Is classical music asking the right questions?

What will have more impact on the future of classical music? Roberto Alagna’s latest “squeeze”, or our ability to organise, search and access digital music files? My view tends to the latter, which is why in a comment on a recent post I said “It has long puzzled me as to why the subject of metadata about music recordings is so neglected”. Now reader Mike has responded with the following comment which justifies a post of its own:
Music metadata has been a small bugbear of mine ever since I started digitising music in the 90s. In particular the metadata databases used by Apple's iTunes and Microsoft's Media Players are quite awful when you move out of pop/rock music to classical/jazz/world. I don't let either bit of software touch my collection, especially as you can't trust either to honour their metadata settings, and the penalty for them breaching the trust is the loss of hundreds of manhours of labelling.

It's also sad that a great many digital downloads have poor to no composer metadata. Even when browsing iTunes, Spotify etc this information is nowhere to be seen. So many times I've seen a recital disc full of etudes, nocturnes and other no clue as to the composer. The rear disc information is rarely available to browse (although so many releases of more contemporary classical music eschew any clue as to the contents - is it vocal?, chamber?, musique concrète? - the label has decided to make it a secret). One of the online music stores I buy from said that because iTunes doesn't display composers, the publishers simply don't provide that information any more to *any* online stores.
How can classical music bet the farm on a digital future when the basic data needed to organise, search and access digital music files is not available?

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Pliable said…
Fox Strangeways comments on this post via Twitter:

Good point here about metadata neglect of digital music. I burnt a CD at home of "Fax and Binzi"
G-# said…
The first version of the ID3 standard for audio metadata ( only had a field for 'Artist'.

The standard was extended to include additional fields for 'Performer' and 'Composer', but these are rarely used by content providers and cataloguing and search in music players is based on the 'Artist'. So it all comes down to find out who is the 'Artist' in a classical music recording. Two questions come to my mind:

* Whose picture is in the cover?
* Whose name is typed with a larger font?
Mike said…
I had many classical albums either labelled as the same CD of "massage music". After that Microsoft decided that the closest music server was in Japan or Korea so I got dozens of albums labelled with completely unintelligible characters.
Mike said…
@G-sus: The media players I've used over the last decade or more have all supported search on at least on Album Artist, Performer (Supporting Artist) or Composer. Some however are not very good at tokenizing multivalue fields like Supporting Artist, Composer or Genre (Sonos fares poorly in this respect).

The big problem is that the downloaded metadata often has (say) Beethoven as the performer. Spotify, when it can be bothered, will simply throw composers and performers into the same field. iTunes ill sometimes have the composer metadata but does not display it, so for example you could search on Takemitsu, and find albums that nowhere list his name.

If the picture on the cover has a picture of grazing cows then I'm not going to put them down in any of the metadata fields, even if it usually signifies that Thea King is one of the performers.
jeff_harrington said…
FWIW, at the Spotify Forums this has been quite a hot topic:

Why Spotify's classical music community is frustrated and leaving -- please help!!

I recently found out about a new recording of my music on Spotify only because a fan had found it and he'd emailed me. There was no composer meta-data.

As the Spotify comments suggest, this is partially the fault of the record companies and partially the fault of the way music is represented online, as a song-centric 'product', not a composer-centric 'work'.
G-# said…
@Mike: You are right about support of media players for search on every metadata field. However, if you have an album with the name of the composer in the 'Artist' field and the name of the main performer in the 'Album Artist' field, iTunes displays (and sorts albums according to) the 'Album Artist' instead of the 'Artist' in its album browser.

The maintainers of the MusicBrainz database used by most CD ripping software to identify CDs and download their metadata have some reasonable guidelines on how to populate classical music metadata for a correct identification of albums and tracks ( but whenever I rip a CD to MP3, as you say, I can see that not everyone follows them.

Metadata in recordings available through the iTunes Store or Spotify are beyond repair in this area. Both the recording and the media distribution/players are to blame for this. The available file formats metadata support a correct identification of composers and performers. But their use by recording companies and support by media distribution/players is not uniform.

Regarding cover pictures and font sizes, I was referring to practices that have been documented in this blog. Will they fix in the digital world the very same problem they created when vinyl recordings ruled the Earth? The answer is in the metadata.
Unknown said…
I spent nearly a decade working in the music industry and can assure you, they are well aware of this problem. It's just not a priority since it has little effect on the sales of 99.9% of music.

On a brighter note, there's a fantastic company out of London working hard to solve this problem called Decibel ( The people are great and the solution is killer, provided they can get industry adoption.
Joe Shelby said…
Annoying is that iTunes (the store) doesn't display Composer, but it definitely has and supports the tag and I use it all the time.

I tend to buy from amazon (I prefer always portable mp3s), but first thing I do is copy the downloaded file into iTunes in order to add the metadata I want (I tend to set composer, set 'group' to the work title, artist to "conductor; orchestra[; soloist]" (unless it is a release specifically for a famous sololist like Hahn or Bell), and then run a tool I wrote to then set the conductor field.

After that, I then merge the file into my own collection which is separately organized by something that only makes sense to time I want to muck around with the genre settings to improve this. From this point on, iTunes's metatagging never sees the file again and I use winamp to play the m3u files I generate from that. Yeah, it helps being a programmer who can write his own stuff here.

Works great except for in amazon cloud player, where I'm often stuck with the garbage ID3 settings amazon/label provides.
Pliable said…
Zach England via Facebook:

This is why years ago I gave up trying to create a comprehensive digital library. The physical media is hard enough to catalog because there are so many different compilation formats used by different labels. Some discs can be ordered by composer while others have to be organized by performer for me to have any hope of finding them. I briefly flirted with separating multi-composer discs into their tracks, but I did not like this at all because I felt like I was missing what the producers and performers wanted me to hear as a continuous experience. Now remind me...Did I put Graun under Baroque or Classical?
jeff_harrington said…
Whoops... wrong like to the Spotify metadata discussion:

Mike said…
@Pliable: "Did I put Graun under Baroque or Classical?"

The joy of Genre being a multivalued field is that it can be both.

My digital library is much easier to locate tracks in as I don't have to remember where I put the physical disk, and I can browse it by whichever tag "dimension" I want.
Jordan said…
Someone mentioned Spotify above... I am an Rdio user (it's similar to Spotify, but is actually available in Canada) and Rdio has the same problem. Horrible classical music tagging, which makes their incredibly large library very hard to search.
Unknown said…
Some disks can be requested by musician while others have to be structured by entertainer for me to have any wish of discovering them. I temporarily flirted with splitting multi-composer disks into their paths, but I did not like this at all because I sensed like I was losing what the manufacturers and artists desired me to listen to as a ongoing encounter. 1 month loan

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