Music Tagging Conventions

Published 11/23/2015

By Jean-Robert Bisaillon

Whenever some panelist at a music industry session or workshop starts talking about metadata, most attending songwriters’ eyes glaze over and the yawning begins. But tagging your songs with data is absolutely crucial: it’s the only way to ensure that when your music is used, it’ll be recognized as yours, and you’ll get paid for its use. Here to explain some of the music tagging conventions to make the task easier, is SOCAN Board member Jean-Robert Bisaillon.

It’s common knowledge among the music metadata community that we still encounter countless issues with regards to the semantics, fields and containers used to tag descriptive information into music files, or register it into databases. Both the music community and the software development community each show lack of grassroots knowledge of the other which partly explains the inaccuracy of current standards. Another source of inaccuracy is the fact that music industry job descriptions have also changed dramatically since the old days of recording studios, blurring the clear understanding of some tagging concepts. Finally, the music rights chain is extremely complex, changing from one territory or legal framework to another, and many stakeholders get lost in this jungle.

Tagging conventions question the boundaries of our craft, and of the music value chain. Let’s look at the example of fuzzy interpretations associated with the terms “publisher,” “producer” and “record label.”

First, a reminder:  a sound recording embodies a musical work. Therefore, we must be very careful when we talk about a “track,” a “song,” a “disc,” a “cut,” or anything that could be both, or  mistaken, one for the other. This is especially important for those who’ve been involved in creating works and recordings. This is where most mistakes are rooted.

In the book industry, a publisher has vested interests both in the book and the text itself. In the music industry, we must absolutely separate the song, the recording of it, and the disc or marketed computer file carrying the sound to our ears. Confusion has often begun from the fact that some projects are controlled by an entity which undertakes all functions, from music publishing to record producing to label activities. We must separate the three in order to shed some light on the issue.

A musical work (i.e., a song, or composition) can be published in a concert situation without requiring the existence of a recording. Therefore, we must restrain from using the term publisher in the sense of making a recording available, and use the term “record label” in such circumstances. When a recording is produced, this recording will always be marketed under a licence by a record label, and this label may change according to territories, while the original producer of the recording will always remain the same.

The ID3 tagging convention carried into MP3 sound files and the Vorbis Comments tagging convention found in FLAC files often seems inaccurate. Let’s look at some examples taken from the ID3 version 2.4 “four digits container” format. Parentheses indicate the description given by the ID3 community.

TPUB (Publisher or Record Label). This is a perfect example. How can music publishers and record labels share the same container? This field should only be used for the music publisher of the work and NOT for the record label.

TOWN (File owner/licensee). This one isn’t too bad. It should be used by the licensed (marketing) record label. But still, it should never be mistaken with the actual individual buying a final consumer license at downloading points.

TDRC (Recording Date) and TPRO (aggregated Circled P + Year + copyright holder of the original sound). The circled P is a very U.S.-centric model; we don’t see it much outside of America. The notion of copyright holder also seems odd within a music rights jurisdiction. We believe both fields should be filled separately and possibly aggregated in the display. The important fact to acknowledge is that the “copyright holder of the original sound” does seem to suit the description of the production company assuming the costs of the recordings.

Finally what shall we do with the music producer, who actually gets involved in the artistic direction of the project? The French language uses the word “réalisateur” to describe the actual artistic director of a project, but this term has no English equivalent. ID3 refers to the producer as part of an “involved people list,” one of which would be the individual acting as the music producer of the song. On the TIPL (the Involved People List), several music producers, sound engineers, and the like would be listed and separated by commas.

In this new digital era, our industry must come to grips with clear definitions, and ensure that the computer industry conventions follow our practices – and not the opposite.

About Jean-Robert Bisaillon

Jean-Robert Bisaillon is a leading advocate in the fight for better working conditions for music creators and self-producers. He is an in-demand speaker and trainer in the areas of creative career management, cultural exports and digital music issues. He was the co-ordinator of SOPREF’s Amplified Music Forum in 1997-98 and, as a member of the French B group in the 1990s, was among the first Quebec musicians to use sampling. More recently, Jean-Robert created the digital culture research and training company iconoclaste-TGiT (“Tag It”). He’s a former or current member of many boards of directors, including those of SOCAN, Musicaction, the Songwriters Association of Canada (S.A.C.), the steering committee of Option culture/Virage numérique (SODEC/Quebec Ministry of Culture), Francouvertes, MUTEK, the Quebec Pop Music Task Force, CIBL-FM and the Board of Trade of Greater Montreal. Jean-Robert was the publisher and a co-writer of a pioneering sound recording self-production guide (Guide d’autoproduction de l’enregistrement sonore, 2002), a co-writer of the Guide pratique France-Québec du disque et du spectacle (2006, Paris, IRMA éditions) and the writer of SPACQ’s Petit guide Internet pour les auteurs et compositeurs (2008). He has completed an M.A. in Knowledge Mobilization at Montreal’s INRS–UCS (2013) with specialization in Music Metadata.

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