Roll Over Beethoven

Roll Over Beethoven

NewMusicBox would like to offer a warm welcome to new Chatter contributor Jean Cook, a musician, producer, and co-founder of Anti-Social Music. She spends most of her days working for Future of Music Coalition, a national non-profit education, research, and advocacy organization that identifies, examines, interprets, and translates the challenging issues at the intersection of music, law, technology, and policy. —MS

Jean Cook

I met a radio DJ a few months ago who, hearing I was a violinist, recommended I check out Roby Lakatos’s album Klezmer Karma. I bought the CD and listened to it, and then wanted to recommend back that he listen to a good version of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen—a well known violin showpiece that’s got lots of bells and whistles and is super impressive, especially when played by the right person.

I don’t have a favorite version of this piece, but I figure most professional violinists have probably learned it at some point. Since I want to recommend a good version, I dig around to see who’s actually recorded it. A web search doesn’t really help, so I go to a well-known online music service that’s bound to have a few versions to look through.

After a few false starts (three Pablo de Sarasates, each with a different set of tracks attributed to them), they appear to have four versions of this piece.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell who plays on any of these versions. So I click on album names to see if they list performers anywhere.

Twenty minutes after I first started looking, I’m squinting at album art trying to figure out who the main artist is on different versions of Zigeunerweisen. (And what’s this “IV: Andante” crap? If they didn’t include the album art, how are you supposed to know that’s Symphony Espagnole?)

This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened to me (or you I’m sure). Music sites that tell you Beethoven is the performer, that “Allegro” is the name of the piece, that the piano soloist might be the Berlin Philharmonic. I find these experiences endlessly frustrating. I don’t understand how something so simple has to be so hard to figure out. (I take that back. I do understand. Believe me, I really, really do. But it still makes me crazy.)

I know the idea of the composer (or songwriter) and the performer being two separate but equally important people is complex for those outside the music world. And the idea that a soloist, conductor, or orchestra might all be equally important makes things a little more complicated than most folks can handle.

But hello, music services! These are essential elements to dealing with this music. You’re dissing entire genres here. Any service that bothers to offer music without taking these elements into account is a joke. Sorry dudes. I know it’s not easy doing what you do and that some music is weird. And you’ve probably figured out how to make millions off your service without giving a second thought to their metadata. But yeah, you make me sad.

To be honest, I normally would let something like this go. It’s a golden opportunity for an entrepreneur somewhere—eventually someone will figure it out. But I can’t shake this question: if they can’t figure out how to present the performer information in a reliable way, how on earth do people figure out how to appropriately pay the artists whose music they’re selling? Are the wacky data/reporting requirements of this music causing problems down the line?

Now I confess I’ve only used iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Pandora (before they added classical), and Magnatune. I would love to hear about those who are doing it really right.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

16 thoughts on “Roll Over Beethoven

  1. blu_stocking

    @SCartwright: Ha ha, but I think we’re referring here to the performers, who certainly would like to be credited (and paid!) for their work.

    This may be an aside, but it does bug me as a performer whenever I see that a composer or venue has posted a recording I performed on and has not listed who the performers are! I wouldn’t post a recording of a piece without listing the composer…

    –Eileen Mack

    ps, I’m not exactly sure what the rules are in the US, but I think mechanical rights and royalty payments may be a little more complicated than just noting whether the composer is dead or not! Still, I guess Pablo won’t be hunting anyone down. :)

  2. dalgas

    For royalties it’s not as crucial. Each Album has a UPC identifier and each track (“song”) an IRSC number. That’s in the databse of the download service, not in the file I.D. tag, so royalty payments make it to where they’re supposed to go.

    The whole ID tag thing has been horribly messed up since the beginning, but it’s not so much the tags fault as the people all along the line who write the info in there. The tag (especially the MP3 ID3 tag) has all kinds of fields for title, Cd, performers, conductor, composer, notes, etc… Whether any of them get filled in, or filled in properly is only as good as the people doing it. It could happen at the record label before they pass the file to the download service; or the download service could create their own from what CD info they’re provided. And all of it can be altered (for better or worse) by any person who has a copy of the track on their computer.

