Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Content as experience

Thursday, June 29th, 2017


Earlier in #blogjune, Kathryn Greenhill & I were having a conversation in response to her post about a session at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, where people were asking where to get book recommendations and libraries didn’t come up in the conversation.

This got me thinking about something that I’ve been embarking on over the past year. It gets murky, because in this day and age, with digital delivery of music, movies and books, the concept of “books being an object” or “music being an object” for many, doesn’t exist. We’ve surrounded ourselves with what are essentially dumb objects that are there for displaying/playing inanimate binary content. The “object” used for consumption is identical whether you are listening to Beethoven or Metallica. Can one device sufficiently deliver such varied experiences? Meanwhile this delivery object sits there when not being used, not necessarily a thing of beauty like a bookshelf full of varied physical objects – fixed containers for content.

Like many people around the world I was devastated when Prince died last year. I wouldn’t have considered myself a die-hard fan – I had a few of his albums & had seen him perform live which was amazing. So when he died, I wanted to seek out more music, listen to the legacy he left with the world.

Prince in concert

This led to an interesting issue. So much of his music was unavailable. There was a massive amount of his career from the mid 1990’s through to around 2010 where his music was essentially self published & not released through a major record company. You couldn’t purchase it in the shops, it wasn’t available for streaming online. How could I go back and fill in the missing parts?

In June 2016 Tidal made his entire catalogue available for streaming. I set myself up with a Tidal account and discovered his music. However, something was lacking. Listening to an inanimate thing was good, but not fully satisfying. I would have loved to read the liner notes associated with all of these albums and find out more. Plus I still love to own things.

So I cancelled my Tidal account & off I went on a journey of discovery to hunt down & start collecting some of these unavailable albums.

It was fun, scouring second hand stores, looking online at discogs and eBay. Going online you can essentially get anything if you are prepared to pay. Half the fun was hunting for the right items at the right price. It was really like going back 25 years and scouring record stores for new releases and hidden gems. It was enjoyable. Along the way I had plenty of conversations with a wide variety of people, all of them fans and lovers of music. It made the process personal again. You don’t get handwritten notes on your monthly streaming invoice!

Music receipt

You don’t get a handwritten note with your monthly subscription invoice

Let me go back to my earlier concept. These albums (content) still aren’t available in an inanimate form (digital) – only a physical form. This is kind of nice as the packaging for these albums was really quite something. There is beautiful artwork, creative packaging. Some are nicely printed, but just in a cardboard sleeve (these were given away for free with newspapers in the UK – another interesting distribution model). It’s a bonus having something that has content and is a beautiful object as well.

The Rainbow Children CD

The Rainbow Children insert

Liner notes for The Rainbow Children album, with artwork by Cbabi Bayoc


NEWS (North, East, West, South). The packaging fold out to resemble a compass.

Planet Earth CD20Ten CD


So I believe that “content as experience” and “objects as experience” work together in harmony. Digital content is inanimate & needs another object to allow you to experience it in any form. On the other hand, these physical CD’s are pretty, and I have a  partial experience by holding, looking, reading – but I can’t fully experience the content without the assistance of yet another object. At least I know, having “objects as experience” will allow me to have “content as experience”.

iTunes for librarians part 5: Smart playlists

Saturday, June 10th, 2017

Up till now I’ve been demonstrating some of the different different methods that can be used to add metadata and use this to sort and display your music library. Now I would like to show you a demonstration of why getting all of this metadata correct is important. Think of your iTunes library as your ILMS. If you don’t have the right data, you can’t find things, you can’t make accurate reports, you can’t do visualisations or data analysis etc.

Let’s take a look at smart playlists. Smart playlists are automatically generated playlists that adhere to a certain set of rules that you configure. They can be simple or they can be complex, but they’re actually quite useful. Imagine I’m holding a theme party & I want to make up a playlist of tunes to play. The theme is the 80’s so I want to play pop songs from the 80’s that begin with L (it might be a very short party).

80's pop smart playlist

That’s pretty simple to do & in no time I have my party tunes set up!

Anniversary albums playlist

In 2017 there’s a bunch of really good albums that are having a significant anniversary since their release: Sgt Peppers, Rumours, Exodus, Sign ‘O’ the Times, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Document, Appetite for Destruction, The Joshua Tree, OK Computer. Let’s set up a smart playlist to display songs that were released in a year ending with 7.

I have a whole list of smart playlists that display tracks from a certain year. This is really easy to create. Go to File > New > Smart Playlist. In this case, it’s a pretty simple query.

Smart playlist for 1997

Once I have a number of the playlists of individual years, I can create a new smart playlist that uses a combination of nested playlists as it’s query parameters to generate the final result (like a nested SQL statement). Here we’re grabbing all the tracks just from those particular years.

