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Metadata 101 for Musicians: What the Experts Said at FMC ’14

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the 14th annual Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Summit, a two-day meeting of musicians, producers, label executives, lawyers, and music technology developers held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. While I was aware of the Coalition’s work (and an avid fan of their website, which is full of useful information for studio managers), this was my first time at one of their events. I found the Summit to be enjoyable and informative. I was struck by the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the audience and by the depth and knowledge of the panelists and participants in all the discussions I attended.

I was invited to the summit to participate in a two-part workshop titled “Metadata for Musicians.” Attendance at the workshop was impressive, an encouraging sign that members of the music-making community are aware of the critical importance of metadata and its various functions in the digital marketplace.

Other members of the panel included Sean Hickey, VP of Sales and Business Development with Naxos USA (one of the world’s largest classical music labels and distributors), Tracy Maddux, CEO of CD Baby (a huge player in the independent music sales and distribution world), Bill Wilson, VP of Digital Strategy and Business Development with the Music Business Association (a music industry trade group), and Chris Yorks, Director of Repertoire Management with SoundExchange (the digital performance rights organization). The moderators were Bryan Calhoun, a digital media strategist with the Blueprint Group (an artist management company) and Kristin Thomson, a consultant with the FMC who has written extensively about artist revenue streams; Bryan and Kristin are getting ready to release an updated version of The Music Business Toolbox in 2015.

Music metadata is the information attached to a musical work. The most common examples are specific codes such as ISRCs and UPCs, but in a general sense, metadata includes the wealth of info that lives alongside a release as it travels across the Web. Pieces of data are often embedded within a master recording (on a production master CD, in the DDP image that manufacturers use to produce CDs, or encoded in the files themselves) or entered by artists, record labels, or digital distributors into the content management systems of sales and streaming services. Metadata serves many purposes, but most crucially it helps guarantee appropriate and timely compensation for the owners of creative content by connecting them to the sales, streaming, and royalty figures of a given work. Accurate metadata helps musicians and creators get paid for their music.

FMC summit pic 1
Photo by Jeff Martin
Members of the Airshow team and I have covered topics related to metadata before and I regularly field questions from clients who are mastering their releases with us. I was eager to share this studio perspective as well as hear what others had to say on the evolving subject of music metadata. There was a healthy exchange about what the different levels and roles of metadata are, and I learned a lot from the other panelists about how their organizations intersect with metadata online.

Here are some noteworthy nuggets about metadata I picked up at the workshop:

Our discussion centered on what steps to take before a release comes out, including what information to keep track of during the recording process, what metadata information is needed prior to mastering, how to secure codes from third parties, and generally how to plan out in advance all the appropriate steps. The staff at FMC put together an amazing slideshow for the workshop, and it’s available on their website. I suggest reviewing it to get a comprehensive outline of what we discussed. (Look for the cameo by Takoma Park engineer Charlie Pilzer’s soundBlade mastering software metadata population screen!)
One step that is often overlooked by artists and labels is submitting release info to ROVI and All Music Guide (AMG) immediately after release. Rovi is the database engine that powers AMG’s entries, and AMG feeds the biographical and review info that is typically seen on iTunes and Pandora (and a first stop for journalists and reviewers to find out about a particular artist or band).
The resourceful recently released an updated version 2.0 of its “Music Metadata Style Guide” that attempts to standardize the formatting of metadata entries and smooth out some of the inconsistencies that are common in musical releases (like alternate spellings of artist names, or how to properly list featured artists on a track). A recurring theme in our metadata talk, pointed out by Bryan Calhoun, Chris Yorks and Bill Wilson, was that inconsistency weakens the ability for artists to be discovered online and to receive proper royalties.
Tracy Maddux, CD Baby’s CEO, relayed that his company employs seven full-time “inspectors” who ensure that all metadata is correct before they make releases available for purchase. (This is good info for a studio manager, as many of our clients use CD Baby as their digital aggregator, and it illustrates just how complex the metadata web is, and speaks to the resources needed to help keep it all straight).
As both a label and an information hub for classical music, Naxos is an innovator in the way it catalogs its releases via its organized, interactive and educational website. The classical music world (with versions of works performed by multiple players, ensembles and conductors) relies on a strict compliance with metadata standards. Naxos’ Web database is impressive, and should be perused by any classical music aficionado and anyone interested in developing platforms for keeping track of metadata, credits, and release notes.
Two other cool websites that I wasn’t familiar with before the Summit are and The former is described as an alternative to the Gracenote database (the current source for that almost magical way your iTunes software knows the artist, title and track names on that new CD you just inserted into your computer) and seeks to create a user-friendly depository of release information online. The site is operated under the assumption that data about music should be free and open-source, and the majority of the site’s content is in the public domain and available to download. OpenAura is an attempt to update how musicians’ “digital identities” are showcased on the Web, and allows for artists to more accurately define what images and media are associated with their names – and in some cases, monetizes their use by other parties (namely through licensing opportunities to music and visual apps and other content partners). Both sites point to how developing trends in metadata are shaping the digital landscape and empowering artists to manage their image online.
It’s clear that understanding how metadata is used is now a fundamental component of planning a recording (and/or mastering) project from the outset. Trying to comprehend how all of these bits of data actually come together to allow for music to be discovered and sold within the digital realm can seem a little overwhelming, but there are resources and tools (many of which are free) readily available to help make sense of the process. The Future of Music Coalition deserves much credit for spearheading efforts to demystify metadata so more music-makers can gain more opportunities to be heard – and paid – for their creative content.

For further reading on some topics related to metadata on the Airshow site, be sure to go here as well as read our white paper entitled Cover Your (Data) Bases.