    Add to that our own culture, both social and business, that is completely skewed to pop music categorizations (i.e., They only want to know what the name of the “song” is, and who the “band” is), and the jumble’s likely to continue. I have my own stabdard preferences for tagging MP3s, and spend a little time changing most files I download to reflect that (which also means often surfing the web for missing info). ~
    Steve Layton

  3. khackett

    Hi Jean –

    First, thanks for bringing up this important and very complex subject. I happen to work the world of digital music distribution for Naxos and this is a subject we have been dealing with from day one. There have been vast improvements over the last few years in classical metadata presentation, but most of these services cannot seem to get it just right. This is mostly due to a lack of resources as well as of basic understanding of the genre. That said, the two services that seem to have a handle on classical data presentation at this point in time are eMusic and iTunes. eMusic offers subscribers the ability to search by label. This seems to be a very basic search term that all services should incorporate, but to my knowledge, eMusic is the only mainstream digital download site with this feature. On the other hand, it might not make sense for other services, such as iTunes, to enable this type of search. Despite the fact that iTunes’ metadata display is not always 100% correct, most of the data provided by labels is searchable whether or not it is displayed at either the album level or track level of the metadata. Still a problem because the artists are not always getting the credit or recognition they deserve for their work. The other major download services are mostly pop-driven so there is little need for these to focus energy on classical metadata, therefore when you search for a work as you did, you come up with hundreds of results and no way of identifying which recording it is that you are looking for. Sad, but true, and hopefully these services are taking note of what the competition are doing and will eventually catch up. I heard a crazy statistic the other day that classical makes up something like 12% of sales on iTunes. Don’t quote me on that, but 12% is nothing for anyone to turn their nose at if it happens to actually be fact.

    To answer your question as to ‘how on earth do people figure out how to appropriately pay the artists whose music they’re selling? Are the wacky data/reporting requirements of this music causing problems down the line?,’ – this is actually not such a huge problem because most legitimate download stores require labels to deliver an ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) with each and every track – it is similar to the barcode in the physical world. This way, the label can easily determine which artists/ performers, songwriters/ composers, etc. should be paid. Yes, the amount of data being reported back to some of the large labels is gargantuan and can get messy, but the good news is that there is a system in place so that labels do have the ability to properly pay all necessary parties. If I’ve misunderstood your question, let me know and I’ll clarify.

    One way to seriously impact this issue would be for classical labels (at least the majors and major indies) to put their heads together and really standardize spellings, work title and track title structures, etc for the services. A major undertaking, but perhaps a necessity as people are increasingly going the way of digital downloads as opposed to physical CDs. At Naxos, we have a very specialized style of maintaining our classical database. This is the same database that is powering the Naxos Music Library. The metadata is extremely deep, but cannot be transferred directly to the download stores because the schemas they are using just cannot handle the detail.


    Katie Hackett
    Marketing Manager, Digital Services
    Naxos of America, Inc.

  4. dalgas

    Hi Katie, & thanks
    I should mention that I’ve been an eMusic customer for a loooong time, and routinely see all of the problems Katie mentions. Some of us take pains to write eMusic themselves pointing out errors and omissions; in fact, there’s even a group of like-minded individuals there bring these to light and even collect them on an outside forum! ~ Steve Layton

  5. Sean

    I must chime in with my colleague Katie. Digital track encoding, as she says and the readers realize, is a complex process. Most of the sites utilize other companies to handle their metadata, most of whom do so adequately for pop music. Naxos has invested years in ensuring that metadata for each of the hundreds of thousands of tracks we have and distribute are used correctly in our web properties –,, and In fact, we have track level metadata translated into some twelve languages for DSPs in other parts of the world. The simple fact is that DSPs elect to use one or two companies to do all of their cataloging, and this leads to the general consternation of classical fans who want that Furtwangler Beethoven Third, and can’t find it.

    Emusic does indeed do a great job, the best in my experience. Itunes, as Katie says, sells an amazing amount of classical music downloads, relative to overall marketshare. It’s really incredible how the digital world has opened up classical music to new generations that may never have sampled anything in the genre before. We hear the collective frustrations of the digital community and are working diligently to get these issues solved. We all benefit from a better, more organized digital community for classical music sales. We appreciate the comments.

    Sean Hickey, National Sales Manager
    Naxos of America

  6. rtanaka

    Most genres of music don’t seem to have a problem with labelling their stuff correctly, but it’s almost always music from the classical world that tends to do funky stuff with their ID3 tags. To be fair, some of the older versions of the format only had were album, artist, and title, so there was a disjunction right from the beginning. When I started putting my stuff online I found myself having to put stuff into boxes where they didn’t belong.

