Does Music Played in a Metadata Void Actually Make a Sound?
LPs and CDs package music with a wealth of information—liner notes, additional images, studio details, and lists of personnel. For newer digital releases and libraries of files that carry only a handful of metadata fields, their absence suggests that the music can somehow meaningfully exist without such information. Marc Weidenbaum argues that it can’t.
This is the concluding entry in a four-part series of essays about how sound is inscribed.
There’s a CD in my laptop’s disc drive. I’m enjoying the light industrial whir that it’s making.
The CD, an old album by electronically enhanced trumpeter Jon Hassell, isn’t a collection of light industrial music. It’s Fourth World music, which is Hassell’s term for an amalgam of ancient traditions and technological experimentation. It’s exploratory music, reaching in time both backward and forward.
That whir I hear, however, is simply the sound that the drive makes when it’s transferring audio from the CD to my computer at several multiples of the speed at which the disc would normally play. The whir is the sound of the mundane present.
Soon, quite soon, the audio will be stored on my hard drive as an ALAC file. ALAC is Apple’s version of FLAC, a “lossless” format that maximizes the fidelity of the data that stores the audio. I’m ripping the CD to my hard drive because this album in particular doesn’t appear in the storehouses of any of the major streaming services, aside from a low-fidelity copy that a fan once uploaded to YouTube. I’m doing so in a lossless format because I want—to the extent possible—to future-proof my efforts in digital archiving. I’m doing so in ALAC because iTunes doesn’t play nice with FLAC, and this matters because my primary listening device when I’m out of the house is an old iPod. I use an iPod because I’ve found that having a secondary device is the best means by which to maximize my mobile phone’s battery life.
Like I said, the whir of the CD drive is the sound of the mundane present.
When the Hassell CD first entered the drive, two options popped up on my screen, each representing a different collection of data associated with the CD—not audio data in this case, but metadata, which is to say “data about data,” text as well as image data that lends some context to the music data. There were two lines in the little window, each representing the album’s artist and title. One of the two lines had a typo, and the other line had additional material, including a very long integer that suggested itself as a catalog number. These were drawn, automatically, from the deep database that is Gracenote.
Gracenote is a massive repository of metadata about music and other forms of what we’ve come to call “content.” Gracenote is the company that your CD drive, should you still own one, and other devices and services ping to identify what it is you’re listening to or watching. Gracenote has gone through several corporate hands over the years. It began as CDDB, the Compact Disc Database. Sony owned it for a while, and then Tribune Media, and now it’s a subsidiary of Nielsen. That acquisition trajectory says something about the role that metadata plays in our lives. In Sony’s corporate structure, Gracenote was part of the company’s music operations. At Tribune Media, it was, briefly, a facet of the company’s efforts to refashion itself as a technology services operation. Gracenote then changed hands yet again, this time to Nielsen, where it is currently part of the world’s largest audience measurement company. In other words, over the 20-plus years of its existence, Gracenote has transitioned from providing data about music to providing data about the people who listen to music.
My laptop pings me, and the whirring comes to a halt. The Hassell album’s data transfer has concluded. I opt to “Get Info” on the album, and an array of data fields fills my laptop screen. In addition to the artist field, there is one for composer, a distinction that hearkens back to the era in which a record labels’ A&R team would match artists with repertoire. There is a field for the year of the release, but the automatically imported information is off by half a decade, perhaps relating to a re-release, so I correct it. There is space for artwork, genre, even BPM. There’s a field for “comments,” but it is blank.
One major field that is lacking amid the metadata is for record label. Since the introduction of Apple’s iTunes in 2001, there has been no “record label” field—this despite the intrinsic role record labels play in releasing records, not to mention the central role that record labels have played as cultural arbiters. (There is an “advanced” option to search for labels within Spotify, but the results are fairly haphazard.) The centrality of record labels as cultural nodes hasn’t weakened in our digital age. While major labels have indeed weakened, smaller labels— like Warp, Ghostly, Cantaloupe, Leaving, Important, Stones Throw, Erased Tapes, 12K, Ad Noiseam, and New Amsterdam, just to name a few of my favorites—have increasingly garnered audiences that recognize labels’ role in filtering and shepherding.
