JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. 05/18/13 NY Times.com
For old-timers who still go to record stores, flip through bins, buy albums and dig into the liner notes, the experience of streaming songs on a service like Spotify or Rhapsody can be dismaying. Listen, say, to Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” and you see only a track listing and a link to a cursory biography of the King of Pop.
There is no mention of Quincy Jones, who produced the record and has 27 Grammys to his credit, nor of the two studios in Los Angeles where it was recorded. Nothing tells the listener that John Robinson played those incredibly funky drums, with Louis Johnson on bass (except on “Rock With You,” when it was Bobby Watson). Nor does the service mention that one song, “Girlfriend,” was written by the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, and that three were written by another British songwriter, Rod Temperton.
“This is the one place on the Internet where the consumer is getting less information than in the physical world,” said Daryl P. Friedman, the chief lobbyist in Washington for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Since last year, the Recording Academy, in Los Angeles, has been strongly urging the streaming services to give credit where credit is due. And last week Rhapsody became the first of those companies to commit to providing what amounts to liner-note-style credits for every track in its catalog of 17 million songs: producers, engineers, session players, sidemen, backup singers, songwriters.
Barbara Dehgan, a spokeswoman for the Academy, said, “We are hoping other streaming services will catch on.”
Rhapsody’s decision was welcome news to music fans who miss the days when they could pore over CD booklets, or even prehistoric record jackets, for nuggets that might lead them to other recordings.
But providing complete credits, known in the industry as metadata, for millions of tracks in the databases of services like Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio and Slacker is no mean feat. Some of the data has been collected by Web sites like Allmusic, while in many cases the information resides with scores of record labels.
Jon Maples, Rhapsody’s vice president for products and content strategy, said he hopes to provide a simple list of credits for each track in the service’s collection within three months, what he called “the simplest viable product.” But the plan is to go further and make each name on a list — every percussionist, horn player or co-producer — a button that would call up the other tracks that person has worked on. That effort could take a year.
“I’m not recreating liner notes,” Mr. Maples said. “We need to re-envision what liner notes can be.”
He gave an example. “You click a button and get 35 tracks delivered to your phone, based on the fact you liked an Odd Future production,” he said, referring to the Los Angeles hip-hop collective.
The Recording Academy, the influential nonprofit group made up of producers, engineers, songwriters and musicians that sponsors the Grammy Awards, began lobbying the streaming services last fall with a campaign called “Give Fans the Credit.”
Officials in the Academy have had meetings with executives of the services, trying to sell them on the idea that providing metadata could help their customers explore new music. A complete set of data for every track would improve on the past, audiophiles say. Even in the heyday of vinyl albums, there was no general rule about what should be included in credits; not all labels listed producers, engineers and session players, forcing music lovers who cared about such details to play detective.
Most of the services favor the academy’s proposal in principle but have balked at the costs, Academy officials say. Rhapsody’s decision to invest money and labor in providing credits is seen as an icebreaker that will give the company a competitive advantage and force others to follow suit.
Henrik Landgren, the vice president for analytics for Spotify, said his company has been working on a similar project for three years and expects to roll it out eventually, though it has not made the same public commitment as Rhapsody. Spotify has 20 million tracks in its database, and there are technical hurdles to adding credits to each track. The data must be imported from companies like Rovi Corporation, which owns Allmusic, or acquired from myriad record labels. Just determining which credits belong with different renditions of the same song creates headaches. Then you must weed out duplicates.
Music aficionados, naturally, support the idea of making credits more available. Brian Turner, the music director for WFMU, an independent radio station in Jersey City, and a lifelong record collector and D.J., said music fanatics who care about the largely unsung heroes involved in creating a good record are becoming scarcer in an age in which young people increasingly discover music on YouTube or a streaming service.
The information can be dug up, Mr. Turner pointed out, on Wikipedia, Allmusic and other Web sites like AlbumLinerNotes, but that does not compare to attaching it to each track, approximating what old-fashioned physical albums provided fans.
In his view nothing can replace a vinyl album with complete liner notes as an artifact documenting an artist’s music. For that reason WFMU still has a large vinyl library, often with D.J. notes scrawled on the covers. Even the cover art is important, Mr. Turner said.
“For me, when I look at a record, say an early-’70s Elektra folk record, I get an idea of the mind-set of the artist just by holding it in my hand,” he said.
Credit information is also important to artists, said Jim Anderson, a producer and sound engineer who has won nine Grammys and teaches at New York University.
“People worked very hard to create these things, both musically and technically,” he said. “Credits were the only way you got credit, and the way you got work.”