Monday, 25 February 2008

Graceless Gracenote Entries

Having upgraded my MP3 player and finding myself with twice as much space than before, I’ve recently spent way too much time loading up the more obscure albums and compilations that didn’t make the ‘first cut’ of my previous player, which still had a significant capacity. As time went on and my compulsive CD buying continued, I had to prune more and more songs from the Creative Zen so that I could fit in the new albums, and I ended up being much more satisfied with the outcome, as the continued random shuffle regularly touched upon more prized songs, rather than so many would-be B-sides and easily forgettable tunes that I’d not heard for years, often with good reason. A bright and booming random playlist frequently lifted my spirits, even more so than when I created my own playlist, which is odd as I have for so many decades made myself and friends mixed tapes, then mixed minidiscs then mixed CDs, where the order of the songs was crucial to the overall effect.

At the end of my time with my Zen, it contained about 30GB worth of favourite songs, as I had removed the less interesting ones and most of the dross. I marvelled at how, when I first bought it, I had thought to myself that 30GB was a huge amount of space so I loaded up any old CD, and the whole CD, rather than selecting only my favourite tracks. I would even add things like The Best of Gilbert and Sullivan, when I’m not even that big a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and umpteen classical compilations even if they contained 10 minute symphonies that I usually found too dull and syrupy and would have no interest in or patience for whilst out and about.

So you would think that I would heed my own warning, having lived through that and having to recover from my initial blind bloat of MP3s, and only load up a carefully chosen selection to my iPod—-YES, I caved in and (bitterly) got an iPod, which I will go into another time, but it offered more than twice as much space and the imperfect 60GB Creative Zen was no longer available. But no, I’ve found that I’ve just spent a week loading up a tonne of CDs that have held so little interest for me over the years that I had to look up my (admittedly anal) rating of and comments on each song when I first played it, which I scarily keep in indexed books. I’ve again recklessly added all sorts of obscure classical music collections including Flemish Romantic Horn Concertos and loads of free CDs with Classic FM magazine, I’ve added albums full of big bands and CDs of singer/actors like Doris Day and Danny Kaye, and have worryingly considered adding that Noel Coward CD I bought years ago after some nostalgia trip but never even unwrapped. (The latter thought was sparked by a review of the new West End stage version of Brief Encounter mentioning that they play A Room with a View at the end.)

There are artists I liked once in their day but haven’t recently, such as Lou Dalgliesh, and some whose albums were given to me by friends long ago but I just didn’t really ‘get’ them, like Eleanor Shanley, Robyn Hitchcock and Paul Kelly. I’ve added them in case I liked them more than I remembered, giving them a chance a resurgence, and maybe when I’m sitting on a train some time, one of their songs will come up and I’ll be bewitched by it. It’s like having my own radio station where all of the 10,000 songs that might be played have been pre-selected by me, but there is still plenty of room for discovery amongst them, as well as a smile raised when the most loved favourites rear their beloved heads. Or maybe I’ll want to delete the less loved ones, and then I’ll miss the fact that the Zen would let you do such pruning instantly whilst out and about, whereas the vastly less flexible iPod would make me remember which song I want to remove and do so when I’m next on the PC that contains my iTunes directory, and frankly, there’s little chance that I would even remember by then that I’d wanted to delete anything.

But those are rambling musings, and now for a rambling rant. Gracenote, the CD track identification service used by iTunes and other software to gather the information on the audio tracks…. I fully acknowledge that this is a blessing, as all we have to do is insert our CD—even some obscure collection of Lithuanian Disco classics played on the fipple flute that you bought in the Woolworth’s bargain bin in 1987, which you can’t imagine anyone else owns—and suddenly all the information you need comes up automatically. iTunes has accessed the Gracenote database, and in theory, everything you need to know is there—the name of each tune, the performer, the composer, and the album name. It is a blissful change from the days when I had to enter the title and artist on the minidisc by rotating a dial to painfully select each individual letter at an excruciatingly slow speed. Even when I invested in a package that would hook my minidisc and stereo up to my PC in the early days and enable me to type the titles in, that still was a lot more work than the simplicity offered by Gracenote. In theory, I shouldn’t have to do anything as some other owner of the CD in question has already gone to the trouble of typing in all the information and adding it to the database.

But why can’t they do it properly? Okay, I accept that I’m a terrible pedant. I get annoyed by typos—which we all make, it’s just a shame that they’re in the now official version that pops up for everyone—and the shortcuts. I don’t want it to say '10 Pole Tudor', making me go back to change everything to ‘Tenpole’-—and I usually try to race the downloader and get it fixed before each song is added to my collection. I don’t want every single track on one album to say ‘Beatles’ so I have to go back and add the ‘The’, or remove it from ‘The Counting Crows’. I can’t cope with someone having put the artist throughout a whole album in the form of ‘Hewerdine, Boo’ when all the other albums display the first name first. But mostly, classical music is a nightmare. I am so completely grateful to the poor souls who painstakingly entered every bit of the many, many details—the aria name, the key it is in, the catalogue number, in which act it appears in which opera, which tenor backed by which orchestra conducted by which conductor performed it, sometimes even including the acute é’s and so forth so everything looks perfect.

But most of the souls have even less patience than I and have, for some reason, entered the artist, that is the performer, as being ‘Beethoven' or ‘Puccini’, which is intensely irritating, particularly when they have also entered the composer’s name in the song title section (eg “Puccini: O Mio Babino Caro”) and in the composer’s section, so I cannot understand their thinking. I also hate the cop-outs who put ‘unclassifiable’ as the genre description of albums; I can understand having loyalty to an artist who might claim to be so, but what if you want to listen to a particular genre one day and that artist is hidden away as ‘unclassifiable’?

Some of it is personal preference, of course; I prefer to put ‘(Live)’ at the end of song titles so I can distinguish the live version from the studio recording, particularly when iTunes coughs up a list of duplicates. I also prefer to mention performers who make a significant contribution to a piece. For instance, it might be Colin Reid’s album and him playing guitar (wonderfully) on Never Going Back Again, but it would surely be silly not to mention Eddi Reader at all when she is providing lead vocals, as you might otherwise come to wonder who you are listening to (were it someone with a less distinctive voice), but the Gracenote contributors often omit the significant additional artists, even though there is also a section for ‘album artist’. I would prefer to put the song’s artist as ‘Colin Read & Eddi Reader’ if not Colin ‘featuring Eddi Reader.’

Clearly, my insane rant here is driven by the fact that I have spent too much time adding too many albums at once, necessitating quite a lot of amendments in my iTunes catalogue. Tackling a listing for a classical CD can be utterly exhausting. I’m sure normal people don’t bat an eyelid about this and are thinking I need to get a life, which is true, I know. But if anyone out there is the first to enter a CD’s details into the database, and that may well be true if you eagerly rip open your copy of Word magazine (or fellow pedants can point out my hypocrisy here as they’ve changed the name to The Word, but I can’t bring myself to adapt to that as it just makes me think of Terry Christian) and you load up that issue’s excellent free compilation CD, please have some respect for the anal among us who need the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, or at least the songs spelled correctly and the performers to be given due credit. Though no doubt by tomorrow, I’ll have recovered from this ordeal and remembered that it’s of serious little importance, and I’ll want to ask for your forgiveness for my scary whingeing….Perhaps listening to some music for a while will calm me down. I’ll go put on my favourite album of Mozart performing ABBA’s greatest hits.