When you put a CD in the disc drive of your computer, the ripping software magically populates the fields with all the information contained on the disc: artist, album title, song title, track lengths and so on. That information is NOT on the disc; it’s fetched from a massive database called Gracenote. It works by comparing the number of tracks with the total length of the CD. If there happens to be a CD with the same number of tracks and the same length, a window pops up giving you a choice.
This is an example of metadata–data about data, really–that has become essential to identifying and cataloging music. In the case of streaming, metadata is the thing that makes sure the right artist gets paid when someone plays the song.
(Brief sidebar: The favourite way of digitally distributing new music to the industry is a secure delivery service called DMDS. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, RECORD LABEL PEOPLE, PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO FILL IN ALL THE METADATA FIELDS BEFORE YOU SEND OUT YOUR MUSIC! One of the worst offenders is one of the three major labels that almost never fills in the field for something as simple as “Album Title.” As a result, all their single releases gets filed by iTunes as “Unknown Albums.” I have THOUSANDS of those tracks from this label, all floating about on my hard drives with no particular home. You want me to do your work for you? Ain’t gonna happen. Okay. Rant done.)
Back to Gracenote and the matter of metadata. NewMusicBox.org has this essay on the matter.
There’s a CD in my laptop’s disc drive. I’m enjoying the light industrial whir that it’s making.
The CD, an old album by electronically enhanced trumpeter Jon Hassell, isn’t a collection of light industrial music. It’s Fourth World music, which is Hassell’s term for an amalgam of ancient traditions and technological experimentation. It’s exploratory music, reaching in time both backward and forward.
That whir I hear, however, is simply the sound that the drive makes when it’s transferring audio from the CD to my computer at several multiples of the speed at which the disc would normally play. The whir is the sound of the mundane present.
Soon, quite soon, the audio will be stored on my hard drive as an ALAC file. ALAC is Apple’s version of FLAC, a “lossless” format that maximizes the fidelity of the data that stores the audio. I’m ripping the CD to my hard drive because this album in particular doesn’t appear in the storehouses of any of the major streaming services, aside from a low-fidelity copy that a fan once uploaded to YouTube. I’m doing so in a lossless format because I want—to the extent possible—to future-proof my efforts in digital archiving. I’m doing so in ALAC because iTunes doesn’t play nice with FLAC, and this matters because my primary listening device when I’m out of the house is an old iPod. I use an iPod because I’ve found that having a secondary device is the best means by which to maximize my mobile phone’s battery life.
Like I said, the whir of the CD drive is the sound of the mundane present.
When the Hassell CD first entered the drive, two options popped up on my screen, each representing a different collection of data associated with the CD—not audio data in this case, but metadata, which is to say “data about data,” text as well as image data that lends some context to the music data. There were two lines in the little window, each representing the album’s artist and title. One of the two lines had a typo, and the other line had additional material, including a very long integer that suggested itself as a catalog number. These were drawn, automatically, from the deep database that is Gracenote.
Gracenote is a massive repository of metadata about music and other forms of what we’ve come to call “content.” Gracenote is the company that your CD drive, should you still own one, and other devices and services ping to identify what it is you’re listening to or watching.