Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Of Genres and Tags

I have a completely tagged iTunes library. After several hours split between the previous two days, I have looked at every song in my library, every single one of the 12,332 songs that I have, and ensured that the song title, artist, album and genre are all correct. And in doing so, I have discovered that the current method of classifying albums and songs is, at best, woefully outdated. More realistically, it’s an empty and meaningless endeavor.

The idea of placing albums, and indeed artists into categories came naturally with the invention of the record store. You could walk to the jazz section and find The Rat Pack, the classical section would hold timeless Beethoven and Schubert records, and the rock section would have the “raucous” sounds of Elvis Presley (in the ’50’s) and The Beatles (in the ’60’s). It was a simple solution for rather simple music, and I do mean simple. At the time there were standards to uphold. There were no mashup albums, and the difference in perceived loudness between different rock and roll artists would be scoffed at in modern times.

The genre method has continued right up to this day. There’s still a genre column in iTunes, and just about every music store still has everything categorized in this fashion. But music has changed in the last 50-60 years. New genres have appeared seemingly overnight. There are a variety of electronic genres, for starters – everything from chill, ambient music to hard core trance. While Dashboard Confessional and Metallica are both rock, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tonal or stylistic similarity between the two. And don’t even get started on mashup artists like Girl Talk and Audiobytes for Autobots, who both blur genres until there’s nothing left but a sea of sound. With GarageBand, a microphone and a MySpace page, one can create a niche genre for themselves before they can think of a name for it. Times have changed. So should the method by which we sort our music.

Genres are much too vague. There are far too many catch-all genres (electronic, rock, jazz, pop, et. al.), and lines are being crossed all the time. For some artists, a simple “rock” tag will suffice. However, that artist then becomes the basis for what defines “rock” as a genre in your library. You may tag Bon Jovi’s collection as “rock”, but then later, stumble upon David Usher. And it is at this point where you will start to question the definition of “rock”, as relative to Bon Jovi. Is David Usher’s music hard enough? Is the tone right? Is it too hard to be “rock”, and more of a “metal” album? (no, it is not). Quite simply, it becomes difficult to tag such a wide variety of music with so few tags.

This is why I would like a new field in iTunes. I mean, we can keep the genre field, because it’s great for getting a broad overview of an artist or album. But there should be a new field, called “Tags.” In this field, you could write a list of tags, similar to how you would tag a blog entry, a photo on Flickr or a video on YouTube. You could write whatever you want in the tag field – everything from “indie”, “jazzy” and “rockin'” to “upbeat”, “gibson les paul” and “recorded in New York”. In this way, you can search your library based on the keywords you choose. Your music library is freed from the constraints of genres and moved into a more accurate, more correct way of categorization.

I think I should send an email to Apple now…