Smart playlist

Now we have a list of all the albums/tracks that are having an anniversary in 2017.

iTunes for librarians part 4: Using 3rd party tools

Friday, June 9th, 2017

Up until now, all the editing and organising has taken place using the built in Get Info panel within iTunes. There’s actually a lot of metadata fields available to a file so sometimes it’s useful to use a 3rd party tool to assist in adding this information in. A 3rd party tool is practically essential if you have movies and TV shows in your library (I’m going to stay with audio files for the time being).

The primary tool I use is Subler. This program allows you to edit the metadata associated with MP4 files, which is one of the reasons I recommended importing your music as Apple Lossless files (or as an AAC file).

Editing dates

I’ve previously talked about editing dates so albums appear in the correct order. Currently iTunes (in your library) will only ever show and sort by the year of release, but we can add in the exact release date if we want. Strangely enough, if you browse the iTunes store it will display the exact release date of an album and if you download a track it will also contain the full release date.

Sgt Peppers Apple Music

Apple Music displaying the exact release date for Sgt. Pepper’s

Open one of your audio files in Subler. In the Release date field, you can add in the exact release date in ISO 8601 format (YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS). So for the example I used earlier for Sgt Peppers. You could enter the release date in as: 1967-06-01T10:00:00Z.

Subler date

Who knows, at some stage iTunes may make use of this full date and it might get displayed. At the moment I don’t go to this level of accuracy for my music files (I add it for movies & TV shows as these can get displayed).

Explicit content

Before we start with this, I’ll make yet another disclaimer – I’ve never been able to get this to work properly. I’ve found that if you have any sort of iCloud music library settings, as soon as iTunes connects to the cloud, it seems to delete this flag. I don’t bother with it. I’ll talk through what I’ve found as it’s difficult to find information about this and putting it up might help someone. If you don’t connect to iCloud, you might have some success.

You might have seen in Apple music or the iTunes store some tracks are labelled as explicit & have a little “E” icon next to the track name. Using the standard track or album get info, there’s no way to enable this flag so once again we have to turn to a 3rd party tool.

Let’s use the track – Darling Nikki by Prince – the track that started the whole requirement for Parental advisory stickers on CD’s (Trivia fact – thanks to Tipper Gore ex-wife of ex-Vice President of America Al Gore).

If we open the file in Subler, at the bottom left of the window is a + button. This allows you to add any metadata field to the file. If you select “Content Rating”, you can then change this from None to Explicit.

Subler adding metadata

Once you save and return to iTunes, the next time you interact with the file (playing or choosing get info), a little “E” icon will appear next to the track.

Explicit tag showing for Darling Nikki

For most people, this is probably unnecessary. The most practical use for this setting is if you have small children. In preferences you can select restrictions and choose not to play music with explicit content (as well as associated ratings for video and TV playback).

iTunes preferences for restrictions

Other fields

You could use this same process to include metadata fields such as copyright, producers, record company. I really don’t see the point of recording & entering this level of metadata, especially as there’s no benefit to doing so at the moment.

iTunes for librarians part 3: Classical music

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

If your library consists of a lot of classical works, there’s a little trick you can use to make the display a little easier to read. By default, a classical album will display the same as any other album with the track names appearing in a long list. However, typically the tracks making up a classical album contain a much more structured track title.

Default classical album view

Using the sample above, there’s normally data such as:

  • a work (Violin Sonata No. 1)
  • a key signature (G minor)
  • a catalogue number (BWV1001)
  • a movement number (1)
  • a movement title (Adagio)

Having this displayed over and over again can be a little repetitive and I find hard to scan. But we can tidy this up. Select a track & choose View > Get Info. If you look next to the song label, you can see an up/down arrow widget.

Get info on song

If you click this widget, you can change the song title to a work title. This changes the metadata fields to be similar to the components I described earlier. iTunes is pretty smart & normally detects the correct metadata components, but you can edit the movement numbers and name to suit yourself.

Get info on work

Once you’ve changed each track in the album, the album track information will display grouped by work with each movement in a list below. I find this a much easier to read format.

Classical album in ordered view

iTunes for librarians part 2: Organising your library

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

In part 1 of this tutorial series I covered the basics of importing tracks into your library. In this tutorial I’ll show you some tricks that will assist in keeping your library nicely organised as more and more content gets added.

Like my physical music collection and my book collection I like to have things arranged by:

  • Artist
  • Release date

This gives me a nice alphabetical and chronological order to browse my collection by. Within iTunes there’s quite a few different choices you can make on how to display your music – grid or list view, by artist, by genre, by recently added etc. Just go up to View > Show View Options and you can choose the method you prefer.

Those options just arranges the overall display and doesn’t alter any of the album/track metadata. There’s 2 other methods that we can use to fine tune the album content:

  1. grouping (ensuring content from an album is displayed together)
  2. sorting (displaying albums in your preferred order)

Grouping albums and artists

So now we’ve got everything displaying nicely – or maybe not…. Depending upon what you’ve got in your collection, if you look closely you might start to see albums split into 2 or 3, or artists that don’t see to have their albums grouped together chronologically. What’s going on here?

