Metadata and music

Dan Hill points to this marvellous article from harlem.org on how the amount of information we have about the music we listen to is decreasing rapidly as we embrace digital formats. We’ve gone from the LP, with the luxurious space for liner notes, credits and shout-outs, to the bare few lines of metadata in the itunes database, often only containing artist, title, and release date, and often factually incorrect.

This boils down to a trade-off between access and serendipity. In order to increase access, we streamline the product to its bare minimum – an optimised algorithm of ones and zeroes. But serendipity is about getting snagged on the extraneous data, about following the forking paths that link one item to the next.

This isn’t just a romantic paen to the esoteric pleasures of old vinyl. When I was more actively collecting records, I used to recognise producers from albums I liked, and take that as a hint for new discoveries. Beat-diggers often value the producer or label over the artist, as they are the more responsible for the particular qualities that make a good break than the person playing the instrument.

I remember first realising that a lot of records I loved on the Cadet label – from Terry Callier, Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton – where produced by Charles Stepney in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I started to look for Stepney’s credits on records in second-hand stores, and recognised his epic, experimental production style on tracks from compilations. In this case, Charles Stepney was the key bit of metadata, the root connecting me to lots of other interesting artists. In fact, he actually created Rotary Connection as a front for his studio experiments. How would you come across this information without being able to pore over music sleeves, etc?

Ok, so this is still a real minority interest, and most users are more than satisfied by being able to type ‘Coldplay’ into a search box and downloading the results, but the products of these twisting paths of metadata sometimes find their way back into the mainstream. Beat-digging has returned the forgotten contributions of visionaries like David Axelrod and Galt MacDermot to public attention, whilst the huge amounts of beats sourced from obscure music library records from the 60’s and 70’s has gained long-overdue credit for artists like Alan Hawkshaw, Nino Nardini and Cecil Leuter. Metada isn’t just about search, but about noise. The more there is, the more signals you can extract from it.

My favourite music-medata discovery? After a long search, I managed to track down a copy of Labi Siffre’s rare album ‘Remember My Song’ for the killer track ‘I Got The…’, which has a *huge* break sampled by, among others, Eminem on ‘My Name Is…’ Checking out the credits on the album, I noticed that bass and guitar players where none other than Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock, popular english session musicians at the time. That meant that one of the fattest bass breaks in hiphop was played by a member of the oft-derided cockernee novelty act Chas & Dave. As a spurs fan, this was priceless…

2 comments

  1. Dorian

    A lot of the simpler meta data is being stored digitally – producer, writer, etc.. as it’s needed for, amongst other things, rights and payment allocation. The thing is it’s never made public. I think a lot of the reason the metadata is missing from files is because the file formats are developed, or adopted, and don’t support it’s inclusion. ID3 tags are a kludge, and as such suck badly.

    I think the meta data will return, it’s just become detached from the files… Like having lots of LPs with no sleeves.

  2. Balf

    Yes but, er, http://www.allmusic.com?

    Funnily enough I was searching Dave Axelrod today as a result of buying a Lou Rawls album off, of course, Dusty Groove (which you introduced me too). Allmusic has every production credit you could wish for. Though I concede it doesn’t tell you who he dedicated his albums to and who he cites as musical influences on the sleeve…

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