Why Can't Digital Music Services Get Jazz & Classical Right?

by Ian Dahlman, FMC Communications Intern

20.7 million Americans (8.8% of all US adults) attended a classical music performance in 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent survey highlights. 19 million (8.1%) attended a jazz gig. But if these millions of classical & jazz fans tried to use any of the most popular digital music services to access classical or jazz music at home, they’d likely end up confused and unable to find what they’re looking for.

That’s what FMC’s Director of Programs Jean Cook found in an examination of digital music service metadata presented this summer at the CASH Music Summit in Portland, Oregon. We now present an excerpt of this talk, entitled Invisible Genres & Metadata: How Digital Services Fail Classical and Jazz Musicians, Composers and Fans in anticipation of the upcoming All Your Data Are Belong To Us: Metadata and Musicians panel at this year’s Future of Music Summit.

Jean drives home two important points in her piece: 1) metadata practices of mainstream digital music services—such as Spotify, iTunes, Rhapsody, Google Music and Pandora—are grossly underwhelming and inaccurate in their metadata for jazz and classical music; and 2) metadata practices matter, not just for users trying to find particular artists or music, but because they both reflect and perpetuate broader and more troubling infrastructure problems.

By examining digital services one-by-one, Jean illustrates that metadata practices designed around popular music categories are simply inadequate for the genres of jazz and classical music. For example, we discover that often, composers, performers, and conductors are alternately shoehorned into the category of “Artist.” Further, jazz sidemen are frequently unlisted and thus unsearchable within the services. Clearly, the requisite attention and care is simply not present in either the labeling or the broader categorization of jazz and classical metadata, and the problem extends to every major service in the marketplace.

The implications of these oversights are broader than you might think. Classical and jazz fans cannot intuitively navigate the search engines, and so in frustration leave for sites specifically designed for their genres, such as those built by Naxos and Blue Note Records. As a result, jazz and classical music are once again isolated and hidden from the mainstream—devoted fans flee to services they can navigate, while casual listeners find it near impossible to discover jazz and classical music through their everyday service. Consequently, jazz and classical are segregated from the mainstream to a degree that they can be forgotten or ignored entirely in larger music business conversations. Perhaps most troubling of all is the distinct possibility that, because digital music service metadata does not appropriately distinguish between composer and artist, it’s hard to have confidence that the formulas designed to provide compensation to the appropriate entities and individuals for plays are accurate. As Jean writes:

If these services can’t get who played or wrote what straight, what assurances do we have that these performers and composers are actually getting paid accurately for digital sales and streams? How do we know SoundExchange isn’t getting reports that Beethoven was the performer on a webcast, and what confidence do we have that Spotify knows which composers they should be paying when they won’t list them?

Ultimately, much more conversation needs to be had about metadata, not only to delineate its errors and shortcomings, but also to contemplate collaborative industry-wide solutions. And what better place to move this conversation forward than October 28th-29th, at the FMC 2013 Music Summit? See you at the metapanel!

Submitted by kevin on October 18, 2013 - 12:27pm

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