New Year’s Resolutions for Discographers

Every year we have to reject work from aspiring (or, in some sad cases, published) discographers because they fail to meet basic standards for original research and source documentation. Discography has grown up in the past few decades, evolving from a hobbyists’ free-for-all into a serious discipline grounded in established academic principles — which doesn’t mean it still can’t be fun, just that it’s finally outgrown an awkward adolescence.

For anyone thinking about compiling a detailed discography, I’d like to suggest a few New Year’s resolutions, which (except for #5) are pretty much what we were all taught in high school:

(1) Cite Your Sources. Especially for things like group personnel or pseudonym identification, which have a long history of being fabricated. And cite the source within close proximity to the facts in question; listing a source in the Acknowledgments and letting it go at that isn’t a source citation, it’s — well, an acknowledgment. The mantra here is “Who Says?” (courtesy of Tim Brooks’ ARSC review of a recent dance-band discography). To which I would add, “And how do they know?”

(2) Choose Your Sources Carefully. Original recording ledgers and other primary-source materials aren’t always available, but that doesn’t mean that the foggy memories of this-or-that musician, forty years after the fact, are an equally reliable substitute; nor that trade-paper blurbs (with a few exceptions) or band photos can tell you who was actually in the studio on a given date. Are sources like these worth noting in your work? Definitely. Are they absolute proof of anything? Not so much.

(3) Show Your Work. If your source is a conclusion that you or your associates reached on your own, state how you or they arrived at that conclusion. If it’s the result of careful, reasoned analysis based on compelling circumstantial evidence, say so. If it’s the result of some record-club buddies pulling an “I hear Bix” all-nighter, say that too (if you must include such material at all, which I hope you won’t). Either way, your readers need to know.

(4) Do Original Research. Most new discographies will necessarily revisit ground that’s already been covered to some extent in previously published works. However, simply cobbling together and republishing others’ work without adding any substantial new material or insights isn’t doing research, it’s doing plagiarism.

(5) Question Authority. Don’t perpetuate others’ errors in your work.Some “authorities” in the field haven’t followed the current literature or undertaken any significant new research in years. All discographers occasionally miss things or make mistakes; many fail to disclose that their material is anecdotal or speculative; and some just plain make things up. If something in a published discography or article looks fishy, revisit Resolution (4).

(6) If You Don’t Know, Say So (to quote Bert Williams). “Probably,” “possibly,” “uncertain,” and “unknown” aren’t dirty words. I’ll take them any day over undocumented guesswork passed off as fact.

 — Allan Sutton (Publisher, Mainspring Press)