Apple’s Last Chance

Will Apple Music truly serve music, or be yet another exclusionary platform for pop?

by Craig Havighurst

My digital copy of Kind of Blue. No liner notes. No personnel info. And an apparent release date of 1997.

As we process the rollout of Apple Music, it’s a good time to review what a music disabling disaster iTunes has been and prepare ourselves for further disappointment even as we admit room for, God willing, pleasant surprise.

My complaint is not about compensation for artists, as widely discussed and important as that is. It’s about a music ecosystem that hurts music and the music business and which we (supposedly empowered music fans) have little influence to improve. Digital music platforms should be innovating and competing on their ability to inform and inspire, yet by conforming to the iTunes framework, which prejudices popular music over art music, they’ve done long term harm to our culture’s music literacy and curiosity.

The software that revolutionized and set the template for digital music was launched on January 9, 2001. In the years since, mankind has mapped the human genome, discovered hundreds of exoplanets and developed 3D printing. Apple itself propagated the iPhone, an epochal technological achievement. Meanwhile, through 12 major versions and a seemingly infinite number of intrusive micro-updates (what part of “do not ask me again” does Apple not understand?), iTunes got a bit better and then a lot worse.

I’ll spare you my peeves about iTunes functionality and design, because they’re not Apple’s gravest crimes against music. Those would be two, inter-related sins of omission and inexplicable neglect. First is that Apple taught the world that it’s okay to build a music platform free of information, context, history or musical connections. And worse still, the way Apple organized music for searching, shopping and collection discriminates against and marginalizes the most artistically important and inventive fields of music, notably classical, jazz and their contemporary manifestations.

The death of liner notes

How we interface with and manage music is no small thing. Life’s a dance between the music we cherish, the music we’re presently discovering and the music we don’t yet know. Over the decades, our possible touch points have been varied and potent. There have always been public spaces like concert venues and record stores where we mingle with other music people. When it’s not corporate crap, radio puts music in context and stages it in a theater of the mind. Most personal are our collections, in whatever form they take. Particularly iconic and influential were crates of LPs handed down within families and the LPs themselves with graphics and liner notes. Even CD booklets, challenging as they can be to the eyes, provide deep information about most consequential recordings.

All of these were good and evangelical, especially liner notes, which unlocked rooms in the mansion of music for generations. In jazz especially (for me), album notes by experts, evangelists and sometimes artists themselves gave me insight and patience to listen to new terrain. They told me what to listen for and offered information about who made the music and what else they’d done and who else they’d made music with. Names kept popping up on various recordings, and a journey into jazz and other sophisticated music was often a game of hopscotch and association based on and building on knowledge from other liner notes.

Alas, none of those tactile and qualitative factors have been successfully modeled by iTunes or its streaming brethren. iTunes does allow albums to be attached to PDF booklets, but this proved incredibly spotty and unsatisfying. I bought Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on iTunes, but it didn’t come with any notes, and Kind of Blue without the Bill Evans jacket essay and personnel information, while still a lovely recording, is a music explorer’s dead end. Those notes on the LP jacket helped change my life when I got hold of the seminal album in my teens.

Spotify, my platform of choice for day to day digital listening, is a more workable, fluid and searchable environment with access at least to short biographies of significant artists. By and large it has carried on iTunes’ indifference to information. Session and personnel facts are nowhere in sight. I can’t look up who wrote a song or piece. Album covers can’t be enlarged (which would be a huge help for classical music) and release dates — the one bit of data Spotify deigns to display — are generally absurdly and deceptively incorrect. Placing major artists’ catalogs in chronological order seems like something the interns could do.

Adding insult to injury, we’ve been promised wonders in the music information/story space. Years ago some guys from one of the major labels came to the Nashville Digital Summit to talk about their plans for an interactive album experience. There were supposed to be new hybrids of box sets, coffee table books and museum exhibits built for iPads and tablets. But it’s all been a big disappointment. Indeed the big music companies seem set now on a model that encourages us to forget music history, save for a few safe lifetime achievement winners, so we think harder about spending on the new. This isn’t Apple’s fault, but you’d think their engineers and designers could have come up with an interface that offered insight into the music. Instead we got new versions of Visualizer. Trippy, but not inclined to make a deeper music fan.

The unholy trinity: Artist, Title, Album

Here’s where the trouble started and where it remains. Even most music lovers are unaware of the damage done by the archetypal iTunes classification system of Artist, Title, Album (ATA). I have no idea who or what processes led to this narrow trio of variables, but once fixed, it proliferated across the digital music services. And that’s how ATA broke the world. Because it’s a framework that only works for popular music, where songs are the unit of delivery and albums are the most acceptable and widespread mode of bundling said units.

It becomes quickly obvious on reflection that ATA breaks when applied to other approaches to music-making, including the mega-genres of jazz and classical. Pop music was supposed to be a side trip from music music, but for various reasons it wound up crowding out instrumental and composed music entirely — in the media, in the dwindling record stores, even at the level of symphonies being forced to play with pop singers just to keep the doors open. In the digital space, deep, art-based music, while present, is organized so inadequately as to barely exist. And ATA is one big reason.

