will this title serve, and how well? Does my institution serve this kind of reader or listener? This is common among book review media like Choice and Library Journal, which use language like essential for specialized collections. Optional for general collections. Marginal, recommended only to completists.

Hereís one example of this review technique. This is a disc of works by Schumann. The first sentence says: This disc offers rare music and very rare music. If I work at an academic or large public institution, likely I keep reading. The last sentence says: May interest specialists who want to know every scrap of both composerís work, but I cannot recommend it to more casual listeners. In those two sentences, the reviewer has profiled the work, the people who would use it, and the people who wouldnít. So this is also a great example of how to use a lengthy review journal: start with the headnote, the first sentence, and the last sentence. If you need to read further, by then youíll know.

In the classical repertoire, the music librarian also has to deal with a wrinkle unknown in most of the rest of librarianship, many different performances --or renditions-- of the same piece of music. Fanfare will compare new recordings to the best renditions of all time, especially when still in print, and makes purchase recommendations accordingly.

Because thatís such an interesting issue in music selection, for the home CD collector as well as for us, Iíve included a couple of other toos to help you choose among performances of a classical piece. The need is there, so new works come out all the time. I also like the Penguin Guide to classical music on CD, although it includes a lot of British recordings that we don't see here. And the Music Library Association has revised its 1983 publication Basic Music Library, which now includes sound recordings.

Let me say more here about the All-Music Guide. It started life as a book in 1992 and was one of the most substantial arrays of album reviews ever, with about 25,000 reviews by an all-star group of reviewers. Almost simultaneously it came out in its first electronic form, long enough ago that there was no web--it was a gopher site. It has since migrated to a full-fledged website that gets a million hits a day and probably has more than 100,000 reviews. A major reason that it's good is that it's kept up-to-date, which is a feat in itself. It's maintained by a Buddhist collective in Northern Michigan. How different is that from that other large labor pool in service to a new form of text: medieval scribes.

Looking now at our independent label catalogs: these will help you identify some of the most interesting publications, as far as content goes. Independent labels can do a lot of the same things that the small presses do for your book collections. Like the small press, defining the independent label is a matter of size, of ownership and of intent.

Regarding size: they're smaller organizations than major labels, which gives the independent an advantage, as far as we're concerned. To independent labels, a successful title can be one that sells 5000 copies over the years. Major labels need to sell ten times that right away to pay the expenses of large-scale distribution: the ads, the agents who get people onto talk shows. So for a small label, keeping titles in print for a long time is not just desirable--it can be essential.

As far as ownership is concerned: they don't have parent companies, and can make their own decisions. They can decide not to shy away from free speech issues. They can decide to keep things in print forever. The paragon of this is Folkways, where in 40 years, no title has ever gone out of print. They can decide to have subject or regional specialties that are otherwise underrepresented: Native American music, music by women composers, or gospel recordings from the 1920s.

And this brings us to intent: any enlarging of the recorded repertoire that's going on is being done by independent labels. When do we turn to the independent label? We turn to them when we need: Exquisite renditions of basics and classics; or Any renditions at all of wider repertoire: music by composers who worked before Bach, since Stravinsky, or who are women. We turn to them for music by local artists, whether classical or popular, and for world music, both traditional and commercial styles. We turn to them for reissues of popular music of all types: big band jazz, 50s rock & roll; and for emerging popular styles: new age, women's music, Christian rock, rap music.

Allegro--a wholesale distributor. Three monthly catalogs of new releases: pop, historical jazz, wider-repertoire classical, no reviews, titles you don't see anywhere else; a supplier to amazon.com.

Ladyslipper-- Another mail-order retailer. Ladyslipper is where you find music by women. We've gone to them for jazz singers, modern composers, Egyptian, Trinidadian, and African performers. This year their catalog was 80 pages long; the most extensive section was women's and feminist music, which fills about one fifth of the catalog; it's a great place to go for music with a political content, world music by women, and folk music by women. They're a reliable source for older and out of print titles as well.

George Romansic is the local sales rep for many of the distributors who bring off-the-beaten-path titles to Tower and Silver Platters.

Roots and Rhythm--Again, a mail-order retailer in the roots of American popular music. Roots and Rhythm and Fanfare share the same reviewing philosophy: assessing a recording in terms of its intended audience, and telling you how well it serves them. (Favorite review: this recording will move you if you are made of flesh and blood.) In terms of putting people in touch with some of the forgotten materials of American culture, this company is really an American national treasure.

Spring Arbor--Wholesaler for Christian book and music stores. A lot of labels are available exclusively through them. Best first place to go in their subject area.

In addition to journals and catalogs, some of the best selection resources can be people with particular expertise. Where I refer in the bibl to a knowledgeable vendor: I mean one who will know the universe of recorded music, of course, and also your institution. Gary Thal knows we have collection emphases in music by Northwest musicians, women composers, independent labels, ethnic music, and lets us know about new titles before theyíre published when possible.

A less formal but no less important source of purchase information: requests and recommendations from patrons and staff. Also, I like to spend some time with general news sources. Local newspapers and the general newsmagazines, Time, Newsweek, and People, run music reviews every week. We also rely on popular press to keep an eye on local scene (whoís from here, whoís performing here). Use radio and television as sources, too, especially NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition; as well as Entertainment Weekly and MTV.