Massive Attack albums

In the above example, it’s clear that the album Protection, is broken up into 2 albums. The most common cause for this is when there is a guest artist on an album. Because the primary sort we’ve set up is by artist, iTunes thinks we have 2 albums:

  1. Protection by Massive Attack
  2. Protection by Massive Attack Feat. Tracey Thorn

Now, you could get around this, by removing the “Feat. Tracey Thorn” from the artist name, but we don’t want to do that. It’s important metadata that really needs to be retained. Thankfully, it’s really easy to combine these so iTunes only displays 1 album and keeps all the metadata intact. All you need to do is select all the songs in both the albums, select Edit > Get Info and enter in the Album Artist as Massive Attack.

Album artist

iTunes will combine all the tracks under the one artist. As a bonus, when you view the album, the individual track artists are listed, so you can instantly see the tracks that feature Tracey Thorn.


Likewise this same technique can apply to complete albums. Albums might not be in the chronology of what you think they should be. Let’s use Prince as an example. Over time he had a few different bands. Each band defined a particular era and sound of his career. By default, if the albums are listed by the various bands, his albums display out of chronological order.

prince albums out of order

To remedy this, we want to combine:

  • Prince
  • Prince and The Revolution
  • Prince and The New Power Generation

so they are grouped under Prince. You can do a similar thing as the previous example, except on an album (or on multiple albums). Simply highlight the albums to change, select View > Get Info & change the album artist field to Prince.

Purple Rain info

By changing the album artist for all of these, everything now displays under Prince, the tracks within the albums list the band and the albums now group and display in the order they were released.

Prince albums in order

Sorting release dates

There’s one scenario that can still mess up the nice order of albums – things like an 80’s greatest hits album that was released in 2004. What to do? iTunes doesn’t have the concept of an album date, only track dates. If you give all the tracks a date of 2004, then the tracks technically won’t be sorted correctly by date. If you give each track the correct date from the 1980’s, then the album won’t sort properly by date.

As there’s just one generic release date field. This means you have to make a choice.

  1. Give all the tracks the same date as the album release date, or
  2. Give all the tracks the date they were released.

If you select option 1, your albums will appear in perfect chronological order, but the individual track information will be incorrect.

If you select to use option 2, the way iTunes will sort things is the album (for sorting purposes) will take the most recent date of any track in the album. So for our 80’s greatest hits example album, the release date would likely to be 1989 (given there would be songs from each year of the 80’s on the compilation). This often works in your favour on a greatest hits album where as part of the marketing, an artist releases a new track to go with the hits.

Chronological release dates

I’ve described how I like to organise my library by artist & then album release date. This works well until an artist releases 2 albums in the same year. When this occurs, iTunes then sorts the albums released in the same year alphabetically. So for a group like The Beatles, who in 1967 released 2 albums: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June and “Magical Mystery Tour” in November, iTunes will display these aplhabetically and hence in the wrong order.

Betales albums in the wrong order

The simplest fix is to select View > Get Info on the Sgt Peppers, go to the Sorting tab and prefix the album sort as section with A – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then do the same on Magical Mystery Tour, go to the Sorting tab and prefix the album sort as section with B – Magical Mystery Tour.

Sgt Peppers album infoMagical Mystery Tour album info

Now the albums will be sorted correctly.

Betales albums in the correct order

Sorting artist names

I like both my physical music collection and my digital music collection to be organised. There’s one major difference in how I arrange and access my digital collection compared to my physical collection – artists. All my CD’s are neatly arranged on my shelf according to artist either by surname or group name and then by release date. However, in my digital collection, I’m so used to the default sorting order that iTunes uses that to change it would drive me crazy – this order is by group or artist first name and then by release date.

So on my shelves, my Chris Isaak CD’s live with my INXS and Icehouse CD’s, while in my digital world they live up with my albums from The Cure (iTunes ignores words like “The”, so The Beatles get sorted under B, The Cure get sorted under C etc).

Albums before sorting

I’m used to this order, but if we wanted to go all library style we could arrange all our albums according to surname, firstname (and even add birth & death dates if we wanted).

So, let’s go all librarian style on Chris Isaak. We highlight all his albums and once again select View > Get Info. On the information dialog box that appears, select the Sorting tab. One of the fields there is Artist sort as. Here we could add Isaak, Chris.

Info box

That now sorts that artist by surname rather than firstname & Chris Isaak is grouped under I instead of C. Of course for your whole library to then be consistent, you would have to go through and add this sort field for each artist (and then remember to do it when you add new music).

Albums after sorting

Like I said, I’m so used to finding things by the default sort, I don’t go this far. Feel free to try it out – whatever works best for you.

That’s grouping and sorting

After reading through this you can see the power that is contained within the Get Info panel. It’s key for keeping your albums, tracks and artists under control and displaying in the way you want them to be displayed, rather than the default order.