Rock's Backpages

By Williams, Genevieve | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Rock's Backpages


Williams, Genevieve, Notes


Rock's Backpages. Backpages Ltd. http://www.rocksbackpages.com. [Requires a Web browser and an Internet connection. Audio selections require a player capable of playing MP3s. Pricing: individual subscriptions, $30 for six months or $50 per year; institutional subscriptions, $150 per year for public schools, $450 per year for private schools, and $1000 per year for colleges and universities.]

Rock music journalism is a unique niche, and a peculiarly self-referential and exclusive one. The barrier to entry is low, especially in the era of file sharing, podcasting, and blogging, but with any given article, essay, polemic, or review, the observer may be almost as interesting as the observed. Anyone can dance about architecture, but how did Lester Bangs or Ian MacDonald do it? Reading or listening to really good rock journalism is almost as much fun as experiencing the music itself: this guy really gets it, man. In a way, it's very satisfying to read an original turn of phrase and know that one is looking at tomorrow's rock cliche--as opposed to reading the same cliched opinions about the same artists over and over again. To look back on the rock writing of yesteryear is to see how the attitudes of audiences, as well as those of musicians, have changed--and how they have remained the same. The excesses of heavy metal in the 1980s reappear in today's hip-hop world. It's a funhouse of schlock. Rock's Backpages does not fill this niche completely, but it does include content that is difficult if not impossible to find anywhere else. Here is where the features from Creem, Circus, Kerrang!, and The Face have come to rest--though, it must be said, not all of them.

The reason for this is that although Rock's Backpages does index by artist, publication, and general topic (these range from doo-wop and Merseybeat to drugs and politics), the emphasis here is on particular writers, to a degree not typically found in databases and indexes of literature about music, and the choice of content to include is severely constrained, about which more appears below. Brief biographies of writers are provided, including notable publications. Among the services offered by Rock's Backpages are consultancy and editorial services, as well as putting clients in touch with writers. The Rock's Backpages library forms the core of a larger set of consulting services targeted at music-related businesses such as record labels and book publishers, though subscribers are not obligated to avail themselves of these.

It's worth noting that not all of the organization's content is yet available through the online library, although the selection which is available is very good: it is possible to follow the high and low points of an artist's entire career, assuming that this career falls within the past fifty years. It's all there: the first fresh review of a brand-new record (remember those?), the soundbites of questionable wisdom from the likes of Robert Plant and Axl Rose, the effusive (or not so effusive) live reviews that attempted to instill another stop on a whirlwind tour with significance after the fact. The best rock writers could capture in words something of the visceral ecstasy that is a great rock show, and plenty of examples are included in Rock's Backpages. The budding rock journalist, or the merely curious, will find plenty to relish here.

But does it work for libraries? Yes and no. As a niche resource with specialized content, Rock's Backpages is not an obvious addition to a music collection, the way Music Index or RILM might be. The content is interesting, and often weirdly fascinating, but it is questionable whether a library not already collecting in the area represented by these publications will have a use for it. On the other hand, much of this content is unavailable on the visible Web, and not indexed in widely-used research databases. Although publications like Spin, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times are represented, Rock's Backpages also includes magazines that never quite had the same cachet, but which were a step up from 'zines and tabloids, such as Circus and Metal Edge. …

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