Music tagging gone wild. (Image via Stribs)
The Breakdown: Look no further to solve all of your iTunes song tagging problems. Robert Stribley tells us how his review of iTunes reveals some interesting principles about metadata and tagging, and may help you get to the music you love most.
I’m organized but not overly so. I mean, I kept my books in alphabetical order as a kid, but I didn’t think of it as an early indicator of the career path I’d take. But I do appreciate order, so when I import a CD into iTunes and iTunes assigns metadata to my lovely new tunes via its Gracenotes system (which compiles user-generated and submitted data), it’s a relief to me, when the provided data has been entered with, you know, some semblance of order. Often, it isn’t. In reviewing this data over time, I noticed users make certain mistakes consistently when tagging their music. These mistakes then, reveal principles, and though they happen to apply to music in my iPod, in practice, they also apply to tagging other digital files.
For your consideration then:
1. Some tags are more important than others
In iTunes, the artist tag proves more important than other tags (album and genre do also), and how it’s completed can affect iTunes’ ability to filter and present your music effectively. The wrong date tag may not matter. A typo in the artist, album, or song field however, may mean you can’t find your music. A typo in the artist field also affects more files than misspelling a single song title. The consequences of errors in completing some fields are simply far greater than others. Specifically, when fields are tied into key functionality, such as sorting and filtering, creating flawed metadata within those fields blunts that helpful functionality.
2. Tag key fields consistently
Some fields like the song name allow you to tag each file differently. The artist and album fields don’t. For example, you should complete the artist field with the artist primarily associated with the work, and use another category to add additional artists, which happen to contribute to a single tune. In other words, tagging Mos Def’s recent song “History” as “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” screws up a sort on “Mos Def” in your iPod because your iPod now thinks “Mos Def” and “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” are two different artists. A solution is to add “(with Talib Kweli)” after the song title. Otherwise, I end up with one orphaned song in my iPod: If I select to play all songs by “Mos Def,” that song doesn’t even show up.
Similarly, tagging one album “R.E.M.” and another “REM” creates two different bands. Be consistent. Simple things like the use of the word “The” (“Cinematic Orchestra” or “The Cinematic Orchestra?) or an ampersand (“Antony & the Johnsons” or “Antony and the Johnsons”?), can throw a wrench in the works. If alternate spellings exist for a particular piece of information, you should decide which will be the primary spelling and enter that consistently.
3. Avoid meaningless tags
Completing the genre field with tags like “other,” “unknown,” “unclassifiable” and, arguably, even “alternative” provides little if any utility. You may as well leave the field blank. “Unclassifiable” sounds cute to the fan, who doesn’t want to pigeonhole their band, but what does the “unclassifiable” genre sound like as a playlist? Probably a pretty icky mélange. “Unclassifiable” may reflect one’s personal appreciation, but effectively, it’s no better a category than “miscellaneous.”
“Alternative” seems useless for different reasons. It originally referred to bands, who signed with non-mainstream labels, so “alternative” doesn’t necessarily refer to a well-defined sound or genre. “Alternative” doesn’t mean two songs sound even remotely alike. Furthermore, bands which were once “alternative” may now be mainstream (Hello, Snow Patrol!). Wolfmother sounds enough like AC/DC that you may as well label both “rock.” Or “metal.” Or something more helpful than “alternative.”
4. Combine redundant tags
This principle overlaps with the point about consistency, but we should highlight the importance of both combining and distinguishing between categories – something that may apply to the same file or song. (For a related discussion, see Rachel Lovinger on splitting and lumping, too.) For instance, when I searched on “electronic” within iTunes, I found I had songs tagged with the following genres: electronic, electronica, Electronica/Dance and Dance/Electronic, Electronica & Dance and Rock/Electronic. That doesn’t even include electro, which I’d allow a separate genre for or other genres like downtempo, dubstep or trip-hop which would often fall under Electronic.
What a mess. I selected all of these and replaced them with “Electronic.” Could I have distinguished between Dance and Electronic? Perhaps, though, if they truly share the Electronic genre, I’m happy to go with that. That does bring us to our next point, though.
5. Distinguish between different tags
As important as it is to group things consistently, it’s also important to allow their distinctions. Trip-hop, glitch hop, dubstep and electro, for example, are all sub-genres, which might appear under electronic. They are all, also, arguably distinguishable. If you’re familiar with these genres, you’ll provide more sorting utility by labeling music with them, rather than simply placing them solely under an amorphous tag like “Electronic/Dance.” We’re spoiled with a wealth of musical variety in the 21st century. May as well help other folks discover these rich veins of music.
Now, if I could just get Apple to add a separate column for “tags” (or at least allow multiple genres), then I could place songs under more than one genre or subgenre (electronic and dubstep) and filter them in different ways (dubstep is also chill is also electronic). Then I could tag a tune like Burial’s “Shell of Light” with all of these. Creating a playlist just ain’t the same, and it’s more difficult to create playlists when songs aren’t tagged correctly. Besides, I use playlists to create groupings, which ignore genre (workout, Summer Party, NYC, road trip, romantic, etc). Finally, allowing for additional, well-crafted tags would allow me to better create new playlists on the fly.
Well, back to my iTunes. I have housecleaning to do.
*Links provided to songs and bands on Lala.com, purely for your listening enjoyment