Essays on Technology and Culture

The Genre Tag Problem

Those who listen to Crush On Radio may know that I am somewhat meticulous about the metadata in my iTunes library. I make sure dates, artist names, and song titles are 100% correct. I try to get album art that’s at least 500×500 pixels. For titles in non-Roman writing system, I make sure to use the correct text. I use sort tags so that artists are sorted last name first (e.g.: David Bowie is under “B”). Even when I buy albums from iTunes, I still find myself tweaking the metadata just to get everything how I like it. The only part of my library that’s out of whack are my genre tags, and I doubt I’m the only one.

Part of this is a weakness of the ID3 metadata specification. The original specification limited you to a choice of only 80 pre-programmed genres, with an additional 46 in a later revision. Some of those pre-assigned genres weren’t even ones you’d be likely to use, except as a joke. ID3v2 changed the genre tag from a numeric value to a free-form text field, which is a blessing and a curse because of the second part of the problem. That is, music genres are exceedingly difficult to pin down.

Ask any passionate music fan about their favorite genre or genres of music, and you’ll be in for a graduate-level course in their passion. And that’s before you dive in to the various subgenres of music, in details that would overwhelm any sort of systematic organization in a store. For a passionate music fan, it’s not nearly as simple. Just look at this list of subgenres for Heavy Metal, itself a sub-genre of Rock music. And forget about using the iTunes genre images if you get really specific. And, if it’s not easily classifiable, odds are, in the iTunes Store it’s classified as “Alternative”. This is a limitation by design.

The latest version of the ID3v2 specification allows for any free text field, including Genre, to contain multiple values. However, player support for multiple genres is non-existent. Any solution is unlikely to come from the top down. Neither Apple, or the record labels are going to put a lot of thought into a detailed classification system, largely because it doesn’t affect how they do business. Even the MusicBrainz database doesn’t bother with Genre tags. It’s just up to us as music fans to decide what genre criteria we want to use—or if we even want to bother.