Over the last year or so, quite a bit has been written about the particular challenges of presenting classical music on digital platforms, with a focus on metadata.
About half my work at the moment is on metadata-related technology projects. Much of what is written on this subject is confusing, misleading, or downright wrong. This makes it harder to develop real solutions to real problems, so I’m writing this post to clear a few things up.
If you’re writing an article about classical music on the Internet, please read this first. Your article will be better. If you’re having trouble with the way your metadata is stored, displayed or communicated, call me.
In the meantime:
1) Metadata for classical music is not uniquely difficult.
People like to think it is, but that’s rubbish. Our problems are shared with other genres.
Multiple guest artists in roles that are difficult to credit accurately? Hip-hop. Multiple renditions of the same work? Jazz. The same piece called different things in different languages? World music.
These things are only uniquely important to classical music if you think classical music is more important than the other genres. It might be to you, but a blinkered approach to these issues makes it harder to present a business case to fix them.
2) This is not simply a retailer problem
Spotify is bad for classical music? No. It just doesn’t display all the information you want.
It’s tempting to think the music you like is more deep and sophisticated than the music you don’t like, but this doesn’t change the fact that people buy music you hate on the basis of information not displayed on Spotify or the iTunes store. They manage just fine. The difference is, they don’t see extended metadata as the retailer’s problem. There are other places to list the production team or translate the lyrics.
3) Things are no worse than they were twenty years ago
The people who complain that classical music is hard to find on SpottyAppleTunes are the same people who miss rummaging through bins in record stores. As if “alphabetical by composer or artist depending on the whim of the person who unpacked the box” is a logical and foolproof way to shelve and then later retrieve the 5% of classical recordings they happen to have in stock at any one time.
4) We do not need more fields
It’s easy to suggest it’ll fix everything, but until we can display the fields we have properly, adding more will make things worse, not better.
Worst-case scenario, we need three fields: Album title, track title, artist names.
We can put the composer and work title in the track title thus:
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 in C Op. 21: 1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio (1967 recording)
We wrote it all on the back of the physical CD, and nobody whined about that. Just writing it all in the database wouldn’t be fatal. What’s important is (a) making sure you can see it and (b) making sure you can search it. There’s a much better chance of all the important data getting searched if you put it in the places the search engine is already looking.
It’s nice if the work, artist and composer names are always spelled consistently, and we have tools to do that, but it’s even better if the search engine is smart enough that a bit of variety isn’t fatal.
5) This is not about database design
“We need a more sophisticated database” sounds like a satisfyingly technical solution, but it’s waffle.
Even the stores with the worst user experience have a database that is perfectly capable of holding enough information to uniquely identify every recording ever made. It’s often either (a) not displayed at all or (b) put in the wrong places because the feeds from the distributors to the stores are not quite hooked up properly, and nobody understands both (a) the music and (b) the XML feeds well enough to sort it out. Often, a relatively small amount of documentation would help.
6) This is not about creating better data
We need 19th century librarians manually compiling a perfectly categorised directory? This is exactly how Yahoo worked until about 2002. See how that worked out?
Generally speaking, labels have good data. There are even agreed standards for communicating it. Sometimes it gets mangled up, but with a bit of research you can figure out what is what. Given that all the information is out there, wouldn’t it be nice to have a technological solution to figure this out? I’m working with several companies to do this, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones.
Database queries are for finding exact strings in uniform data.
Search engines are for looking for what you want (not what you actually typed) in imperfect data.
The future of classical music retail depends upon a mixture of the two, and a narrow focus on exact-match queries and uniform data is at odds with the delightfully messy world of creative expression.
7) There are easy answers.
Make. The. Covers. Bigger.
There. I fixed almost everything.
About half of the remaining trouble could be fixed if retailers gave content providers a picture of their user interface, clearly labelled with where each database field would be displayed. As far as I’m aware, nobody does this, leaving suppliers flinging information into a confusing void and hoping for the best.
Almost everything else would be better if backend metadata tools weren’t universally crap. You can’t see this while you’re quickly checking Spotify for a list of things to whine about in your article, but every tool I’ve ever seen for entering data relies on humans to do things that computers can do better.
8) Everybody is working on this.
Contrary to what you might have read, this isn’t a hugely neglected corner of the business or an unrecognised problem crying out for the will to fix it.
This is thousands of little problems, and we’re on it. It just takes a mixture of time, resources, hard work and imagination.
By all means keep asking for solutions, but let’s look for smart ones. Attempting to create a simple, flat, single uniform database is not the answer.
9) Metadata is not going to save classical music…
…or kill it. Make everything easy to find, and you might get a 10% uplift in sales. 30% if you come up with something totally revolutionary. That’s >$100m/year, which is not too shabby, but it won’t address long-term demographic shifts in the major markets, eliminate competition for leisure time and disposable income, or make the 150th recording of the same piece sound any more interesting.
If the big music companies don’t improve the display of their data, somebody will come along with an app that does it for them. Somebody has to pay for it. Whoever pays for it is the customer. Everyone else is the product.
Watch this space.