Meta-tagging and the data you need to keep
This article first appeared Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
It may not be a glamorous notion, but handling data properly is one of the biggest differences between a professional and an amateur in music production. When it comes to selling music to other professionals or making sure your image is awesome when fans find you, good tagging and tracking of recordings is of the utmost importance. So we’re just going to dive into the where, how and why of keeping your metadata.
Simply put, metadata is data about other data. In our case, it’s data about audio data. Metatags are how files embed this metadata into themselves. This could be anything from the title of a song to the format of a file. Audio file formats include various amounts and types of metatags, and you’ll want to fill in this data where appropriate. We’ll talk about what you’ll need in a bit, but let’s start by talking about a couple of file types and their metatags.
Wav files are our most common uncompressed audio format. Technically these files have metadata in them, but it’s all technical data about the file (more on that in an upcoming article), and nothing you want to touch. From our point of view, WAV files contain no extra data. Don’t confuse this with the metadata that gets amended to a Red Book CDDA file, which is the way CD Players know things like song title and artist name. This data is stored in the Red Book file, not in the .wav itself.
EDIT for full accuracy: WAV files DO indeed carry metadata, not just for technical stuff. Very few software packages can read this data, so it’s likely that whoever you send a .wav file to will never see it, even if you add it. AND it’s likely if they save the file in any software that doesn’t deal with it – it’ll get lost. Nevertheless, some people still embed their metadata in their .wav masters – I am one. As of this edit, I use Tag Scanner for this job – it’s free and awesome.
MP3’s are currently the most common compressed format, which is usually how we deliver downloads to fans and associates. Mp3’s ubiquitous nature may change, but probably not soon, and since Mp3s carry so much useful metadata, they’re good for getting the concept down. There are a couple of different metadata formats associated with Mp3s – ID3v1 and ID3v2 – but we really needn’t concern ourselves with that right now. What’s important right now is what data we need.
Many other audio file formats exist for audio, including AIFF, OGG and Flac. Some carry useful metadata and some don’t. We’ll be diving into file formats in more depth in a later piece, so for now, let’s stick to the basic concepts and use Mp3 as our basic guide.
What You Need And Why
So what data do we want to associate with a song? Obviously the title and artist name would be a good start, but there’s a lot more than that. To start to understand what you really want to embed in a file, you just need to think about the purpose of a recording. There are a few potential purposes. You might be selling the tracks to fans, you might be giving the tracks away for promotion, and you might be using the tracks for business-to-business transactions, such as licensing.
That last scenario is the big one. When you pitch a track to an agent or a music supervisor, there’s a wealth of information they need to make it easy to potentially use a song. Fortunately, some of it is the same stuff you want your fans to have, and all of it also serves the purpose of creating a professional look and feel to your work. So, let’s look at some information from the extended Mp3 standard that we might want.
- Album Artist (could be different than the track artist)
- Track number (# of #)
- Disc #
- ISRC (a unique identifier for a given recording)
- Album Cover
Title, artist and album are pretty self-explanatory. If your song has a featured artist, put that in the TITLE, not the artist. This way, programs like iTunes don’t separate the song from your others, creating organizational havoc for your listeners. Album artist might be different, say if you’re a guest on a compilation or something.
Fill in the year, track number if the song is part of an album, and if the album is some sort of multi-disc set, fill in the disc number. This is kind of an antiquated notion unless you’re also releasing a physical product like CDs.
If you fill in your genre, make it as accurate as possible, and don’t overload it. Use no more than 3 genres (most of the time, it’s a dropdown anyway). Especially when it comes to licensing, your agent or music supervisor or indie film maker needs to be able to find you in a genre search and not be way off.
Grouping was intended originally for movements in classical music, but you could use this for subgenres, or some people use it to identify the companies clearing the mastering and publishing sides of a song, which just means who a person has to deal with to pay for a licensing.
In the composer section, you can list all the composers or the main composers, and if you have writer information, such as writer’s percentage and performing rights identification number. This is also a good place to identify a public domain song, or if it’s a cover, the original writer.