Here's the advantage to using them: most of your patrons use them, too. But there's a disadvantage as well: they rarely include all of the information that you need to actually place an order. Thanks to Web search engines it is a lot easier to verify these word-of-mouth recommendations than it ever used to be. It used to take months to figure out you couldnít find something; now you find it in less than a day.

What is verifying? Verification is the pivotal step between what you want and how you get it. Your vendor and order dept will require full bib info: author, title, label (equivalent of publisher), and label number (the number a manufacturer assigns to a particular recording to identify it conclusively). All of the journals on the bibl provide full bib info, with the exception of Option, and thatís a major reason why theyíre on my preferred list.

And equally essentially, you prove that the item exists. This is more necessary than it may seem. [I have to tell you this story. One of our reference staff took a call a few years ago from a woman who was very interested in finding the value of an unusual kind of music box, which she described to my colleague in considerable detail; Gregg spent a lot of time in the price guides and collectible books, but he didnít find anything like it. He called her back, basically to say, Are you sure? She told him that the one time she had actually seen it was in a dream. But it was very clear in her dream.

Methods Finally, here are some organizational concepts youíll want to apply to your work, for the benefit of your order dept & vendors, as well as your own. Verification is probably foremost of these. There are different ways to organize your workflow and buying schedule, depending on the volume of buying you do. We are review and catalog driven. A college buyer might not be; a college buyer might get a lot of information from faculty and other subject selectors. We do a lot of volume, so we have found it most expeditious to organize our buying into a couple of streams we refer to as lists and batches.

Every month, I assemble a list of about 50 titles including Billboard chart items and other titles prominently reviewed in trade and newsstand journalsóbest seller equivalents. This consolidated purchase has several advantages: In a single operation, we can flag list titles for rush treatment at every point of handling--order, receiving, cataloging, and processing. We can easily maintain a subject balance by seeing that the list includes titles from the major record-store subjects or genres: in our case, we use classical, country, easy listening, folk, jazz, musicals and soundtracks, new age, religious pop, rock, and world music. We can also easily publicize this purchase to patrons and colleagues by distributing it in a printed or electronic form.

Batches--for us, batches are titles that are bought in smaller quantities or in less of a rush than the best-sellers. The academic or small institution might prefer batches to lists. These would be titles you learn about from patron requests, colleague or vendor recommendations, or the independent catalogs. These titles are the ones that add breadth, depth, variety, and interest to your collection.

Vendors-- Itís important to identify the right vendor for your selections. If you have a current list of Billboard-type items that you want to fill in a hurry, see if you can use a local retailer or, for higher volume, a local wholesaler. if they will do business on a purchase order. We go to the local wholesaler that stocks the big music stores --General Record Service--because they have it on hand and can get it to us in a hurry. If we did less volume, we might go directly to the local record store.

For titles identified from independent catalogs: the practices of your Order dept may guide your actions here. You might go direct to the catalog publisher, since they can most easily identify and fill your order. If your order people prefer to deal only with a few sources, use either of the all-purpose library specialists, Wayland or Gary Thal. Gary Thal is a specialist in service to libraries and academic institutions. His other great strength is as a supplier of independent labels. A vendor who understands the independent adds a lot of breadth, depth, and flexibility to what the music selector can do. Audio Buff is slightly larger and also gives very good service. A lot of Christian labels are exclusive to Spring Arbor. If you're working with children's materials, you have some great resources in Wayland, a specialist in school and library sales. I'm also aware of Silo and Professional Meida, but haven't used them.

Characteristics of format:
Classics: Non-distinctive titles, multiple renditions
Everythingís an anthology (contents), whether pop or classical

How do you select whatís appropriate? The short answer, and then the amplification: you find good selection tools. The amplification: they are knowledgeable people and the vehicles that bring you their knowledge: review media, also patrons, colleagues, vendors, websites, professional organizations and their meetings, publications, and listservs.

In summary, for music selection: if you become familiar with review media and the other current awareness tools of our trade. Listen to patrons and colleagues. Read the paper. and Develop good relationships with vendors, both local and elsewhere, you canít go wrong.

Examples Did I buy this? Who else would buy it?
Where did I find out about this? How did I get it?

Puff Daddy Billboard; GRS
4 Him Billboard, Christian Retailing; Spring Arbor
Maria Tipo/Scarlatti Gary Thal; Gary Thal
Cesaria Evora NPR; Gary Thal
Satyajit Ray NPR; Gary Thal or Audio Buff
Worlds of Music (any general book supplier)
Ezequiel Peña Billboard; Audio Buff
Eva Jessye Roots and Rhythm-Academic or research institution
Hank Williams Retro lists; Audio Buff
Emmett Miller Stereo Review -Who listens to whom? Does country music have some roots we're not being told about?
Presley Roots and Rhythm -What's the difference between this and Emmett Miller?

Questions? Contact:
Anna Seaberg, Music Librarian
King County Library System

Copyright © 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 Anna E. Seaberg