Colin Larkin: How I stay on top of pop

The creator and editor of the 'Encyclopedia of Popular Music' tells why he would never be able to publish his work without his custom-built database software

My company produces encyclopedias about music and contributes text to the Muze database, which makes it probably the biggest music database in the world. That data is licensed to customers all over the world - for instance, Amazon and Yahoo. I've got seven million words of text in the encyclopedias and there are more than 12 million words on the main Muze database.

My company produces encyclopedias about music and contributes text to the Muze database, which makes it probably the biggest music database in the world. That data is licensed to customers all over the world - for instance, Amazon and Yahoo. I've got seven million words of text in the encyclopedias and there are more than 12 million words on the main Muze database.

To do all this we needed a fairly unique piece of software that we've developed in-house and linked to a database called 4D (ACI). It needed all the capability of a proper relational database and accurate word processing. Most importantly, it had to be customised to do exactly what I wanted. I produce many different encyclopedias from the multi-volume Encyclopedia Of Popular Music (52 books in eight years). The most recent are with Virgin Books. We must have a database that has to be able to give many variables of information at any one time.

I confess this path was not taken through experience, but luck. For instance, I bought 4D because it's like the title of the Byrds album, 5D.

But if I had to swear by any technology then it would be Apple computers. I thought we'd really arrived when we started the company 11 years ago with four SE30 Apple Macs. We now use G4s and iMacs, which are fantastic secondary machines. And 21-inch monitors that can view two pages.

But I started with a primitive database towards the end of January 1990. All data was entered manually, a process not only painful, but also crude. Pretty swiftly I realised that to do other books we needed a way of retrieving text and downloading beautifully. I'm also a typographer and book designer and therefore the look and accuracy of text was my main concern. Initially, we asked an outside consultancy to build something - and for a few hundred quid they created PopBase. Since then we have developed our own software using 4D as the main engine database.

We've had about 40 upgrades, and are now on version 6.0. And this is all work for our freelance developer, Michael Kaye, who has been an absolute star about my whims. For instance, I'll tell him that we want all the guitarists born in Brazil between 1960 and 1963 to be cross-referenced and downloaded into Microsoft Word ready for editing and final pagination in Quark. Or maybe I want to import all this text by putting all the albums separate from the main text and I want cross-links to John Lennon, the Beatles and Paul McCartney. Like George Martin, he takes my crude requests and makes it work.

Every month we burn a CD-Rom with the updates and new entries and send it to the master database at Muze, the parent company in New York. It works as sweet as a nut. That's why I'm keeping with Apple Macs: we keep with technology that we're comfortable with. And every day I back up all the work with a Jaz drive or a CD-Rom.

It was Muze Inc which saw how this text could work on the internet. Muze has a massive discography database that's licensed to companies on the internet, and my music encyclopedia goes hand-in-hand with its data. So when you look in Yahoo for a Jimi Hendrix album it returns both Muze discography data and the Hendrix encyclopedia text.

But I'm a Luddite at heart, and I would have carried on doing books for the rest of my life, making a small profit with no great growth potential. But Muze educated me on how data can be used in a much bigger way. Muze bought my company three years ago and it's a wonderful feeling to go to a legitimate website and see it being used - and slightly irritating to see it being used illegally.

Initially, I was worried that the internet would kill the books. Interestingly, they are now selling more than ever and the multi-volume encyclopedia has an increased print run every new edition. In a bizarre way I think the internet is actually making people more literate.

I am happy that computers are getting faster and bigger, compared to those of 10 years ago, especially with regard to book publishing. The old system - indexes with cards in shoeboxes - doesn't even bear thinking about. I certainly could never have created this current volume of work without electronic publishing. It's mind blowing.

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