Because the Internet inspires encyclopedic research and archiving, it’s no surprise that online repositories like Wikipedia and Usenet have rendered no nugget of knowledge too arcane to be exhaustively catalogued by geeks in every field. This is especially true of music, where mp3s and file-sharing networks have allowed songs and albums to be stored and traded by collectors and connoisseurs.
Now some enterprising music archivists have created the Whitburn Project, an astoundingly ambitious endeavor 10 years in the making whose aim is nothing less than the total documentation of every popular song since the 1890s. It’s more than just a listing of pop charts—release date, label, chart position, duration, etc.—all arrayed in a huge 22-megabyte Excel spreadsheet. It’s also a Usenet-based audio archive collecting audio files of every song. That’s several illegal terabytes of more than 37,000 mp3s.
The value of this information to music critics and scholars is limited only by their imaginations. Andy Baio, who wrote about the Whitburn Project on his blog, published a fun analysis of one-hit wonders and chart longevity based on the data, and made a graph showing how the average length of a pop song has fluctuated over the decades. Meanwhile, the video blog Grabb.it has performed the valuable service of reminding those of us in the MTV Generation what videos we were watching instead of the news when, for example, the Challenger exploded.
This isn’t the first project of its kind (though it's far and away the most audacious). There’s the fun little site that tells you what song was No. 1 on the day you were born. (I’m not sure what cosmic significance there is to mine, which happens to be “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band.) Incomplete release data is available on Wikipedia’s Year in Music pages. And Billboard, which owns the rights to chart data, makes it available to the public on a very limited basis, with full charts accessible for a fee.
Which raises the question of legality: The Whitburn Project is breaking copyright laws by making proprietary Billboard chart data available without permission. (This is why the aforementioned blogs, and now this one, won’t post actual links to the project.) But it’s all easily available via Usenet (the pertinent newsgroups are listed in WFMU’s blog entry), so music geeks—and I mean that in the most flattering sense possible, being one myself—should check out this staggering mass of data while it’s still available.
Image by stevecadman, licensed by Creative Commons.