iTunes: Limitations in music file information tags

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Music, Technology
June 23rd, 2004 • 3:46 am

iTunes might be smart enough to know that “The Beatles” should appear under “B” in alphabetical order when listing artist names in its music library — but that’s about it when it comes to being smart about artist names

If you have a song by “Johnny Cash,” for example, it will appear under “J,” not “C.”

Why is that? Well, it seems quite obvious: There is only one field for “Artist“, and there is no distinction between first name and last name. You could, in theory, work around the problem by typing the last name first and the first name after (as in “CASH Johnny“). The problem is that it’s not how most people fill out the fields, and since the ID3 tags are part of the MP3 format, they are shared with others. In other words, if you insert an audio CD and ask iTunes to look it up in the CDDB database, the data that you’ll get in return will always have the first name followed by the last name. So unless you want to fill in all the information yourself manually, you’re forced to follow suit.

Out of curiosity, I tried to look up the ID3 standard, to see if it was an intrinsic limitation in the standard itself. According to the web site, there are two ID3 standards. ID3v1 is a very limited standard with barely enough room (30 characters) for the artist field/tag. ID3v2 is a much more flexible and comprehensive standard, but even then, based on what I am reading, there is still no distinction between first name and last name.

In other words, it’s not iTunes’ fault. The problem is with the standard itself. As long as the standard itself does not have two separate fields/tags for first name and last name, we are stuck with alphabetical lists where the first name takes precedence.

In addition, the problem is not limited to name tags. While iTunes is smart enough to know that “The” is not relevant when sorting things in alphabetical order, it doesn’t know that the same thing applies to “Le” in French and probably other definite articles in other languages. Much in the same way that a proper music database would have separate fields for first name and last name, a proper music database would have separate fields for irrelevant articles, so that people don’t have to resort to hacks such as “Case of You, A” in order to ensure that things are sorted properly, and so that other languages are supported properly.

It guess worse when you consider what happens when there is more than one performer or artist. Some people put the primary artist in the “Artist” field and include the name of the secondary artist in the song title, as in “U Make My Sun Shine (featuring Angie Stone)“. Others put both artists in the “Artist” field, as in “Prince and Angie Stone“. But then this creates a new artist in the “Artist” column in iTunes’ three-pane browsing mode, which is not really what you want. And of course some use “&” while others use “and“.

Basically, the whole thing is a mess and, as someone who has a fair amount of experience in developing and maintaining databases, I find this rather frustrating. I like things to be tidy, but obviously they will never be so because the very standard on which the file format and the software are based is fundamentally flawed. It reminds me of the fact that, even though it includes the ligatured æ, the ISO-Latin1 encoding standard doesn’t include the ligatured oe, even though it is so common in French (coeur, soeur, oeil, etc.). Because of this, for the past 15 years French speakers world-wide have had to deal with missing or badly encoded oe characters in electronic files. It’ll probably take another 15 years before the Unicode standard is widely adopted and this problem becomes a thing of the past.

As for the information tags for music files, the news is even worse, since there is no new standard that would implement things such as the distinction between first name and last name. Does this mean we are stuck with badly sorted alphabetical lists for years to come? I am afraid so…

6 Responses to “iTunes: Limitations in music file information tags”

  1. Citizen Keith says:

    I agree with your post 100%. This has been the most frustrating thing about iTunes, but I never put together its relationship to id3.

    I followed the link to hell bent on getting involved, somehow, with the group. But I see nothing of the sort. No “get involved” link… no contact info whatseoever. That’s pretty frustrating, considering how many people utilitze the id3 standards.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Can’t say I was very impressed with the myself… It seems that it’s only a half-baked thing, heavy on the technical/developer side, very light on the side of user-friendliness. I also wonder how much of a “standard” ID3 really is… Sigh.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Jean-Paul: I am afraid I don’t have time for this myself, but I hope that you’ll be able to find some help. Since nothing seems to be coming from the major players at this point, a grass-roots type of approach probably has more chances of succeeding… although it’s still a long shot :). Good luck!

  4. Jean-Paul Horn says:

    Is somebody interested in setting up a website featuring a Guide To Perfect ID3 Tagging. I’ve been doin’ my fair amount of mp3-organizing and have searched high and low for information to the perfect id3-tag (which I’ve not found as of yet). My current quest was a search for how to handle the Artist Featuring dilemma, which is how I found Pierre’s weblog entry. I still am puzzled on how to resolve this matter (since I’m also plagued by Itunes’ way of organizing the Artist field).
    My idea for the website would be to provide users all of the world a guide howto proper tag their digital music. This is an utopia, which I’m well aware of, but we really have to start somewhere don’t we, as nothing exists on ths topic now (except for blaming cddb/freedb for major inconsistensies).

    If anyone is interested in helping out, please let me know. It’s too much work for a one man’s job, but doing such a thing as a team would be welcomed by other enthousiasts.

  5. kim says:

    Hi alll,

    You might be interested in the Music Brainz project – they’re doing a lot of debating about id3 and tagging. The project is basically designed as a collaborative tagging effort, and the discussion lists sound right up your alley…

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Kim: Thanks for the information. For those interested, the link is:

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