An interview with Carl Wiser, founder and owner of the American-based music database, SongFacts, and his vision of where the site is headed.
Earlier this month, one of the web’s leading music databases, Songfacts.com, topped 23,000 entries. This week, I spoke to its founder, Syracuse University alumnus and Hartford, Connecticut denizen, Carl Wiser.
AB: Carl, is Songfacts your baby alone or does anyone else help you with it?
CW: I'm the only one who works on it full time, but there are a bunch of fine folk who work on it in some capacity. One of our best writers is an actor who appears in the background of some famous movies, which leaves him lots of downtime to write.
AB: I gather it didn't start as a music database?
CW: Actually, it did start as a music database. It was a collection of song information to help out disc jockeys. It existed offline for a few years before it became a website.
AB: What is your own background?
CW: I was a disc jockey at a great rock station in Hartford, Connecticut, and also a total geek. The combination of curiosity, a little Mac 2400 laptop, and a fastidious desire to organize all the song information available in the studio (liner notes, press materials, books, etc.), led me to start the database so I could instantly access information about the songs. I networked it so other DJs could add to it and use it, and put it online as Songfacts in 1999. Getting a database online back then - especially on a Mac - wasn't easy.
AB: Although 23,000 is a lot of songs, it is not that big as databases go, but it punches quite a bit above its weight.
CW: And some of those 23K are pretty obscure, but if a song has a story, we want to tell it. We hope that if you look up your favorite song, you'll learn something new about it, and maybe even find some other tidbits that can add to your listening experience.
AB: I gather you have quite a lot of visits from academics as well as from the general public?
CW: We have a lot of teachers who use the site in their classrooms, very often to teach English in other countries. Songs with English lyrics are popular all over the place, and it's a great way to get the kids interested. And judging by the inquiries we've had from students, many American teachers are assigning essays that involve songs. A great way to teach the Kent State shootings is to study the Neil Young song Ohio.
AB: And you have quite a lot of interviews in the database?
CW: We've been doing interviews since 2002, but didn't have a good way to put them online in full form (blogging software) until about 2007. We've done about three hundred interviews of one kind or another which we use for the information in the database, and about a hundred and thirty of them are posted in their full formats.
AB: Is Songfacts Blogspot yours too?
CW: Nope, not ours!
AB: When do you think you will reach 25K?
CW: About 5 months.
CW: That's pretty far away. Let's hope there are 50,000 songs worth writing about.
AB: You also have Artistfacts?
CW: Yes, and we recently redesigned it. It's where we put information about the singers and bands that is not so song-specific.
AB: And Song Images?
CW: Sometimes, an image helps tell the story of the song. For instance, it's great to see the Bridge of Sighs from the Robin Trower song. These make nice little sidebar stories.
AB: And you have recently started Songplaces?
CW: We realized that a lot of songs have some association with a specific place, so we created Songplaces.com to show you these places and tell you more about them. It's where you can find out about the diner in Tom's Diner and the restaurant in Alice's Restaurant...
AB: What are your ambitions for them?
CW: Artistfacts will keep growing to include lots of interesting tidbits about the singers and bands. Songplaces has lots of potential and might be really fun in mobile form someday, so you can find the places when you're traveling.
AB: One of the biggest complaints people have about the Internet is that while it is a great free resource, this cuts both ways. Do you make any money out of it?
CW: We make money but are not getting rich. If we put pop-up ads on it and did some other nefarious stuff many sites do, it would earn a lot more but would become something we're not proud of.
AB: And you are on YouTube?
CW: If we get a great sound clip from our interviews, we'll sometimes post it on Youtube. Hearing Ian Anderson explain how he thinks Hotel California was influenced by a Jethro Tull song is a better listen then a read.
AB: There is, naturally, a massive bias towards English, the lingua franca of the known universe; do you plan to expand the inclusion of French, German, Hindi...songs?
CW: That would be an interesting area to expand, but we would need a lot of help. There has been some interest in bringing a version of Songfacts to China.
AB: Finally, can anyone contribute?
CW: Anyone can leave comments and suggest Songfacts, but for the sake of accuracy, we research and edit what goes online as the Songfacts.