Music Nerd Meets Archivist: A Guide To Cataloging An Unwieldy Digital Music Collection

September 22, 2011

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If you’ve been paying any attention to me on Twitter, you may have noticed a couple of things. 1: I’m going to grad school so I can be an archivist. 2: I’ve been talking up how I want to do some major cataloging of my digital music library. I’ve always wanted to do a super amazing hardcore tagging system for all my mp3s, but I never got around to it because it would be extremely taxing. But when I took a cataloging class, I got so fucking pumped to actually start working on my own collection that I finally decided to actually put some thought into it and figure out exactly what I wanted to do.

Why am I so excited about cataloging my digital library? The ENDLESS fucking possibilities. I can sort & display & tweak everything about how I view & access my collection in ways that are completely impossible with physical records. If I feel like spending all day today in the 70s, then tomorrow I want to know which Music Ruins Lives releases I’m missing, and yesterday my pal was scoping out my minimal drone, this is easy as hell digitally. But only if my collection is tagged with the proper metadata.

I have never tolerated poorly tagged mp3s. Everything in my library from the moment it gets imported needs to have at the VERY least the artist, album, and song fields filled. If it’s in all caps, I change it. If the song titles have track numbers, I get rid of them (and make sure the “Track Number” fields are filled). I normalize the artist to match the way it’s represented in my library (add or remove “The,” etc). I get rid of any wonky punctuation or excessive description in those fields. I was less strict about making sure there was the year, genre, artwork, etc, but you get the idea.

I use iTunes. Since I switched to Mac all those years ago, I’ve always used iTunes. Yeah, it’s got its downsides and it has irreparably fucked me over on multiple occasions but it’s still the best at combining what I want out of a digital music player and a library management system into one application. And although it generally gets better over time, it’s not there yet. I dream of the day when Apple decides iTunes doesn’t need to be a massive amalgamation of media management and can be strictly for music (as opposed to music, movies, books, games, whatever the fuck else they decide to include in iTunes 11).

But just because I currently use iTunes, I know that the application won’t last forever (nor will my mp3s). So I make every attempt to utilize the mp3 fields that iTunes recognizes and none that other applications don’t. For example, ratings are an obvious one. I’ve never used the ratings system in iTunes, partially because I have no interest in it, but also because that rating data isn’t stored in the mp3 file. It’s iTunes specific data and that makes it non-transferrable. And there are ID3 tags that iTunes doesn’t give a shit about, like the “Publisher” field. That would be pretty fucking great to use for identifying the record label, but iTunes is pretty selective with which tags it supports.

So the purpose of this article is to explain what I’m doing & why I’m doing it in the hopes that you can glean something relevant to your interests. I don’t expect all of my decisions to apply to everyone (or anyone) because what I’m doing is for me. It’s how I want to manage my digital collection and I’ll be doing what works best for me. I just hope that maybe you’ll be inspired to do the same with your collection and I can give you some ideas how to go about it.


A little bit about my music collection… For all intents & purposes, I only have full albums. There’s nothing I hate more than having a single song by a single artist in my library. It just bugs the shit out of me. So a lot of the stuff that I do reflects that. You may want to keep that in mind when reading this if you have a lot of singles or an obscene amount of compilations or whatever.

So here are some of the main bits of info that I want to capture. Every album needs to have the year it was released, the label, artwork, and a genre that’s meaningful to me. I also don’t just want the original year of release, I want the date specific to the copy that I have. I’m not a first pressing junkie or anything but that info helps give me context to my collection.

Another big thing I’ve always wanted from my digital collection is for it to mimic how I organize records on my shelves (to a degree). The two major examples are individual artist names, like Brian Eno. Eno goes under “E” DUH. And then there’s compilations or albums without any artist, like that dog heartbeat record. I would shelve that under “C” for Canine Heart Sounds. Luckily, iTunes allows you to tell it where you want items to be located/sorted without changing the “Artist” or “Album” fields. If I’ve learned anything from this project, it’s that the “Sorting” tab is my best friend.

Those are the major overhauls. The rest of the stuff I’m doing is detail work. So lets get down to specifics and all the little quirky problems I’ve encountered.

This is what my basic format looks like. The “Composer” field is multi-purpose but always contains the same kind of information, the name of the artist. I’m using this for solo projects that aren’t the artists actual name (Giles Corey = Daniel Barrett) or if the band has an important person as the driving force (Africa Germany Germany Mexico Turkey Australia = Matthew Mondanile). This is for both helping improve my memory and to be able to collocate different but associated “Artist” names with one search.

I’ve used the “Grouping” field for record labels. Not exactly the best place for that info but I wasn’t going to be doing anything else with the field so it worked out. You’ll notice the “Comments” field is a little different. I wanted to include a lot more data in the tags than iTunes would allow and there wasn’t much leeway with other fields. Like “BPM.” Seriously, I could think of a hundred other fields I’d use before that one. And of course the field only accepts 3 numeric characters. Fuck that, Apple. Anyway, I’ve created a format which breaks the different pieces of info I want included by separating them with semi-colons.

