Recently I’ve had a bit of a go at iTunes. I was mad, and I said some mean things, and I meant all of them. Recently, they released iTunes 8, which adds a Grid view that lays out your music in a grid of album art. Which is exactly what Windows Media Player has done for yonks, but that’s a good thing! Everybody should rip off their competitors best features without being ashamed, I say. As long as the side getting copied from doesn’t get cocky about it (I’m looking at you, Apple!).
They also added Genius, which generates a list of songs that go well with a song of your choice. This is a brilliant feature! Well done Apple, I like it. It means I don’t really have to screw around with the rest of the crappy interface to listen to just start listening to a particular kind of thing. Yay?!
Anyways, as I was looking through the grid of albums, I came across Soviet Kitsch by Regina Spektor. I didn’t realise I had this album, and so I looked closer: turned out it only contained one song: “Us”. That’s the trouble, right there. One song does NOT an album make! I do not have a copy of Regina Spektor’s album Soviet Kitsch, I have Regina Spektor’s song Us. Yet no media player I have ever seen makes this crucial distinction.
I think the problem is that engineers and computer scientists love their neat little hierarchies. Artists “contain” albums, albums “contain” tracks, and that’s just the way things are. Isn’t it neat? This leads to those cute little absurdities where if the album name is missing from the track’s tags, it ends up clustered in this neat little “Unknown Album” pseudo-album with all that artist’s other poor orphaned songs. Even worse, in iTunes albums with multiple different artists listed in the tracks’ tags get automatically fragmented into multiple copies of the same album, each with the same album art; there’s a special “Compilation album” setting you have to tick to make them stick back together. Not to mention the Soviet Kitsch fiasco.
This is just absolutely stark-raving bonkers, in my opinion. I can kind of understand the neat little hierarchy when it makes sense; I have bought all four Coldplay studio albums, so clicking through Coldplay –> Rush of Blood to the Head –> The Scientist makes sense (on many levels, it’s a really good song). But I’ve also got an album listed called Death Will Never Conquer. It’s a little ditty they released for free on their website, and it’s stylistically close to Viva La Vida. That’s creating a spurious “album”. It’s no such thing, nor will it ever be. It’s not even an album fragment.
Essentially, our music software is built with 20th century assumptions about music in a 21st century world. Maybe a friend wrote and performed some music, recorded it and sent it to me. It’s not an album, it’s just a few songs here and there, but apparently it’s from her album “Unknown Album”. There’s just that ever-present assumption that songs come bundled in albums. That’s not the world we live in.
The other major issue I have is the assumption that if it comes packaged in a music file, if it has tags, if it came on a CD – it’s music, and should go into the Artist->Album->Track hierarchy. This isn’t true, either. What about say, learn-to-speak language CDs? Podcasts? Sound effects? All my media players say I have an artist called Jasper Carrot, who has an album Jasper Carrot Live, with the track Dangerous Sports. It’s not music, it’s a actually quite funny little comedy routine about Australian car insurance forms. Can I tell any of my music manager programs it isn’t music, that it should be still there and still indexed and still playable, just not treated like music? You bet I can’t.
There’s very little that bothers me more than when things are built on faulty assumptions, and seemingly every piece of music software out there is built on these huge great ones.
I don’t know what the solution is, exactly. But I have the feeling it revolves somewhere roundabouts working out what the real fundamentals here are – like what exactly the primary identity of a track is. Common wisdom (ha!) seems to be that the primary identity is the Artist/Album/Track name triad, but I would say it was the actual sound of the music. I mean, Under the Bridge is the same recording on Greatest Hits as it is on Blood Sugar Sex Magic, for instance. Conventional reckoning of the identity would have those two being separate, which is obviously wrong! I’d say a tougher question would be if it shares an identity with Under the Bridge from Live in Hyde Park, or that hideous All Saints cover.
For the latter, I would definitely say no. I would hope you, dear reader, would too, otherwise I’m not sure we can get along.
I guess my point is that this is tough messy problem currently being solved in a simplistic and ham-handed manner, and that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves and try and work together to do better. Maybe just baby steps at first – like if you have less than say, 50% of an album, just don’t show it up in a list of albums. If someone searches for that album specifically, show it. Easy. Practically trivial to implement too. Sadly though, I doubt anyone from Apple or Microsoft will ever read this.
Anyways, if you have other suggestions, or know of media players which work in the way I’ve described, leave a comment!