    Nowadays, though, they do have tags for “composer” and such, so it should be much easier to do proper labeling. Still, if you look at the info menu in iTunes, there’s still no box for “performer”. There’s a generic term called “artist” where it could be probably anything (composer, performer, conductor, etc.)…which is why I think everything is so muddled.

    This also poses a problem for sites like Last FM” where in theory, its “social networking” algorithm will hook you up to similar artists and fans of similar tastes. My friend introduced it to me a while ago and a lot of people have testified that it works pretty well. But I’m finding that it’s really not doing all that much for me for the reasons pointed out above…say, I’ve listened to a lot of Stravinsky in the last few days but it doesn’t really show up on my log because it’s mostly listed under the name of the performers.

    I don’t really see the problem becoming fixed unless somehow the classical world can lobby the people creating these systems to make it more classical-music friendly. I have a few tracks sitting around on my hard drive that I haven’t listened to years, and I have no idea where it’s supposed to go. It tells me the title is “Allegro”, and it gives me the performer’s names, the album name is missing, but I’m guessing that the composer’s name was probably listed on either the album or the first movement of the piece. Well either, way, that file is a lost cause at this point. I doubt it’s the only one out there.

  7. frindley

    First, if you’re ever just looking for recordings to recommend, or to see who’s recorded a piece, head right over to arkivmusic. They’re in the business of selling CDs, so they won’t have downloads for you, but they are one of the few sites that has a sensible and logical (i.e. hierarchical) system in place for handling classical music. You can choose composer (or performer or other starting point), then drill down to the work which in turn gives you a list of the artists in question who have currently available recordings. In three clicks I pulled up this list for Zigeunerweisen and the 102 recordings arkivmusic can sell you. Perhaps not everything that’s out there but pretty good. And perfect for Jean’s kind of query: “I dig around to see who’s actually recorded it”, which is a pretty common one for a classical music listener.

    Second, my experience with iTunes is that I can usually find what I want, given the search capability, but that it pulls up a lot of dross at the same time. I’ve never purchased something from iTunes and not had to change the metadata for my own use, though.

    Part of the problem is not just the inconsistencies in metadata entry, which is ultimately dependent on the knowledge and care of the staff responsible, but the general mismatching that occurs when you impose a pop hierarchy onto the classical hierarchy and attempt to retain the same category names. In my own metadata I use the “Artist” field for Composer, the “Composer” field for artist information and the “Album” field for the work title, because of what’s going on in the underlying database and how classical music best “sits” in that. The iTunes folder on your hard drive, for example, files by Artist folders then with Album folders inside these, then Songs. For classical music you want Composer then Work then Track. So I ignore the labels in the iTunes software, and use the fields in a way that’s more logical for the repertoire I listen to.

  8. publicutensil

    I’ve been embroiled in the classical digital argument for a few years now with colleagues who work for the “majors”.

    Sure, the digital chart trackers and revenue keepers claim that 12% ( I’ve heard as high as 15%) is generated from classical- but “classical” in the digital world incudes, take a deep breath, Celine Dion, Sarah Brightman, The Three Tenors with Sting, and a Satie Gymnopides dance re-mix (I’m not kidding) not to mention an electronic re-mix of Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”.
    Hardly what the majority of discerning classical musicians and music lovers seek.

    And I’ve heard the arguments that all you need is a high bitrate to get the same sound you would on a CD or analog recording or in live performance.
    And eating pasta salad in a coorprate burger joint is the same as fine Italian dining, right?

    I’ve been told that there is a way to write the ISRC that will identify each artist . But tha takes the coopertion of so many digital rights associations who themselves are behind the times.

    Great topic- thougtful responses. Now I’m off to Wal-Mart to find that new Kronos quartet recording. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find Penderecki in the discount bin

  9. BLees

    Hi Jean,

    You might be interested in checking out The Classical Shop, a digital store set up by Chandos. Over at Chandos we were the first classical label to offer downloads on our site and have been developing our digital tender ever since. In fact, there is now a cornucopia of classical material available, with over 45 independent classical labels available online – and growing. With the discerning classical audience solely in mind we have concentrated on the search facility and pricing structure and hope many of the problems you have experienced on other DSPs have been ironed out. However, as an independent classical label Chandos only has praise for the download retail environment. We have gained many new customers through the digital platforms. These are customers from all walks of life who had previously never come across the label, and possibly never even purchased classical music before. It is very refreshing when there is so much talk of the decline of classical music – it is simply not true. As the classical industry and DSPs work together we will build on this great start and further endorse the classical world.

