Discogs Turns Record Collectors’ Obsessions Into Big Business

By BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 12/29/15

BEAVERTON, Ore. — In the beginning, Kevin Lewandowski just wanted a way to keep track of his techno records.
Now, 15 years later, the free website he set up for that purpose, Discogs.com, has become a vital resource for record collectors and the music industry, with a sprawling database of more than 6.5 million releases. And with an online marketplace through which nearly $100 million in records will be sold this year, Discogs has carved out a valuable niche in a market dominated by companies like Amazon and eBay.

Borrowing from Wikipedia’s model of user-generated content, Discogs has built one of the most exhaustive collections of discographical information in the world, with historical data cataloged by thousands of volunteer editors in extreme detail. The site’s entry for the Beatles’ White Album, for instance, contains 309 distinct versions of the record, including its original releases in countries like Uruguay, India and Yugoslavia — in mono and stereo configurations — and decades of reissues, from Greek eight-tracks to Japanese CDs.

“Discogs is vital, essential, irreplaceable — a resource I use every day,” said Rob Sevier, a founder of the Numero Group, a Chicago label that specializes in reissuing particularly obscure material.

Discogs’s goal of cataloging the world of recorded music is supported through the site’s marketplace, which lets sellers link to specific versions of each release — that particular Uruguayan White Album, for example — and has endeared Discogs to collectors and record dealers.

“There’s no way an independent record store can stay open without it,” said Stephen Benbrook, the owner of Zion’s Gate Records, a store in Seattle, who said Discogs was his primary outlet online, with about 500 orders a month.

The Discogs marketplace has 24 million items for sale, while eBay’s music section lists almost 11 million. Through October, Discogs processed $79 million in sales, and, with more than 80,000 orders a week, the site is on track to do nearly $100 million in business by the end of the year, said Chad Dahlstrom, its chief operating officer. Discogs takes an 8 percent fee on orders, which Mr. Lewandowski said made the company comfortably profitable.

On a recent Monday morning at the company’s headquarters in an office park just outside Portland, Mr. Lewandowski, 40, described how he was a fan of dance music in the 1990s. He connected with other collectors online, he said, but wanted a detailed reference site for the music along the lines of the Internet Music Database.

“There’s a record-collector gene,” he said. “Some people want to know every little detail about a record.”

Moonlighting from his job as a programmer at Intel, he started a basic, open-source database using about 250 of his own records — the first entry was for a double 12-inch single by the Swedish D.J. the Persuader — and revealed it to fellow collectors in October 2000. Two years later, he took a buyout from Intel and devoted himself to Discogs.

The site, once run from a computer in Mr. Lewandowski’s closet and originally restricted to electronic music, has grown rapidly. It now has 37 employees around the world, 20 million online visitors a month and three million registered users. It eventually opened to all genres of music and has a mission of cataloging every record in existence.

The site’s supporters, including the more than 260,000 people who have contributed content, pursue that mission with zeal, but they still have a long way to go. Competing collector sites, like 45worlds, have plenty of titles that are missing from Discogs, like a 78 r.p.m. acetate of the Beatles’ “Devil in Her Heart” from 1963. And proprietary databases like Gracenote, owned by Tribune Media, claim more titles over all.

Casual users may simply consult Discogs to check the text on old labels or to see whether a record was released in colored-vinyl variations. Those who sign up for accounts can also tag items as being part of their collections, as well as communicate with other users and buy or sell copies. The most dedicated create and edit listings, actions for which there are strict and elaborate guidelines. The first rule: “You must have the exact release in your possession.” A 40,000-word post lays out how to identify run-out information — the obscure codes marked on the inner portion of a record, closest to the label.

“We are trying to approach it from a very factual point of view,” said Nik Kinloch, the first employee hired by Mr. Lewandowski. “You have the music release in front of you. What does it say on it? That is the source of truth for building the discography.”

Like Wikipedia, Discogs has sometimes heard from people or companies that want to remove unflattering information. But with Discogs, those requests tend to be more about D.J.s wanting to update old stage names than about the right to be forgotten.

“The funniest one I’ve heard,” Mr. Lewandowski said, “was from a D.J. in Vancouver, B.C., who said his family was Pentecostal and they don’t allow dancing. ‘Can you remove my name from the site so they don’t find out?’” the D.J. asked.

Out of principle, Mr. Lewandowski said, the site does not remove historical data.

The site’s marketplace business is global: About 60 percent of its customers are in Europe, and a growing portion of its listings are in Japan. (The biggest seller in Japan this year: Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” 45. Seventy copies sold to customers there.) And Discogs’s growth has closely mirrored the explosion of vinyl sales. Those records have far exceeded all other formats on the site; almost 2.8 million vinyl records sold this year, compared with 628,000 CDs.

But as much as it has grown, Discogs still represents a small niche of the overall collectors’ market. EBay has 159 million active buyers, and in the third quarter alone they spent $19.6 billion on transactions through the site — in which music is just one sliver of its offerings — according to company statistics.

Mr. Lewandowski, who is the sole owner of Discogs, said he had no interest in selling the business. He has watched other players enter the field over the last 15 years, including Amazon, which in 2008 introduced SoundUnwound, a Wikipedia-like site for music. But it was quietly shut down four years later. Discogs may have survived because of the innovation of its marketplace, giving collectors an incentive to expand the database with every imaginable detail.

“I want it to go on forever,” Mr. Lewandowski said.

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