Alex Ross’ latest post to his The Rest is Noise blog bears the title “The death of the composer.” This is a bit of an exaggeration, since the post is basically a pointer to a recent article by Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic with a brief reflection on the second-rate status of composers in the metadata system used in iTunes. Far more interesting is Meyer’s article itself, entitled “The Tragedy of iTunes and Classical Music,” with the “abstract” statement as follows:
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
Since I happen to have spent the last few days engaged in my own battle with iTunes, I read this moderate-length article with great interest.
As a brief summary of the current state of play for metadata and the implications for music lovers of that state, the article is not a bad one. It even includes some pointed observations by practicing composers to emphasize the significance of the issue. However, it overlooks the extent to which classical music (and, for that matter, jazz, particularly recordings of historical importance) amount to the tiny tail of a very large dog. MP3 was significant because it played a major role in the circulation of popular music through the Internet. At a time when the general public was just beginning to appreciate the value of search, the idea of attaching descriptive metadata to a file of the audio content did not initially attract much attention. However, once iTunes opened the door to users having large libraries of those MP3 files, the value of metadata came to be appreciated.
The problem, however, is that the world of popular music is basically a world of tracks. A single track is basically something that can be listened to in isolation, rather like a song punched up on one of those old juke boxes remembered by only those of my generation. While there was a brief rise of interest in the rock album as an “integrated” collection of tracks to be played in a specific order, that interest did not last very long.
The world of classical music, on the other hand, tends to deal with a broader scope. Operas, suites, symphonies, concertos, and tone poems all involve a sequence of tracks and depend on those tracks being played in a specific order. Thus, while the original MP3 metadata system may be have been adequate for a single track, it was ill-equipped, to say the least, for a recording of, for example, Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. As Meyer observes in his article, iTunes did not add a metadata field for “Composer” until 2004; and he never mentions when “Grouping” was added or when “Classical Music” was added as a “Smart Playlist.” (He also does not mention that jazz has yet to earn its own “Smart Playlist” status; and, the way things are going, I suspect that it never will.)
The point is that, through a variety of “tinkering techniques,” a system that was designed to work only for “Songs” (which is still an iTunes category) gradually began to accommodate the larger structures of classical music. The system still requires tweaking from users with particular needs. For example, I tend to deal with an opera as a Playlist Folder with separate Playlists for each act. I can label those Playlists in such a way that iTunes will arrange them in the proper order, meaning that I can listen to the whole opera without a break by playing the entire folder.
Of course what any individual can do through self-organization can only go so far. Thus, Meyer devotes a section of his article to the deterioration of the iTunes search bar. As he puts it, the latest version of iTunes “disappears” music, because a single search that includes a composer name and a title may fail. I validated this claim by running my own test, typing “Britten concerto” into the search bar; and, sure enough, the system failed to find my recording of Gil Shaham playing Benjamin Britten’s violin concerto.
Because waiting for software to improve now seems to be a vain hope, I have begun to explore whether there are workarounds for such problems. My initial hope was that the data would be accessible to a more general OS X search, using the iTunes folder to narrow the search. (Yes, it is probably true that most users do not even know that such of folder exists, let alone know how to search it with OS X.) The good news is that this approach to search can help, as I found out by typing “Britten.” The bad news is that content search does not seem to work very well on an external drive (like a server for music content). On the other hand, one can often get a fair amount of mileage out of file and folder names. So, if you know that the third movement of the concerto has the title “Passacaglia,” you can find it by this technique.
(As an aside, I have also developed a workaround to compensate for the execrable job that iTunes does in printing track lists. That took more time than I really should have invested, but I took to trying to solve the problem as a dog takes to a bone. All I can say here is that it required my providing a data file that could be processed by other software, Anything else is “beyond the scope of this course!”)
Of course the world of classical music lovers is not really the world of those who can develop workarounds for unsatisfactory software. This takes us to the lead sentence of Meyer’s concluding paragraph:
But if Apple is committed to a cruft-ridden iTunes, other developers could step in the void.
This is probably a vain hope. The fact is that good software developers are in short supply these days, even within Apple. Thus, OS X started to go on the skids when the best software engineers were reassigned to work on iOS. According to Meyer’s article, any expertise in the world of “music products” is now being absorbed by the Apple Watch division. As to expertise outside of Apple, the prevailing culture has become one of consumers rather than builders. I would not hold my breath. To the contrary, having established that I cannot get OS X search to find content on my external music drive, I hope to find the time to try poking around with grep to see if I can find a match for “concerto” anywhere in there!