Comment may be the most useful section. Here’s a good place for contact information, which is especially important if you’d like somebody to license your music and pay you! It’s a good idea to put your website in here, writers splits if you don’t put them in composer, the key, time signature, or any songs or artists the song sounds like. Also helpful is any identifying info from your performing rights organization, such as BMI # or ISWC (an international standard song identifier), or even the ISRC, which, if you have one, is a unique identifier connected to a given recording. Another useful thing to do if you’re pitching for licensing is include a link to an instrumental version somewhere on the web. The comment section is limited, so be judicious with your character count.
BPM, or tempo, can be important for anyone looking to use your music in a video production, or for DJs who’d like to work your song into a set. If the song is published, or you have a publishing company, you can enter that info and your copyright info (you can do this even if you have yet to register), and you may find a separate URL tag. Use that, but also put your website in the comment section.
Album cover is super important. Imagine when you open an mp3 from a pro – there’s always an image. Make sure, if your track is for sale or any kind of public consumption, that you get some kind of cover image in there. Square is best. Pro tip: album cover, title and artist are the only things you will see in every mp3 player.
Of course, lyrics are also an option. It’s up to you whether to include lyrics, but if you intend to pitch the song, the lyrics are quite helpful, and it’s a nice thing for fans to have. Not all players will show the lyrics, but iTunes does.
How To Do It
If you’re wondering how to fill in your metatags for, say, an mp3, it’s not difficult. Many software packages do this. Some mastering software will let you create tags right in the software, some audio software such as Audacity have metatag features, and there are dedicated tagging packages such as Mp3Tag, TagScanner (both free), Tag & Rename and MediaMonkey, to name a VERY few. A lot of packages support various formats like AIFF, as well. You can even add metadata when using command line mp3 encoders, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Probably the easiest thing to do is open your song in iTunes, click “info”, and edit the tags to your heart’s content. When you do this, you’ll notice that you can do this to any mp3, which means that anybody can change your tags around. You’ll have to live with this. It’s how people organize their collections.
If you try a few different packages, you’ll see some variation in what tags are available. iTunes doesn’t include the ISRC, URL, publisher or copyright tags for example. This doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but if you were to open the file in a package that does use those tags (TagScanner, for example), you’d see they’re blank.
In any case, you’ll edit your tags, and hit save. The metadata is embedded into the file.
You can keep a lot of the data you need to associate with a track in the metatags embedded in the file, but you may find that you need more data at your fingertips. For example, if you submit your track to a few micro-licensing libraries, you’ll find yourself entering in a description and mood over and over. So, it behooves you to keep some information somewhere connected to your songs, so you don’t have to dig around every time you need it. You can keep a simple spreadsheet, use a database, or there are a number of software packages and online solutions that can help you keep organized.
You should keep all the data you would put in a metatag handy, plus more – here’s a big list of data you might want to keep, if you were to use a simple spread sheet:
- Credits – any players, engineers, studios, etc that should be credited.
- Artist/Act Name – you may have more than one, so keep track if you do
- Description – a short description of the song that tells people the basic topic, mood, genre and instrumentation
- Release date – you’ll get asked for this a lot
- Album – if it’s part of an album, keep track of which
- PRO # – the id number assigned when you register the song with BMI, ASCAP or your PRO.
- ISWC – the international song identifier used across PRO’s, issued by your PRO.
- ISRC – the unique identifier for the recording, issued by the RIAA in the U.S., or your ISRC agency, or your distributor (this is easiest).
- Publisher – if you have a publisher, or if it’s your own publishing company, or none if neither
- Writers splits – who owns what percentage of writing
- Master splits – who wants what percentage of the recording
- Genres – a short list of genres
- Time – of the track, not the day!
- BPM – tempo
- Time signature
- UPC – if you have a UPC for the track, keep it with the track info. Keep the album UPC with your album info. UPCs are issued by the GS1, or your distributor (this is easiest).
- Keywords – a comma separated list of keywords so you can copy/paste when asked for them on a form
- Toggles – whether you’ve registered the PRO, copyright, Soundscan or SoundExchange. You can use Y/N, Yes/No,1/0, whatever feels best to you.
- Notes – some general notes
There You Have It
There you go! The topic may not have been as sexy as some other things, but metadata is the nuts and bolts of efficient communication, and it makes all the difference when you’re building a business out of music. Keep your data clean, handy and up-to-date and you will find it a lot easier to spread the word, engage your partners, and make money. Even if you don’t plan to build a music business, it’s nice to know where everything is. So, fire up the computer and get organized!