  10. dalgas

    eyarlowe wrote: I’ve been told that there is a way to write the ISRC that will identify each artist . But tha takes the coopertion of so many digital rights associations who themselves are behind the times.

    The IRSC thing works OK for most everybody; even if there wasn’t another shred of info in the track, as long as the ISRC is accounted for at the download the money gets back to all parties just the same as a physical CD sale.

    Where it’s still way behind the times and broken is in the streaming of music files. The PROs have been pretty aggresive about demanding relatively high rates for this, tied to extremely onerous and bzyantine record-keeping. As bad as it is, at least the new technology can allow for each track streamed to be identified by the same ISRC, and so its cut go straight to that copyright holder and no other.

    But instead they still follow the old-school method invented for radio, pooling the money and then taking a statistical sample from all the playlists to decide who gets how much. This insures that 99% of the most-played people show up, but also that 90+% of plays from people on the fringe don’t even make a blip on the screen, with whatever money that’s rightfully theirs going into the most-played artist’s pot.

    The technology is here today to change that for the better for every small or fringe artist or style. But the old corporate interests are still there too, and still dominate. ~ Steve Layton

  11. bigtalent

    Dear Jean,
    This is the best comment I’ve seen so far on this problem. It’s even worse for a choral group. Think about what happened to my choir’s recording of Poulenc’s Noel motets. I think most musicians are going into digital distribution via CD Baby, so at least part of the problem must lie there. ISRC numbers are tied to individual tracks or songs, which is ok for a rock band but gets complicated when you’re describing individual movements of a larger instrumental piece, or sections of a mass or recitative/aria/chorus from The Messiah. Another culprit might be Harry Fox where most folks license music for recordings.
    Patricia Minton
    Cappella Gloriana, San Diego


    You Think Downloading Classical Music is Rough…
    …you ought to try doing anything with early music. Yikes, I say,

  13. NemesisVex

    Software developers should certainly share part of the responsibility for the mess that is tagging classical music.

    The IDv3 specifications, which dictate the fields available for tagging media, do support classical metadata, but many software developers don’t take full advantage of it.

    I used to use CDex to rip my CDs, but it only supported the bare minimum fields — artist, album, year, genre. I would need to use another program to tag classical music properly. recommends people use the Musicbrainz service to tag their files, which is what I’ve done. Musicbrainz does a valiant job of imposing a style on classical music, but at the outset, it goes against the IDv3 specifications by putting composer information in the artist field instead of the designated composer field. Why? The composer field is not widely adopted by software makers.

  14. William Osborne

    If I understand Jean’s blog correctly, she is not speaking about the way metadata is filled out in the form-blanks used by streaming file software. Those blanks could never approximate liner notes. She is addressing the fact that the websites that sell streaming files often include little more than the cover art, and with nothing even approximating liner notes, even though a website could contain such information. (These liner notes would also include the names of the performers.)

    The companies involved should consider creating a webpage for each of their streaming files that would be something like the liner notes used for CDs. This would include not only the performer’s names, but also information about the work, graphic art, and photos. This would increase costs, but it would also enhance the value of the product.

    In the metadata form-blanks, one could simply include the URL for the recording’s webpage. This would easily solve the problem that downloadable products lack liner notes.

    I have some dozens of audio and video files on my site. All of the larger works include full performance information, graphic art, photos, screen shots from the videos, and long essays about the works. (Our newest entry, for example, is for a work in progress and includes three video files, two audio files, 12 screen shots from the video, and a 15 page essay about the work with many hyperlinks.) For works with only sound files, we usually have 6 or seven photos from performances. Now that server space has become almost unlimited, I am going to be streaming several of our complete hour-long music theater works.

    Perhaps companies trying to make a profit cannot afford these features. Perhaps this is one reason to work outside the market place – though I deeply admire the work of Chandos, Naxos, and similar companies. (How interesting that Jean inspired them to visit us here.) My wife and I don’t make money from our recordings, but our website has helped us gain many invitations for concerts and master classes which are much better paying anyway. And we get to travel, perform live, work with students, and meet a lot of wonderful people. A doctoral student at the University of Malaga, Jesus Lloret is even writing his dissertation about our work, most of which he initially learned about through our website.

    The downside is the low-fi quality of web audio and video, to say nothing of the fact that most or our works are in 5.1 Dolby surround which can only be streamed in stereo.

    William Osborne


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