Fantastic relentlessly brilliant article by Wayne Bremser at harlem.org about the importance of what we now call metadata in specialist music. Specifically, how the basic lingua franca in jazz – of information around composers, sidemen, album sleeves and recording dates – is being diminished by the likes of the otherwise excellent iTunes Music Store. (iTMS is picked as market leader and exemplar thus far).
This isn’t just the diminution of the physical product around music – though no genre has been hit as hard as jazz has by the move away from the 12″ record sleeve (e.g. Reid Miles). Now all we have is a thumbnail, at best (see harlem.org’s comparison chart).
No, this is also about how the content object models that most digital music experiences employ are generally incomplete. iTunes has a few useful tags (year, composer etc.) but Bremser’s article makes clear how limited it really is. No real liner notes, no indication of sidemen (absolutely key for jazz, where the ‘Great Man’ theory of art is pretty misplaced), and a particular bugbear of mine – utterly erroneous release dates, due to the music industry’s focus on reissues. So we see iTMS placing the record Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster as coming out in, er, 1997. It actually came out in 1957, fact-fans. iTunes Music Store is littered with such problems. I’d imagine the vast majority of release dates there are just plain wrong.
Bremser cleverly compares the information contained on a single original record label from a 1950s Miles Davis single with the paucity of that available via a quick ‘get info’ on the corresponding file from iTMS. No contest.
This doesn’t even begin to get into the really deep metadata-based relationships which can make enjoying music such a rich experience. The stakes are high, and get right to the heart of why music a) is quite so fundamental, and b) persists at all:
“Jazz has remained a very accessible art form partly because fans are educated by their own music collections. Albums employed text, photographs and graphic design to illustrate how a network of artists created a musical language together. Without the physical album, online music stores will play a much larger role in teaching new listeners about jazz. While institutions, educators and preservationists will soon face the same challenges, music stores will be the first to use digital interfaces to educate the listening public about jazz. The digital music era should offer listeners more information about jazz, not less. The stakes are high. If jazz fragments into millions of digital files, future generations could be left with a maddening cultural jigsaw puzzle. This music could quickly become one of the mysterious art forms that is translated to the public by a small group of experts.”
A call to arms if ever I heard one.
Colin Buttimer has previously written about the potential and rationale for multimedia, narrative and physical product persisting into this digital age. Wayne Bremser’s excellent article picks out the rationale for sorting the fundamental metadata while we’re at. And let’s do it now, while we can.
harlem.org: Jazz in 2500? iTunes versus Preservation
Postscript: Lest we lose site of things though, this fine roundtable of mp3 bloggers over at The Morning News should give us a sense of perspective:
Oliver: “… Record stores are not very much known for their quality of consumer service, but I never go to a record store in hopes of clicking with the staff. It’s all about the hunt, especially at used record stores, to see what bits of esoterica you can stir up. That just doesn’t work with digital media—there’s much randomness to be sure, but you don’t have much to go on besides a file name. Much as I love the convenience of digital media, the tangibility of a physical product—be it a CD, DVD, LP, etc.—still matters and I don’t see this disappearing completely. But, forced to imagine such a nightmare scenario…what I’d miss most is what I just said, the tangibility of the packaging, from cover art to liner notes. One thing about used LPs, too, is that you find these personal messages at times—signed copies of band LPs, dedications on records sent as gifts. Digital media will never (well, never say never) have those qualities.”
Andrew: Honestly, I don’t ever see it happening. It’s a possibility that the industry will go that route with new music, but there’s so much music already put to physical media; to assume that this would render record stores nonexistent is just foolish. Records, compact discs, cassettes, etc. will always be trading hands in some form or another, so there will always be stores that sell them. Previously recorded music media isn’t just going to disappear because mp3s are the chosen format. I find that readers of my site are into discovering more obscure music, much of which they would not be able to purchase on any format (or would be forced to pay exorbitant used prices on eBay or from specialty dealers). The mp3s compliment their record-buying habits, they don’t replace them.”
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