Music distribution has gone digital, and as with any move or paradigm in the music industry, the model is designed for pop music, not real music. Argh!! I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without my true colors showing. That’s right, I listen to classical music and I’m not apologetic about it.

I have spent many a late night over the past few years obsessing about my digital music collection. Whether it’s ripped from an old CD or purchased download, I have to have it labeled correctly. But this is a losing battle. Virtually all players are designed for standard pop albums with the artist, album, and song model. That just doesn’t cut it for real music. (OK. I’ll be honest. It bugs the heck out me when Beethoven’s Opus 132 gets referred to as a song.)

Anyway, I got hooked on digital music files a few years ago because the computer had a bad cd-rom drive in it. I couldn’t play a CD on it, but it would read the data and could rip a CD. So I started slowly moving my CD collection over one disk at a time. Well, I didn’t start out with iTunes, I tried a variety of players but mostly used the ziff player. The big decision is what format to use. I chose .ogg. There was no real reason other that I used CDex to rip the same track in a couple of formats at 160 kbps and .ogg sounded the best. The files were smaller as well. The difference wasn’t much, but I felt the .ogg files sounded warmer, especially the string sound. There are no end of websites and blogs promoting one standard over the others, but I’m not going to go there. I just made the decision early on that ogg was the best for me. My collection is not that large, a few hundred CDs, and it took a few years to convert the collection. I wasn’t actively trying to rip everything, but whenever I played a CD if it was on the computer with the bad drive, I would rip it. I eventually had most of my disks ripped and for the most part tagged.

I’ll spare you my discussion on what I think is the best way to tag to your classical music files. Instead, check out the following pages (especially the second) to see how the debate rages on. And these guys just cover what to do with iTunes. I’m sure there are many others.

Tagging Classical Music
Taming iTunes for Classical Music
On Classical Music Tagging (ID3 tags) for iTunes and iPod

Each of these is quite individual and so naturally, I neither totally agree or disagree with any of them. I applaud their careful work, but each method suffers from the same agonizing flaw. All they do is try to make a broken system appear less broken. I don’t want to start down that road. (However, for another time, I have some advise for using iTunes with classical music. Anyone else out there used the iTunes COM for Windows SDK?)

Instead, I ask why are we so stuck on the primitive data model of a single track stored as a single row in a table? Relational database anyone? Authority records? We could even do something pretty good with a little XML.

I just randomly pulled a CD off my shelf. It is a Telarc disc of orchestral music by Barber performed by the ASO and Yoel Levi. When I stick this into iTunes, rather than have the Gracenote’s database give me a few choices for the CD and then fill in the rows with poorly formatted strings, it should just give me a link to an authority record (or some XML) for the CD. This would contain accurate information for composer, compositions, and performers etc. Then within the player, I could choose how to display this information for the CD. Does the Name column contain both the full piece name and the movement name or just the movement name? I could define this through some kind of options dialog in iTunes or just give it my own xsl translation.

I know, you’re wondering how are all these authority records created anyway? The same way they are now, by having users submit them. If I were to put in a CD that was not yet in the Gracenotes database, I would fill in the crucial data much like I do now in iTunes. For composer, I’d highlight the tracks on the CD by Barber and then iTunes and its database would give me a list of known composers to choose from. Pick another track, and it could provide a list of known compositions by Barber etc. Starting with a core database of a few hundred composer records, a few thousand composition records, and a similar number of ensemble and performer records, one could quickly create a new complete CD record for the database based on existing records. Of course, new records for composers and compositions could be submitted and vetted by the database. Most of the CDs would not need to submit any new data beyond what compositions and performers appear in the release.

If you think this data still would be too hard to create or put on-line, then check out ArkivMusic. Granted, ArkivMusic is a retailer and their database serves a different purpose, but they’ve done a whole lot of things correctly. At this site, I don’t never have to differentiate between Samuel Barber and Barber, Samuel, or between Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atl Sym Orch. Why can’t putting music in my digital music player work half this easily?

To be fair, I’m certainly not the only one out there grappling with these questions. Kirk McElhearn has started a project called The Well-Tempered Database, though it still seems to be getting off the ground. Of course, if you have the means (~$5,000) you could always get the Fortuna Maestro Classical Music Player and have someone else do your cataloging for you. Let me know about any other projects there may be.

I’ll also take this opportunity to put in a plug for eMusic. Here is the other side of the coin. They have incorporated classical music into their business model just as they did for noise downloads (pop music), one price per track. Their standard fee for 30 downloads is $9.99/month, or ~33 cents per track. Good price for your average 3 minutes noise track, but what a bargain if you go for a big piece of real music like Beethoven’s Ninth. The four tracks cost you $1.33 and you get 65 minutes of music at a higher quality than the standard iTunes download. That’s a steal! The drawback is that it is a subscription service. Ten dollars a month with a use it or lose it policy.

So I admit that I am a classical music snob, but it’s mostly in good humor. I don’t care what you listen to as long as I can listen to what I want to. As proof I offer this recent photo of me playing jazz/rock violin with the band Fujiyama Roll. (Sorry for the low image quality.) I really am a hip guy who can get down to some funky music. Far out, man!

Rock star DOBRock star David O