Gaining an Appreciation of Metadata Through Music

Metadata is one of the more important aspects of data management, yet many data professionals do not understand or simply ignore metadata management. Consider, for example, the metadata that you must manage on your iPod—or whatever MP3 player you use—to be able to successfully select the music you want to hear.

Why is metadata so important for MP3s? Accurate and up-to-date metadata makes the MP3 experience more enjoyable. What type of metadata? Well, most people want to know the song name and probably the artist performing the song. This information—this metadata—makes the music on your device accessible by some means other than random playing.

Think about the metadata you need before you go about downloading music. At a bare minimum you’ll want the artist and song name and you will probably also want to know the album name the song is from, especially if you want to be able to listen to entire albums on your iPod. Probably the next piece of metadata you’ll want is one of the most vexing to get: genre of music. At least, it has been troublesome for me.

Why? Well, the term is not rigorously defined. Is there a difference between Rock and Hard Rock? What about Hard Rock and Heavy Metal? Do you want to slice the genre even finer so that you’d have Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Rap Metal, Hardcore, and maybe even Hair Metal? It might make all the difference in the world to you if you are a metal fan. Or, would you classify Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Poison, and Slayer all as simply Heavy Metal? Or maybe you don’t care enough about metal music at all, so you’d classify anything even remotely metal-ish simply as Hard Rock … or maybe just Rock.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to getting all that metadata into your iPod will be the online music database Gracenote ( Most digital music software relies on the Gracenote database to automatically populate musical metadata. Gracenote automatically identifies the CD based on its content (and almost always gets it right). It automatically populates the artist, title, recording name, and other metadata fields so you don’t have to.

If you are a stickler for accuracy, like me, Gracenote might at times annoy you (even though you’d never do without it). For example, one of the things I like is consistency. If I am ripping a double disk set (say, something like “Hymns to the Silence” by Van Morrison) the way I want the title to appear is “Hymns to the Silence (Disc 1)” and “Hymns to the Silence (Disc 2).” Gracenote will not always be this consistent. Sometimes it will put the parenthetical subtitles in, sometimes it won’t. (It depends on the actual album and what is stored for it.)

Of course, there are other metadata consistency issues you’ll likely struggle with. How about the artist’s name? Do you want complete accuracy, or should we fudge things to make finding them easier? For example, how about Paul McCartney? Do we have Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney & Wings, and Wings all based on the actual artist’s name associated with the disc in question? Or, do we just lump all Paul McCartney music into one of these categories? I want them all under McCartney but that doesn’t mean Gracenote will ensure that consistency—you’ll have to do it.

This brings us to a significant issue—populating the Sort Artist metadata field. Without this piece of metadata all artists will sort via their first name—and that is probably not what you want. So you have to ensure that the Artist Name is populated (for example, Lou Reed) but also the Sort Artist (Reed, Lou).

Fortunately, you do not have to use Sort Artist for groups, at least using iTunes, because it automatically ignores all of the The’s in the artists’ names. (I wonder what it would do with that 1980s band The The?) This brings me to a special case (sort of). Being a 1980s music fan, I have recordings by A Flock of Seagulls and A Certain Ratio. And I always, always sort them under “A” and not “F” or “C.” But that is me. I can understand either way. But you, as a user of your device, have to decide which you want and populate that artist field appropriately.

Other, more esoteric pieces of metadata may be important to you, too. You might want to know the Composer of the song—that is, who wrote it. This comes in handy if you are looking, say, for all McCartney & Lennon songs, even if they aren’t done by the Beatles. Album Artist can come in handy, too. For example, you might have the song “The Saints Are Coming” by U2 and Green Day (Artist), from the album “18 Singles” by U2. In this case, the Artist is U2 and Green Day, but the Album Artist is U2.

But the point of this is that metadata is required to make data usable by applications. Just try accessing the right data without it!