Sunday, January 29, 2012

Metadata For Miles and I Still Can't Sort My Music Autobiographically

Metadata indexes and catalogs your music library.
The care and attention required to prepare and "plate" an LP digitally forges an intimate bond with the material that is hard to duplicate with titles acquired on CD or by download. That bond should be reflected in the completeness of your metadata.

These are hard-won bits. After you've carefully repaired old wear-and-tear, meticulously isolated and labeled all the tracks, and studiously supplied metadata, it's hard to dismiss your newly-ephemeralized title as just another entry in the library.

In contrast, ripping a CD is a mindless task. There are now robots available to do it for you, stacks of discs at a time. Downloading titles has become so easy their arrival has little impact. After purchasing Kate Bush's 50 Words For Snow on high-resolution download, I had to remind myself a week later that the bits had yet to be played. I can't imagine that kind of detachment after finishing an LP transfer, just as I feel more invested in a meal prepared from scratch than I do ordering takeout.

Metadata are the fields —  Artist, Title, Genre, Release Year, etc. — that enable media players to  index and catalog a music library automatically, providing constant-time access to all songs, no matter how large the collection. Virtually all CD ripping software has access to an online metadata source to supply the basics. In ephemeralizing LPs, the job of completing metadata falls to you, and the necessary time investment pays off.

In addition to the basic fields, jazz aficianados routinely complete the Contributing Artist field for a song (not universally available in online metadata sources) to track the dynamics of musicians moving from combo to combo. Enhanced metadata libraries with many extra fields for classical music are becoming available. Using metadata, collections can be sorted along any of the fields.

Yet, armed with all this information, I still can't sort my collection autobiographically — chronological by acquisition date. That information is deeply personal and uniquely revealing.

Imagine being able to go back and revisit your purchases, deduce what prior purchases or other factors influenced each decision. Did you buy artist B because s/he previously played with artist A on a title you liked? You could see exactly when particular artists came into your consciousness, or left it. An animated graph of the top 5 genres in your collection over time could show how your tastes evolved. The autobiographical sort would reveal more than any other slice through a person's library.

I'm sure there is someone reading this who has kept that information. In what personal ways do you catalog your music collection?

              Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #13              

Title: Elaborations
Artist: Arthur Blythe
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1982
How did this album find it's way into my library? It would be a complete mystery unless you study the metadata. Most likely I sampled Arthur Blythe as a bandleader because he recorded as a sideman with Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition. Mr. DeJohnette, a 2012 NEA Jazz Master, is for me a trusted source due to his long association with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock in the so-called Standards Trio. But Mr. Blythe's presence in the library was "one and done," so Elaborations clearly didn't suit my taste at the time of acquisition. It may be a better fit now.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #14            

Artist: The Rolling Stones
Title: It's Only Rock 'n' Roll
Genre: Rock
Year: 1974
It wasn't until I ephemeralized this title, a birthday gift long ago in high school and long out of heavy rotation, that I realized that it contained the song, "Time Waits For No One." As an amateur creator of WDET-FM Music Head playlists, — which connect the metadata dots among songs — and restricting said lists only to content in my own library, I long sought to make the leap from artist Tom Waits to title, "Time Waits ..." And now I can.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.


  1. In what personal ways do you catalog your music collection? Please leave a comment.

  2. Tom -

    Great thought-provoking blog; I came to it by way of your sig file on the SHTV Forums site.

    Meta data in music files has been on my mind lately, as I recently had a good experience showing my 13-year old how to tweak the individual data in songs in her iTunes library. Some CDs that had more than one singer on them would appear as 'separate' recordings in her library, and I showed her how tweaking the file data could re-associate those tunes as a single album. Good stuff for a kid to know in the digital age? Maybe she'll look back fondly on that afternoon one day in the future, after keyboards and typing in form fields are obsolete.

    Anyway, while your autobiographical info is not part of standard metadata libraries, my own personal record database has fields for 'date of purchase', 'where purchased', 'price paid', and other personal meta info, like separate fields for recording date and release date (useful for knowing what version of a reissue you may have). In real life, I'm far from a DBA, and this personal recording db (database, not decibel, ha) began as a MS Access file a few years ago and now lives as an Open Office Base configuration. This year's goal is to have access to it via my iPad.

    So in short, my possible advice is to roll your own for the time being; while I wouldn't know how to join your personal data to the music files themselves once you've have them in your player of choice, my method allows me to review some of the autobiographical info on my laptop while the tunes continue to play. However, the possibility of joining these two tables (in database administrator-speak), so that you have a single set of info attracted to your files is pretty darn neat. A nice future hack, so to speak.

    (And yes, I know your initial post is almost a year ahead of this response....but I'm finding your posts about online radio royalty payments quite educational, so I thought I'd share back.)

    Best wishes for 2013,
    Matt N.
    (listner_matt on SHTV)