It can be argued that the birth of the digital age of music was also the death of the album. The ability to pick apart an album and purchase single, individual tracks one at a time was revolutionary, however, I believe that in many ways it was hindering to creators and music lovers alike. I know I am not alone on this matter but, for several reasons, I enjoy albums in their entirety. A single can be great on its own, but from my personal experience an album by your favorite artist is like a novel by your favorite author. One cannot just read a single chapter and gain a true appreciation for the entire book or even the author themselves for that matter. In context with the rest of the album each song creates a completely new experience for the fans. With people downloading or streaming a whole mess of only singles from several artists this dimension is not only lost, but the individual identities of artists also, in a way, becomes lost. People stop caring about the Artists as a whole and begin to only care about individual tracks. This is a bad situation for both fans and artists. However, all of these things aside, what I want to talk about is the actual physical component of the album. The physical aspect of music has almost diminished completely. But why would this matter to anyone other than CD manufacturing companies? The simple answer is credits.
Whether it is iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, or any other digital music service, behind the scenes credits are almost always missing from major digital music suppliers. Here are a few main reasons why this needs to change.
First and foremost producers, engineers, studio musicians, and anyone else involved in a project depend on these credits to get them jobs in the future. Mikael Eldridge is a producer, performer and engineer that has ‘credits’ with artists like Radiohead, Frank Sinatra, No Doubt and even The Rolling Stones. Here is what he said about this issue. “…this is not about stroking the egos of music creators. People need to understand that producers, engineers, and musicians need these credits in order to survive in this business.”[i] There is no question that without these credits it becomes extremely difficult for potential employers to find them based on what they have worked on.
Secondly, supplying these credits opens the door for both an improved user and marketing experience through being more active and personal. A surefire way to turn people on to new music is giving them the opportunity to find music from the same producers or musicians. This information could allow cross-referenced suggestions based on producers, musicians or even labels. Mikael Eldridge explains it this way. “…if I like Radiohead or the Roots, I would want to know who produced them, what other albums they’ve done, and who’s performing on the recordings. Chances are I might like their other work.” In addition, Eldridge makes an interesting point about how proper credits could positively impact music licensing and songwriters. “…we should also be adding songwriting info to these services. Imagine being able to right click on any track in iTunes to see who wrote it and even link directly to the publisher. Imagine how much easier licensing music would be.” In this ideal online music world, anyone would have direct and accurate access through retailers to information about Publishers, Mixers, Performers, Producers, Engineers, and even Songwriters, along with their individual, preferred web link.
The good news is that there is potential for massive improvement and growth in this field. With all the software developers, music platforms, and tablets available out there, a rich, fulfilling, and detailed experience, that would no doubt be even better than the simple liner notes of the past, is far from impractical. So why has the album experience become so lackluster? Why has this information been lost in the digital age? And why has it not been resolved yet? Well, there is an ongoing campaign by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) called “Give Fans the Credit”[ii]. Their initiative is to get as many people as possible to sign a petition[iii] that will create knowledge and show demand. The FAQ of the campaign states: “The biggest reason that digital music services don’t provide music credits is because they don’t perceive any demand for them. If music fans demanded more information about who created their favorite music, music services would find a way to provide them.”[iv]
The ideas here are loyal and well intentioned however the issues seem to be over-simplified and misunderstood. This is a much more difficult issue than one would initially expect.
First of all the main reason for all this lack of crediting is not the “Digital Music Services” but rather the lack of a central system that demands these credits be tracked and provided in detail with no exceptions. It is important to note that online music retailers, whether their service is streaming or downloading, do not have an indifferent or condescending attitude towards this issue. The people in charge of Spotify, iTunes, Rhapsody, and other music services are definitely, if not musicians, passionate music fans themselves that understand the importance of proper crediting. In fact, Anu Kirk, one of the inventors of Rhapsody, who has also worked with Sony Music, MOG, and several other online music services confidently claims, “Every single [digital music] service would love to show detailed, hyperlinked, searchable credits for every one of the millions of songs in their catalog.”[v] But companies such as these cannot be expected to create and maintain their own credits database; they simply do not even have the information.
Let’s take a look at the Film Industry’s Screen Actors, Directors, and Writers, respective “Guilds”. These unions require credits to be tracked and provided in detail. DVD’s, Movie Theaters, Netflix, Movie Trailers, all have thorough credits not because consumers demand it, but because these guilds do. Furthermore, the film industry has the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), which offers comprehensive and accurate credits for even small independent films. The closest thing available in the music world is the Rovi Corporation’s “All Music Guide”[vi] which is blemished with advertisements, and due to the lack of said ‘central system’, their information is highly limited and in several cases inaccurate. Nevertheless, in the film industry it is the movie studios that provide the credit information to the retailers.
The information needed to have an online environment like this in the music industry would have to be delivered from the people who created and own the music in the first place: labels, artists, and publishers. This data would need to be initially delivered to retailers in the same feeds as the cover art, audio content, and other important metadata. Unfortunately this is not a switch that can just be turned on in a few seconds. Most labels, or artists, don’t even have the required information and simply going back and filling it all in is not viable.
There is no question that crediting needs to make a comeback in the music industry. Conversely, the only current approaches to solving are not taking the right steps to real solutions. Awareness is being raised and that is always the first step toward real changes, but the critical foundation necessary for progress is still absent. There are essentially two types of music to consider when thinking about solutions: Released music of the past and not yet released music of the future. The best we can do for music that has already been released and whose credits have been lost, is integrate a service like All Music Guide, into the retailers services. Although when it comes to the unreleased music of the future, a union or something similar to the Film Industry’s “Guilds” needs to be developed to ensure that all of this vital information is recorded and accurate. Perhaps this is where the American Federation of Musicians[vii] could come into play.
It is important that artists who believe in this cause are starting with their own work and their own records. They need to have ample and accurate citations of everyone who did work on the album. ID3 tags are really only useful for downloaded tracks, and not streaming services, but advantage can and must be taken of the empty space in the ‘Comments’ field of them. If something like the American Federation of Musicians can lay down some rules and achieve what the ‘Guilds’ of the film industry do then perhaps the future of online music will not be so bleak in the eyes of the creative people who are the reason this industry exists in the first place.