“What’s extraordinary about it is that I tagged everything really, really well. It’s in Artist, Album Artist, all these things are organized,” he said.
But when “Britten Te Deum” is searched—and he sent me a screenshot of this—nothing comes up. “It’s not like, let me show you too many results. It just does not compute.”
(Even when the search function does locate a file, he says, pressing ‘return’ to play it does not start playing the highlighted file, but the first file listed alphabetically in iTunes. “Which of course is only Aaliyah.”)
Timo Andres, a composer and pianist, reported fewer problems with the new version of iTunes, though he echoed that it had some odd behaviors. With his music files, he had moved the composer to the “Artist” field. The performer, conductor, and other information went to the file’s general comments field. “I started to do that because there is no performer field,” he said.
Andres has also started to use Apple Music, but has stumbled again with labeling. Apple Music only searches for songs in its library by Kemp’s original three tags—artist, album, and song title—which, combined with often-flawed metadata, makes searching for a specific recording of a specific piece arduous, if not impossible.
So many of the problems seemed to come down to metadata. According to Jeremy Morris, a University of Wisconsin professor, Kemp’s tagging system took off when it was adopted by the Compact Disc Database (CDDB). The CDDB is the database which iTunes used to detect what was on a CD while ripping it.
Classical is not the only genre that works poorly with this tagging system, said Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format, a history and meditation on the technology. Audiobooks, lectures, and sound art don’t really adapt well either.
If anything, said Sterne, the long-playing record and the compact disc—the two great audio formats of the late 20th century—might have been special cases.
With both the CD and the LP, he said, “it just so happened that things that were of interest to the broader world of people who made recorded media, and people who were in the music industry, lined up with those of classical performers and audiences.”
Audio formats before the LP also failed to capture classical music, at least by our measures. Sterne recently bought a 1928 Victrola, he said, and it came with a 78 marked “classical music.” The record boasts five minutes of Debussy. That’s not, to be clear, a five-minute work by Debussy, nor in fact any labeled work at all: It’s just five minutes of some Debussy piece. For more than a century, classical music has been marketed as prestigious, even though what’s being sold may be distant from what the composer first wrote.
“There’s lots of issues” with MP3 tagging beyond classical, said Sterne. “Engineers, producers get left off records. Studio musicians are often left off in ways that were often much more detailed in liner notes.” A week ago, he was trying to find out the engineer who recorded Jay Z’s “Death of Autotune.” The MP3 ID tags didn’t say, nor could he find the answer in five minutes of googling. That’s exactly the kind of information, he said, that would have been printed in liner notes.