Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



William Joseph Schwann (b 13 May 1913, Salem IL; d 7 June 1998, Burlington MA) founded the eponymous record catalog which had the world's largest circulation, available in record shops or by subscription. A clergyman's son, he lived all over the Midwest, becoming an organist; he directed choirs, gave broadcasts and recitals and taught in Louisville KY 1932-5; studied at Harvard's music department graduate school 1937-9 and carried on with music in Boston. He owned The Record Shop in Cambridge MA 1939-53, associated with the Technichord label, and the first long-playing record catalogue in any country was his 26-page list of 674 LPs in 1949, which he typed himself. Called Schwann Record And Tape Guide from 1971, the monthly listed all classical records plus new releases in other categories, a cumulative bumper issue once a year. Over 150,000 out-of-print records passed through about 34 million copies in the first four decades; the editorial staff grew from two to three in 1977; at that time it had 300 pages of small print and 40,000 listings. Schwann had sold it in 1976 but continued to edit it until he retired in 1985.

From the beginning the catalog had sections for jazz and Broadway shows, but at first Schwann did not claim any degree of completeness in areas other than classical. There were also the Artists Issue (classical listing by artist) and Basic Record Library (a list of 750 classical records). It could be used for research -- where else could you find a convenient list of all Beethoven's piano sonatas with their keys, opus numbers and dates of original publication, as well as a list of all the available recordings? -- and soon enough it became the Bible of popular music as well. It became the monthly Schwann Compact Disc Catalog in May '86, and by '92 had become two quarterlies: Schwann Opus for classical and Spectrum for popular, jazz, religious, spoken word, international and the rest; each book had feature articles in the front and provided more info than ever, often including recording dates and personnel on jazz CDs. Spectrum changed to a larger page size in 1995 and was still 500 pages of small print; there was also the quarterly Schwann CD Review Digest, excerpting reviews of over 2,000 titles from 40 publications.

The Schwann catalogs continued to change; the company had been sold to Stereophile in the late 1980s, and by the later 1990s was published in Sante Fe NM by Valley Media. Finally the catalogs were in trouble, competing with more and more websites for small record companies; increasingly, such companies and distributors of imports didn't bother to get their records listed in Schwann because US record shops (most of them in shopping malls) no longer used the catalog: such shops didn't have very good selections and didn't want to be bothered with special orders (see Albert AYLER: half his available CDs weren't listed in Schwann). Spectrum reappeared in the late 1990s with only one line for each release and all the valuable extra info deleted. In 2000 the full-size Spectrum and Opus catalogs became annuals and a monthly digest of new releases was announced. In early 2001 the last Schwann catalog was published without a date on it; in early 2002 the company was purchased at a bankruptcy auction by Alliance Entertainment Corporation, who own the All Music Guides and Bassin Distribution, and who have recently done deals with CDNow and with Microsoft. It would be nice to see the whole run of the Schwann available on the Internet that helped to kill it, but we won't hold our breath.

Bill Schwann was a trustee/board member of Marlboro Music School, Cambridge Society of Early Music etc; had honorary doctorates in music from the U. of Louisville and the New England Conservatory; received many awards and citations including an honorary gold record from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

In the UK in the 1990s R.E.D. Publishing Ltd. (Retail Entertainment Data) published Gramophone magazine's classical catalogue and the Music Master service for popular music; these were hefty and expensive annuals with fortnightly updates for record shops, but there were also single-volume paperback catalogues of various genres. In Germany the handsome paperback Bielefelder Katalog Of Jazz had cross-references even including track titles. All these print catalogs are probably going the same way as the beloved Schwann.