Twenty Years of the Early Music FAQ

The first major components of the Early Music FAQ project went online in October 1994, making it twenty years old this month.

Therefore, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect on both the history of the project thus far, and its future.

As can be observed easily when exploring the sections on the main page, some areas are being updated, some are not, and some are more sporadic. I want to take this opportunity to discuss the various situations involved, and to make official some obvious changes of direction.

The FAQ was originally hosted by François Velde on his Windows desktop, in his office. I took over hosting it on a Unix server in, I think it was, early 1995. (I have less of a clear idea of exactly when this happened than I do the October beginning date. I had written some of the material from the beginning, prior to hosting, and had some other material on my own site already.) In retrospect, of course, the internet became far more popular shortly thereafter — I believe, at least anecdotally, that 1995 was the year that, on a percentage basis, internet awareness increased the most. The web started to become colorful, etc., now even including videos and various resources requiring broadband. I've not moved in that direction, because I like the written medium, and continue to value exchanging information in writing online. (Not only does writing still seem relevant to me, but I genuinely dislike the look of graphic-, or worse video-heavy sites with their major demands on the reader's computer, senses, privacy, etc.).

"Fancier" resources for early music have come & gone during this time period, and after spending the majority of these past 20 years as the highest ranked site for many related search terms, then being surpassed a while back in that regard by Wikipedia, we are now nowhere near the highest ranking in most cases — it's more colorful, broadband sites that attract the attention of their commercial search engine brethren. None of this comes as a particular surprise, although I will note with some regret (& hostility) the increasing commercialization of the internet, such that large for-profit retail or ad-driven sites come to dominate, not only traffic, but policy. The latter is dangerous, and I don't think that any of the big technology companies can be trusted. The future could be rather tricky in this regard, on many counts, but I did know that a plain, non-commercial website being ranked so highly was something that would not last, regardless of our content. So I'm fine with that part.

Traffic here peaked in 2009, although it continues to hold at between 500 & 1000 pages viewed per hour (as a daily average), with some ups & downs. From the perspective of maintaining this site, one of the main changes brought by internet commercialization was the difficulty of maintaining the Link Index. I think that, at one time, this was quite a useful resource, and it was one of the main things that prompted the FAQ project originally. I wrote automated tools to deal with broken links, but it did not take long for these sorts of tools to be thwarted by people attempting to fool them. Over time, maintaining the link index became untenable. It was last fully verified in 2008. So although people still ask me to add their link, and I will, I think it's clear that this resource is no longer terribly useful, and will continue to decline in quality. I do not intend to put additional effort into it at this point, which is a shame, because this sort of index seems to have disappeared from the web entirely. (It's been destroyed by the web equivalent of spammers, basically.)

There are many other pages hosted at the FAQ that have not been updated in a number of years, sometimes more than a decade. I leave them here, since what's the point of deleting them? More & more of the site starts to fall into this category, however. There have been many, many contributors over the years, some very substantial contributors, and some with a single page or some corrections, etc. The opportunity to interact with various people has been a highlight of these 20 years, and it's something that the new era of the WWW seems to lack. (Commercial sites are structured around "comment sections" catering to the lowest common denominator, not real collaborative content. They return to more of the top-down approach of typical media, unsurprisingly: I noted a long time ago that being willing to engage with the general public is seen by many as a problem for one's credibility. I see this as a huge social issue, privileging the views of the inaccessible.) So I want to thank everyone who has contributed, and also thank you in advance to people who contribute in the future, because I do still hear from people.

Analysis or commentary was my main interest when this project began, and so it was others who were more interested in working on the comprehensive resources. Although the commentary here — which is not all by me, as there are some excellent contributions by others — also becomes dated, I think that some of it is still quite relevant. After all, the material it discusses was already centuries old. That's not to say that new scholarship hasn't modified understanding or priorities, however. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these articles continue to be valuable, although I do not anticipate that any more will be added here, ever.

Finally, there are the parts of the site devoted to recordings & discographies. Largely because of Pierre Roberge, this kind of information came to dominate the FAQ by volume, and also became the resource for which we were best known. It's also the resource that is the most regularly updated, still: I added some October releases to the CD database just this weekend. Automated indexing continues to function as before.

The recording business has changed tremendously over twenty years, and it becomes increasingly difficult to learn of new releases that fit our project. That knowledge has become more sporadic, although new contributors have stepped in to inform me of some things. Trying to be "comprehensive" has always been something of a frustration for me — that is, it takes an area of interest and turns it into a burden. So I think that all of us are going to have to accept that these references are going to become dated, because I will not have the passion to pursue comprehensiveness. Also, and I think this will become a bigger issue, I am not sure how I want to handle online-only releases; I am not sure I do want to handle online-only releases. So maybe that is the real signal that this project may have run its course. However, I will certainly continue to add items that are of particular interest to me, for whatever reason, and I do not intend to suddenly stop adding items that are relevant to our well-used discographies, if they come to my attention.

This is not to say that I am ending my musical activities, or even diminishing them. In fact, the past few years have seen an increase of activity in music on my part (after about a decade focused more on community organizing), although mostly under the vague heading of jazz. I never had intended to make early music my life's focus, but when I decided to learn it seriously, I also didn't realize it would take so long. At this point I feel as though I know it pretty well, although perhaps that is an arrogant statement. In any case, the boom of medieval recordings has also faded. Perhaps there will be another wave of interest & activity.

That said, since I know that the size of this site can be a bit overwhelming, I have always had tools here to help readers. The pages modified tool continues to function here at the FAQ, and I have added a similar tool for the site as a whole. Readers who wonder what's happening here can easily consult one of those pages. I'll also reveal an internal feature that has actually always been operative: If you add a question mark and an integer to the end of those URLs, the tool will return pages changed in the past integer-number of days. It defaults to 7, but you can be away longer and be assured of seeing a list of all pages modified in the interim, if you like. (Only the most recent modification is noted.)

I do intend to continue with the CD Remarks, and will make some changes to that page to reflect changes elsewhere. I will be ending my yearly review (and Record of the Year) this year, and so the Remarks page will retain at least a year of comments.

I'm not sure what else to say here, except that I do remain available for inquiries, etc. I'll be focusing more on commentary & analysis myself, and branching into some other areas, not all (or most or many) amenable to the kind of categorical organization I've typically maintained on this site. Transdisciplinarity is kind of the name of the game right now.

Thank you & best wishes to all (with the exception of those whose primary motive is profit) after twenty years.

To Early Music FAQ [ I have not modified the main index page in years, other than to add an intro to this note at the beginning, and do not intend to modify it in the future. ]

Todd M. McComb
5 October 2014
[ minor edits for syntax 1 year later ]