Dealing with artist name issues...
Today’s entry in the Musical Metadata series will focus on the various issues involved in managing one specific piece of metadata: artist name. The artist name is the moniker of the performer of the song contained in the MP3 file. First of all, I’m not sure that that definition is actually very good, but at least it avoids one of the biggest metadata traps of definition by restatement. In other words, it is better than saying “the artist name is the name of the artist.” My friend, Bob Seiner, refers to these type of definitions as cheeseburger definitions (you know, a cheeseburger is a burger with cheese!)
So, we have a definition that seems quite simple. All we have to do is enter the artist name in the appropriate field or capture it using Gracenote (or some other MP3 metadata service)… Right?
Not so fast! !!
How do you want to handle actually using the artist name in your iPod? If you click on the Menu, choose Music, and the Artists, your iPod will bring up an alphabetical list of the artists for which you have songs stored on the device. Sounds good… but where would you find the godfather of soul, James Brown? Under “B” or under “J”?
Let me digress for a minute. In an earlier posting in this series I divulged the fact that I have a Filemaker database of all of my CDs and records. This started out as a dBase database back in the 1980’s. Being the stickler that I am, I wanted to store “James Brown” in the artist name but be able to sort by “Brown, James”…
OK, maybe we need to normalize this data and have a last name and first name for the artist? Nope, too complicated for my simple database. I wanted the artist name as a whole regardless of whether it was a solo performer (James Brown), a duo (Simon & Garfunkel) or a band (The Knack). But I wanted James Brown to sort with the B’s… so I created a separate column called SORT_KEY.
The SORT_KEY column, which I meticulously populated, contains the exact term that I wanted my reports to sort on – which is the order in which I physically store my CDs and LPs. So, the ARTIST column is set to “James Brown” (actually all caps in my database) and the SORT_KEY is set to “BROWN, JAMES”.
This also works well for groups. Consider, for example, “The Beatles”…I don’t want every group that starts with “The” to sort with the T’s. So into the SORT_KEY goes “Beatles, The” or “Who, The”.
At first I tried to continue something like this with my first ventures into MP3 players but there was no SORT_KEY in the MP3 metadata fields. So I compromised and used the artist field. So I entered “Clash, The” where I just had to have the “The” there to make me comfortable. And where I didn’t require the “The” I’d just enter the band name (for example, I was fine with “Supremes” and “Long Ryders”, but not with “Knack” and “Who”). But I just couldn’t bring myself to rename all of those solo artists, so I searched on first name in my MP3 player (but I didn’t like it).
Now, lo and behold, the iPod works better than my previous devices because it ignores all of the The’s in the artist names automatically. It even worked with the 1980’s new wave band The The. So, “The Manhattans” are now perfectly sandwiched between “The Mamas & The Papas” and “Marc Cohn” – just where they belong. Well, sorta… Marc Cohn really belongs up there with the C’s. I like this and I don’t like this. I like it because I think this is the way it SHOULD work (the “The” should be ignored) but I don’t like it because I had to go in and change all of my metadata! OK, I didn’t have to, but I did.
Which brings me to a special case (sort of). Being an 80’s 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 (and any sorting metadata fields) appropriately.
The other nice thing about the iPod and iTunes is that it gives you a Sort Artist field, which is exactly like my SORT_KEY field! So I can enter the artist name any way I like and sort it any way I like… the best of both worlds!
So over time, I slowly and laboriously converted all of my MP3s so that the Artist Name and Sort Artist so my music shows the name of the artist correctly… and it shows up exactly where it should in a sorted list.
Keep in mind, those online services (e.g. GraceNote) that automatically populate your musical metadata won’t necessarily set things the way you want them to be. So always take a look at how they populate your metadata before blindly accepting it.