How to Love Your Music Even More - Just Add the Metadata

Anyone who has ripped a CD in the last year or so has no doubt been pleasantly surprised by the artist and album information that is now available online. The popular PC music management programs like MusicMatch, iTunes, and Windows Media Player will use an available Internet connection to download a huge amount of useful data about the album and store it along with the compressed MP3 files on your hard drive.

But this is not a tribute to the Gracenote or Amazon databases per se; instead, I want to explain how this one feature - the ability to have information about your music immediately available - has become an addiction for me. Call it tags, labels, or metadata, I am now addicted to this information. And it's getting worse (my affliction, not the technology).

The impact of the first encounter with this descriptive text was nearly lost on me because I was still reeling from the whole MP3 conversion phenomenon. As I scrambled to convert my entire CD collection to MP3 files, I saw the "tagging" of individual albums and the organization of music by genre and artists as simply necessary since computer files have always had some attributes to help us organize them. Still, it was kind of magical to have all the information appear on the screen seconds after the CD was placed in the drive.

But as I moved the files to one portable MP3 player after another, it slowly dawned on me that I had taken an evolutionary step on my musical journey. Even though CDs had brought about the joys of direct access to tracks (as opposed to fast-forwarding cassette tapes), it still left a big hole in that once the CD was in the drive, there was nothing other than track number to help guide you through the music. When multi-disc changers came along, the problem got worse in that there was no way to easily determine which CD is in slot 4!

MP3 players read the tag information contained in the MP3 files themselves to provide artist, album, and track information directly on the screen. This makes it much easier to organize and locate your tunes. Once you have this power, it is not something you will readily give up.

And now, this feature is expanding beyond MP3 players. I am beginning to see the utilization of RDS-enabled FM radios in some American cars. RDS is a separate data channel that allows the FM broadcaster to send along useful information with the audio signal. If your radio supports it, you will see station name and/or artist/song information right next to where the frequency is displayed. So when you're bopping along listening to a catchy new song, you can simply glance down and read the artist and song information. Now remembering it, so you can buy the CD later, is a problem you are still going to have (although there are some folks trying to solve that too)!

But the biggest news of late came as I finally stepped up to satellite radio. My new Delphi XM MyFi portable player takes this metadata thing to the next level. First of all, you can see the names of every station before you change to them, which makes it much easier to find something you will enjoy. Then, as you are listening to a program it provides all the tag information for the artist, host, song, etc. -- just like the portable MP3 player.

And with that information available, many more things are possible. For example, there is a way to tell the device that you like a certain artist or song as you are listening to it. It stores that preference and will notify you in the future if it detects that song or artist playing on another station - how cool is that?!? If you hear a new song that you want to remember, you can press another button and it will record the metadata so that you can retrieve it later, like when you are shopping for the CD -- very handy.

A final surprise came as I was listening to a news program and realized that, not only was the name of the program and the host information provided, but the name of the guests that were being interviewed in the different segments.

So I haven't stepped back to think about where this will go except that, like TiVo changed the way I watch television, this kind of thing is quickly changing the way I listen to radio and music. You can tell when you're addicted when you find yourself without it and feel hopeless and lost. Riding in other cars is kind of a drag now. Sure it's the same music, but without the information I might as well be listening to 8-tracks!


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