Wednesday 1 May 2013

Ripping your CD Collection - VI. Classical Music Metadata

This is the last part of my series on ripping your CD collection.  I hope you have found it useful.  This part deals with the thorny problems faced by collectors of classical music, who face additional frustrations when it comes to managing a computerized music collection.  A warning straight off the top – there are no definitive answers for this!

Rock, pop, and jazz albums are generally conceived right from the word go as albums.  The artist goes into the studio with the objective of recording an album.  The record company signs the artist up to a deal that is usually expressed in terms of so many albums.  An advance is paid out to the artist to prepare an album.  And as a rule, record companies, studios, artists, and consumers all have converging expectations as to what an “Album” means.

Classical music is different.  Take for example the CD of Dvorak’s 6th symphony I have in front of me.  The performance is about 40 minutes long.  Most record companies don’t want to short-change their customers by selling them a 40-minute CD (of course, 40-minute LPs were not at all unusual!), and customers don’t like to be short-changed by buying a 40-minute CD.  So what usually happens is some other piece of filler gets put on the disk as a companion piece.  Maybe a piece by Dvorak, maybe by someone else.  In my case in point it is a piece by the obscure Vítezslav Novak called “Eternal Longing”.

Most classical albums don’t have a formal name.  They are often content to just list the pieces they contain on the front cover.  In my example the disk says on the cover “DVORAK Symphony No 6, NOVAK Eternal longing, BBC SO/Jiri Belohlavek”.  If I enter that as the album name then it will be (a) a large mouthful; (b) will probably not fit into the space allocated to display the album name; and (c) will be lost amongst all the other classical albums whose names are equally clumsy.  In my case, the standard I have adopted leads me to store this album as “Dvorak – Symphony No 6 (Belohlavek)”.  FYI, freedB recognizes this disc, not unreasonably, as "Dvorak, Symphony No. 6 - Novak, Eternal Longing".  An option, and one that I have experimented with, is to store the two works as two virtual albums, one for each piece, with both showing the same Album Art.

That example was not too much of a challenge.  How about this one from Deutsche Grammophon?  (The great teutonic classical music label loves this sort of thing.)  There are two major pieces on this disc, each are equally prominent, and the common theme is the Cello.  The two pieces are “DVORAK:  CELLO CONCERTO IN B MINOR” (DG loves to put its titles in upper case) and “TCHAIKOVSKY:  VARIATIONS ON A ROCOCCO THEME, OP 33”.  First of all, what title do I provide for this “Album”?  You could do what I did:  Dvorak & Tchaikovsky – Cello Concertos” (yes, I know …), or you could find some other bastardization, or even just replicate in its entirety the original DG mouthful.  The main point is, suppose you wanted to see if you had one or other of those pieces in your very large album collection (which you inherited from a late relative, for example, so you don’t know for sure everything that’s in it).  What type of search through your database would properly identify it?  There really is absolutely no answer to this problem.  Metadata standards have evolved in a fashion that is extremely unhelpful to classical music enthusiasts.

Here is another unwelcome wrinkle.  When a record company finally decides to make its music available for purchase by download, the way they do this is that they generally retain the services of an “Aggregator”.  The aggregator does various things, but one of them is to embed the metadata.  Since there are no firm standards for doing this with classical music, you get all sorts of inconsistencies.  One common one is who is the Artist?  Or more to the point, whose name gets put in the Artist field?  Sometimes you will find the conductor’s name in there.  Other times the name of the orchestra is used (Is an orchestra actually an Artist?  If not, what is it?  Most metadata standards now recognize “Ensemble” as a Field, but I have not yet seen it implemented in any of the mainstream music player Apps).  Yet other times it is the composer’s name that appears in the Artist field, even though the composer already has his own unambiguous Field!  When something as simple as this can get screwed up through ambiguity, you know you have a problem.

And another one!  Opera.  On what basis do you determine whose names go into the Artist fields on an operatic recording?  A cast can have over a dozen listed performers.  Do you embed all of their names, or just a selection?  Does everybody’s name get embedded in every track, or do we just include those Artists who perform on the individual tracks?  (Some people might prefer to see that, but it represents a Herculean metadata grooming task.)

Classical music listeners are left with the thin end of the wedge.  The existing metadata standards just don’t serve their needs at all well.  Each individual has a choice to make as to how far, and in what direction, to bend it in order to make it fit.  There is no one solution that will meet everybody’s needs.  To make one will require someone with enough clout to force all of the stakeholders to line up behind them, and I don’t see anyone who has the combination of ideas, motivation, and (most important) resources to take that on.

Back to Part V.