Streaming Music and Metadata: Missed Opportunities

Dave Mandl has a recent post at The Rumpus about the problems with music streaming services and metadata, and it’s a concern worth underscoring. For the past year, Rdio has been my primary source of music, and I enjoy using the service. I went with Rdio rather than the ubiquitous Spotify because of Rdio’s social component; each user’s library and playlists are public. Although some might have privacy concerns with such a setup, I think it’s perfect for a music streaming site, an echo of the days when I would pore over a friend’s collection and search for something new. With Rdio, I can find a specific track and then see every playlist in which the song has been added.

For example, last summer, in a bit of mid-90s nostalgia, I did a search for Spacehog’s “In the Meantime,” thinking that any user who had “In the Meantime” in their playlist (rather than the standard Nirvana or Pearl Jam fare) would also have some alt-rock deep cuts. The theory proved true, and I was reunited with some forgotten buzz bin favorites: Elastica’s “Stutter,” Veruca Salt’s “Seether,” Ash’s “Kung Fu.” During that buzz bin era I spent a good deal of time at a local record store, flipping through CD bins and scribbling down staff suggestions, and–in some way–that experience feels like an antecedent of Rdio.

Because of the amount of time I spend reading and writing, my recent listening habits have drifted toward contemporary classical & minimalism, and the Rdio experience has helped me discover new artists. But it’s also at this point that I run into the metadata problems that Mandl notes. It’s maddening to find incorrect album release dates or, even worse, albums attributed to the wrong artist (and this happens more than I’d expect it to). For whatever reason, email is the only means of reporting incorrect data (there’s no “flag this track” button), and although I would appreciate correct track info, I’m simply not going to email Rdio each time I see an error.

Rdio link to label page But beyond issues of correct labeling, thorough and user-accessible metadata presents an opportunity for extending these sites beyond simple streaming. In an album’s sidebar, Rdio currently includes a hyperlink to the artist’s record label, and I’ve found countless new albums by following that link and then sorting the label’s albums by release date. While listening to A Winged Victory for the Sullen, I might click the link to Erased Tapes, sort the album list by date released, and discover Olafur Arnalds or Nils Frahm.

The screenshot on the left shows the metadata that Rdio deems important to the end-user: tracks, album length, year, and label. Of those, “label” is the only hyperlinked value.

But why limit this conceptual link to record labels? In some ways, this path of discovery is a nod to the lingering influence of physical media. (For example, the label link isn’t helpful for artists who distribute their own work.) Instead, a more complete approach to metadata might include links to the album’s engineers, to the studio where the songs were recorded, or to collaborators or guest artists. And I’m not even talking about issues of folksonomies here, though that’s a logical and viable path for this sort of metadata. Rather, I’m thinking of how the metadata might function in a media that doesn’t necessarily need or have room for liner notes.

And maybe liner notes are the important conceptual link. Recent attempts to rejuvenate liner notes haven’t quite caught on, and maybe that’s because an attached PDF or DRM’d interface doesn’t offer much in utility or added value. Extracting that liner note data, however, and conceptually linking it to other associated acts–that seems like a smart move.

Of course, streaming site functionality is entirely mired in the difficult politics of the music industry, and I don’t expect change–or even a turn to user-centered focus–anytime soon. At this point, the music industry is entirely focused on the potential devaluation of music, despite increased levels of consumption and the potential, through sites like Spotify and Rdio, to reconnect people through music. The devaluation concern is also at the heart of this week’s litigation against the major booksellers, and it’s indicative of a moment in which our convergence culture still hasn’t found a way to differentiate the promise of and problems with a different model of media consumption & participation.

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