America is full of young and otherwise contemporary composers and instrumentalists, opera singers and conceptual producers who don’t do “songs” and who work with so many collaborators that it’s almost never clear who the “artist” is. There should be room to credit (and search by) composers, conductors, ensembles and soloists. Jazz recordings may have an “artist” as a leader, but the particular chemistry of the side musicians and the producer is seminal to the nature and sound of the session. Some of us would like to know about producers and engineers. Catalog hopping is much harder than it used to be. Just today I was enjoying an Avashai Cohen album and I wanted to know who the guitar player was and that’s difficult to find out on the open internet. It’s not even hinted at within the Spotify system. It’s ATA all the way.

The cumulative neglect here is staggering, marginalizing many of America’s genius level musical creators from the dawn of recorded sound through today. Lost or obscured are the big bands and the chamber ensembles and world music collectives. Lost are the cross-over hybrid masters whose work falls between genres. Lost are the young composers and instrumentalists who had the gall and the nerve to choose a path in sophisticated music in a post-MTV world. We’re missing music with movements and music of long durations with mingled ensembles. America doesn’t ignore this canon and its own musical heritage and ferment because it doesn’t like it. It doesn’t know it’s there.

I have it from a knowledgeable source that the team working on iTunes at the beginning knew full well it was launching with inadequate metadata for entire fields of music, especially classical. They went ahead anyway.

The Why Bother? problem

When I talk to music industry folks about the information desert of digital music (and radio), I generally get either a yawn or a rationale. Classical and jazz are a mere 5% of the market, they’ll remind me. It’s too small an audience to merit a reorganization of our whole digital musical system. Even in the context of popular music, important journalists and record executives have told me that ‘we music freaks (wink) are not like the mass public.’ I’m told my hunger for information, about songwriters and composers, about sidemen and conductors, about location and accurate dates, about commentary and criticism is just too rare to be a problem.

Besides being patronizing and cynical, this is the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a time when information about recordings was abundant and included on and inside those record sleeves. They served to sell the recording when it was in the bin. They gave the listener an orientation while listening. They created touch points that would become connections later on as dots connected and a picture of the big sprawling musical world took shape for each individual listener. Is it mere coincidence that that era produced giants who crossed among genres like Leonard Bernstein and Miles Davis? Or complex, elegant pop music like Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan? I don’t think so. I believe their successes were products of an information rich musical America.

When we don’t feed the mind as well as the ears, we make temporarily engaged consumers of a lifestyle product, not music lovers. If we offer information, while not everyone will avail themselves of it, those who do will become the evangelists and explainers in their families and communities. Casual fans will always be one glance away from a thread that they’d otherwise have not pulled or a rabbit hole they’d otherwise have blown past. Some percentage of those so engaged will become the super-fans. Music geeks and freaks are an essential part of a music ecosystem, and it’s harder to become one now. Similarly, innovative and complex art music plus deep classical traditions are necessary to raise the bar for all music, including popular forms. Studies have suggested that pop music has grown less complex harmonically in the decades since the liner note and enriched musical experience peaked, and my own observations bear that out.

You could argue that I should just be motivated enough to use the web while I listen. I could find complete biographies and discographies on Wikipedia and AllMusic. I can puddle jump through associated artists on YouTube. I can look up great albums on AlbumLinerNotes.com.

And I could ask you to go eat your appetizer at one restaurant known for its small plates and get up and drive across town for a place with good entrees. Of course we have the option of a self-guided tour, but that’s not a good way to get started in an intimidating genre or stay focused on a recording while listening. Most iTunes users I daresay have never heard of AllMusic in any event. What worked for decades was bundling the information with the product itself. Listen. Look. Learn. And what’s all this development and code and technology for if not to make the best music ecosystem possible? Why have we given up?

I don’t see why this is so complex for the company that made the iPhone and my beloved MacBook Air and living as we do in a world made of data management. We just need a few more fields and variables and industry agreement on a set of common system of metadata that can be the template for a new music business. Apple Music should make it easier for developers to build add-ons, shells or skins to new music ecosystems powered by Apple Music but not tied down to a no-options interface like iTunes. Part of it could be wiki-like, allowing fans to fill in the blanks and contribute their own notes. After all, how many data fields is Apple and the digital entertainment industry keeping on us consumers? That’s where the money and effort has gone — not to inform and empower us as listeners but to measure and manipulate us as consumers.

At last, industry players and observers are paying attention to the arcane but vital subject of metadata. This is data about the music and data about the data, best imagined as bits of code that tag along with digital music tracks through all their pipelines. There were days of heated conversation about the subject at this year’s Music Biz conference in Nashville. NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas recently dissected the deficits of metadata in classical music. A new company in Nashville called DART has put forth a data conforming solution for today’s classical artists and composers who wish to join the modern music marketplace. They’re raising capital because investors see they may have a framework for filling in blanks about many kinds of music.

Much is made about how music has been “devalued,” and usually the culprit is illegal downloading and competing with free. But I can’t think of anything more devaluing than to rip music away from its context and its history. Apple and iTunes abandoned a promising start on an engaging digital music delivery and discovery system rich with information and inspiration. In falling short, it has actually shaped and distorted our shared perception of what music is worthy and valuable. With Apple Music, the company has a huge opportunity to start over and get this right.

Craig Havighurst is an author, writer and media producer in Nashville. He’s currently co-host and co-producer of Music City Roots. And he’s the author of Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City.

www.craighavighurst.com