The Classical Music Metadata Problem – How Do We Generate Better Metadata?

Manual data entry

All the buzz about classical music metadata

A few months ago Anastasia Tsioulcas, Associate Producer for NPR Music, published an article entitled Why Can’t Streaming Services Get Classical Music Right? The article was a thorough examination of the customer experience for listeners of classical who use streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon and iTunes Radio. It caused quite a stir in the classical music community and has been cited in numerous articles and blog posts (much like this one). Anastasia does a great job of describing just what is so complicated about classical music metadata and why.

“And it’s easy to see how things can head south, very fast, when it comes to classical music: We’re talking about a genre that, in its broadest strokes, encompasses hundreds of years’ worth of music, many thousands of composers and performers, very similar titles (ex: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 versus his Symphony No. 104), multiple movements within most compositions and innumerable recordings, with each piece of music recorded by many different artists. No wonder the metadata gets complicated.”

Anastasia astutely identified several problems. For instance, it’s extremely difficult to find a specific recording of any particular classical piece since these services were only designed to organize music by artist, album and song title. Furthermore, since streaming services treat individual pieces of classical works as if they were standalone songs, pieces are often divorced from their larger works, then shuffled and streamed to the listener in no particular order. Read about Anastasia’s experience as she tries to find a particular recording.

“Say I want to hear Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Well, Bernstein recorded this symphony three different times — with the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and also at a historic performance in 1989 in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with members of four different orchestras (the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Kirov Orchestra from then-Leningrad and the Orchestre de Paris).

But let’s keep our hypothetical more simple, and assume that we’re looking for Bernstein’s recording of the Beethoven Ninth with the New York Philharmonic. There are also four vocal soloists on that recording — soprano Martina Arroyo, mezzo-soprano Regina Sarfaty, tenor Nicholas di Virgilio and bass Norman Scott. The performance also includes the Juilliard Chorus, directed by Abraham Kaplan.

In this example, who would be listed as the artist? (Bernstein? Beethoven? The 100-plus players in the New York Philharmonic? Arroyo et al? The Juilliard Chorus or its conductor?) And as soon as some individual plugs in one of those names in the “artist” field as the sole piece of metadata in that category, then the other pieces of information are all too often essentially lost — and won’t come up in searches.”

The classical music metadata problem isn’t specific to Spotify or Pandora, it is a problem in iTunes and Amazon as well. Anastasia takes time to go through each of the major streaming services to get a good idea of how each one delivers music to the consumer, and specifically how they display their metadata. Take a look at her experience with Amazon’s classical playlists.

“I’m writing as I listen, so I try Amazon’s “Mellow Classical for Work” playlist for inspiration. There’s no listing of any of the composers anywhere, so the “song” listings read along the lines of: “Quintetto No. 4 In Re Maggiore: ‘Fanda…'” (That’s it.) I have no clue who the composer is. The playlist also includes a lot of New Age selections that set my teeth on edge, thereby missing the “mellow” target by a pretty big margin.”

Be sure to check out Anastasia’s full article for more of her insights into the ongoing problems of classical music metadata here.

Metadata poses problems for artists and distributors too

Most digital music distributors won’t even accept classical music. Among those that will distribute classical, Dart Music is the only distributor with a fully-automated platform. Due to the complexity of classical music metadata, other classical distributors employ teams of specialists known as musicologists who must manually enter the metadata to submit every classical track by hand. This process is labor-intensive which makes it both time-consuming and expensive. The result is that smaller, independent artists are often denied distribution services and turned away entirely. We would like to take a quick look at what is involved in generating good classical music metadata and why Dart Music is such a huge leap forward for classical artists.


Our automated platform

We built Dart Music to accomplish three things

Dart Music’s CEO and founder is a classical composer who has experienced the pains of trying to distribute his original compositions. Additionally, many of Dart Music staff members are composers or independent musicians, so when we built the Dart platform, we insisted it accomplish three key goals.

First, we want to give independent classical artists the same opportunities.  Though independent artists in other genres have been able to affordably distribute their music to online stores and streaming services for over a decade, independent classical artists have not. Now, with Dart Music, they have a distribution platform built specifically with them in mind. For the first time access to online music stores and streaming services is open to musicians of all genres, both signed and independent.

Second, we want to provide fair pricing for all classical artists. Currently, classical musicians can only get their music digitally distributed through companies who rely on manual data-entry. These few companies charge classical musicians as much as 50% of the musician’s royalties to get their music into online stores. To understand how truly costly this can be, check out the charts in this article. When classical musicians use the Dart Music platform they pay a small flat fee, and they keep 100% of their royalties. Artists in other genres are familiar with this model, but it is a huge step for classical.
Third, we want to improve and streamline classical music metadata industry wide. By making manual data-entry for classical distribution a thing of the past, we not only make distribution more affordable, but we also will reduce the errors in metadata entry. We would love to see better support for classical music in online music stores and streaming services, which is why we are committed to working with them to improve classical music metadata functionality.
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