To be clear, as I rip to my hard drive a CD that appears on no major streaming service, what I’m concerned about at the moment isn’t the illusion of Borgesian-library completeness projected by streaming services. My concern is what’s missing from the present releases. The back of the original CD, and the LP, lists personnel. There is studio information and other details. On other releases there might be liner notes or additional images. This material is what I fed on as a young listener, and I’m still hungry for it today. Much of it disappears when I rip a disc to my hard drive, and online services generally don’t fill the gaps. Sure, background is available to varying degrees in a constellation of mutually supportive and competitive complementary services, from Discogs to Genius.com to Wikipedia to AllMusic.com, but that collective effort doesn’t satisfactorily fill the metadata void left when online albums are shorn of their contextual information. That makeshift portfolio of information is good, even welcome, but my point here has nothing to do with just learning; it’s about the content that was part and parcel of the original releases. For newer releases, that prevalent absence has fed an unwitting yet widespread suggestion that the music can somehow meaningfully exist bereft of such information. It can’t.
I have, personally, little if any nostalgia or yearning for the physical documents of music that pervaded my youth and early adulthood. Maybe it’s because I live in a city, where space comes at a premium, but I’m personally happy to have less physical stuff. What I am anxious about losing is the context that traditionally has accompanied the music I’ve listened to. All of those bits of album notes—what I think of as “pre-metadata data”—are what informed my listening and education as a music fan early on, and increasingly that information is disappearing.
I admit to a vested, if small, personal interest in the matter at hand. In 1996 I sequenced an album of Nina Simone’s recordings for Verve Records. I proposed two options to Verve: one a set of “eminently sample-able” tracks by Simone, the other a collection of Simone performing her own compositions. The assigning producer at Verve opted for the latter, which became the album Nina Sings Nina, number 58 in the Jazz Masters series. I selected the tracks and sequenced them, making cassette tape after cassette tape of different options as a means to create a prototype of what the finished album might eventually sound like. And I wrote an essay, included in the CD packaging, that extolled Simone’s virtues, not just as a performer of other people’s songs, but as a composer of her own. The album appears and disappears from online services, due to the whims of Verve’s catalog management, but when it’s available, whether for sale or to stream, the liner notes are absent—gone as if they had never been there. There’s no context for the provenance of the tracks, or the logic that informed their selection and sequencing.
The Simone experience has provided me with a small personal-professional window on what goes missing when we mistakenly think that music functions in isolation. Much as I disagreed strongly with Stanley Crouch’s liner notes for Wynton Marsalis’ albums, I can’t imagine those albums without them, though that is how they exist today. Much as I loved the gatefold cover of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, it’s the tiny-type track credits that hipped me to who pitched in on the record. Much as I love numerous individual albums released on the ECM label, it was the personnel listings that helped me figure out who and what to listen to next.
For example, a recent visit to the ECM website reminded me that Brian Eno plays bass on Jon Hassell’s 1986 album Power Spot, which may be Eno’s only ECM appearance. It was the Power Spot album that had initially helped introduce me to the work of guitarist Michael Brook, among other players whose releases I then worked to track down. Power Spot doesn’t seem to currently be on any major streaming services, but it is available for digital sale, albeit still with none of the personnel listings.
Hassell’s music is all about merging ancient traditions and experimental technology. Little did I know when I first heard it that liner notes would themselves someday, within my lifetime, become an ancient tradition. For all the wonder of digital music services (and there is much to marvel at), it’s simply absurd that today’s online music platforms, whose machine intelligence can make educated guesses about what we might want to listen to next, aren’t capable of sharing basic facts about what we’ve just heard.