I really enjoyed this post from the Future of Music Coalition blog*, on how the metadata fields used by popular music applications like Spotify don’t take into account the way recordings/performances of classical music are typically described and classified. The author, Olivia Brown, writes:
This presents a problem for listeners looking for specific classical recordings. The frustration is even more acute for classical composers, conductors and musicians themselves. Classical music is generally recognized by composer, whereas in most other genres, songs are typically identified by their performers. Ask your average top 40 radio listener for the name of the composer of the song they’re listening to, and they most likely won’t know. Or, they’ll assume — correctly or not — that it’s performer, even if the performer doesn’t write their own songs. So you can probably see why digital music services might not see classical music as a front-burner concern.
But it should be. The current situation seems to defeat the purpose of Spotify’s much-hyped discovery tools. If, while browsing Spotify’s library, you stumble across a classical piece you particularly enjoy, there’s no easy means to find more about the composer or other aspects of the work. This limits the promotional value, to say nothing of compensating the folks who need to be compensated.
In short, what we want to know about classical music tends to be much different than what we want to know about popular music. In this genre, we’re more likely to seek out more music by the same composer than by the same performer.
OK, makes sense. But why should companies like Spotify or Pandora care? They’re trying to make money, and rehauling their cataloging database to make the band geeks happy probably doesn’t sound like a great investment. But consider: Sure, the need for composer and/or songwriter fields is most apparent with classical, jazz, and other genres of music where “standards” are performed over and over again by many different artists. But if music apps provided these fields and made it easy to facet your exploration of their library based on this information, we might discover that our experience of popular music changes, too. Brown goes on:
Currently, when you type the name of a songwriter into iTunes, you only get results for their self-recorded work, if it exists. The same goes for Spotify. What if you’re a fan of Jimmy Webb and [you] want to easily find, stream, or purchase songs that Webb has written for other artists? Adding this one extra bit of information to the metadata sources would help fans as well as the writers themselves. The added exposure and name recognition for what is too often an invisible role, wouldn’t be a bad thing.
In other words, by changing what information they capture about popular music, these applications would create new pathways for finding music that you’ll probably like–connections hitherto visible only to people like my friend Dave, who is a wizard of the secret history of popular songwriters. Its seems to me that this could only help refine music recommendation systems, giving any app a leg up on the competition.
You can only do stuff with the information you capture. So you capture what you think will be useful. But you may never know if the information you didn’t capture would have been useful, because without you giving it a name, most people won’t think to ask for it (ya follow?). That’s because the information you capture, and how you label it, drives how people think and make decisions about what they consume. This is the defining anxiety that lurks in the heart of every archivist. It’s always interesting to see it spill over into a more general discussion.
Also, don’t miss the author’s characterization of metadata: “Sounds like a android with irony issues.”
*Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about this blog or this organization. I’m not a musician and the closest I get to the music industry is close encounters with people who want to see the “iTunes model” replicated for publishing. I was pointed to this post by fellow library people.