The first section is the format which I own the album (CD, LP, CD & DVD, etc). Sometimes it’s hard to keep that sort of thing straight when I am constantly consuming. The second section is for the year that my version was released (the “Year” field being reserved for the debut release). The third section is for expanding the genres. It should be pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be the kind of person to use a single word to describe a record, so I try to pick the most accurate one for the “Genre” field, and then toss in as many extra ones as I want in this third section.

Some of the peculiar albums I’ve had to deal with are things like splits, compilations, albums with guest artists, albums full of untitled songs, albums without artists, and albums on multiple discs. Lots of “menial” stuff I used to give a cursory thought, then forget about it and be inconsistent from record to record. Now there’s an answer for everything…. I think.

Splits: I’ve always hated the “Various Artists” thing. That is the least helpful way to describe any record. Fuck it. So I’ve decided to use the “Album Artist” field to contain both of the artists (ex: “Noveller / Aidan Baker”). But I still needed to make it a “compilation,” otherwise the albums show up under both artists names. Now my splits show up as a single album under the first artist on the record. Problem solved!

Compilations: These work similarly to splits, because what is a split but a compilation with two artists? The only difference is the “Album Artist” field has the album title in it. I don’t love this solution, but it’s getting the records to show up where I want them and it gets rid of the pesky “Various Artists.” Also, if it’s a soundtrack, I’ve removed “Soundtrack” from the album title and placed “soundtrack” under the third section of the comments as extra genre information.

Albums with guest artists: This one has given me a lot of trouble. I don’t like having song titles containing “feat. Beyonc√©” or whatever. I feel like that shit has nothing to do with the song title proper. So I opted to make the “Artist” field of particular songs with a guest include the featured artist info. I don’t make it a compilation (because it’s not). The problem this makes is that even though in iTunes I can make the “Album Artist” the main artist of the album for sorting purposes, my iPod still shows every artist & guest as a separate artist (Battles with Gary Numan, Battles with Yamantaka Eye, etc) and there’s no way to group them while sorting by artist. I have to sort by album in order to listen to that particular album. I chose to do this because my iPod isn’t the “source.” iTunes is the main concern here. Also, the iPod’s interface may change to act similarly to iTunes at some point.

Untitled songs: This is pretty common and previously every song would get the same title: “Untitled.” This was annoying when the track was taken out of context (mixes, etc) as there was no way to tell which untitled track from the album it was. So now they will all be titled “untitled (track #). This also goes for those side long pieces. No more “Side A.” Now it’s the barely more descriptive “untitled (side a).”

Albums without artists: I previously solved this by putting the record label in the “Artist” field. That got annoying pretty quickly as weird and more obscure records came through, some without a definitive label at all. And it got really hard to remember. So now I just leave the “Artist” field empty (putting “unknown” in there is sacrilegious and unforgivable) and put the album title in the “Sort Artist” field because I would normally shelve the record by album title. Works like a charm, even on the iPod (mostly). It gets labeled as “Unknown Artist” but it shows up in its rightful place aka if the album is called International Morse Code Beginners Course, that’s exactly where it will be alphabetically on your iPod, except labeled as unknown.

Multi-disc albums: I’ve debated this from day one and still am not 100% satisfied with my result but at least it’ll be consistent now. I’ve decided to use the “Disc Number” fields instead of making two separate albums (“Tired Sounds Of… (Disc 1)” & “Tired Sounds Of… (Disc 2)”). I don’t like doing this because there’s no way to tell when one disc starts and the next begins on my iPod. Frustrating, but not my main concern. And those fields are there for a reason, right?

One more thing the “Sort Artist” field has helped ease my obsessive tendencies with is when an artist releases multiple records under what is essentially the same name, just slightly varied. Like Matthew Robert Cooper’s Miniatures and Matthew Cooper’s Some Days Are Better Than Others soundtrack (honestly, you guys, stop doing that please). I can have the actual name associated with the record in the “Artist” field and then use “Sort Artist” to keep them all located together but alphabetized by album title.

The final key, the last piece of the puzzle, is to make all of this stuff searchable, which the solution to is not immediately obvious. It all needs to be visible in iTunes. To do this, make sure you’re in the song list view mode, then go to the “View” menu and click “View Options…” It’s totally customizable and if you go back to the grid view mode (like me), you’ll be able to search those fields even though you can’t readily see them. Like magic!

And that’s pretty much everything I’m doing. Manually, I might add. I tried some mp3 tagging software and everything was absolute garbage for my needs. My collection was filled with too much obscure shit and the info it was getting wasn’t quite what I was looking for or personalized enough. So I have very little hope in ever finishing this project due to the fact that I’m already way behind and my collection is constantly increasing. But I’ll chug along and do a little here and there, dreaming that one day I’ll be all caught up and able to do anything & everything with my digital library.

I can’t be the only one who has these… compulsions, though, right? Has anyone else already tried implementing something similar? Has my disgustingly thorough project plan inspired you to take better care of your digital collection? I want to know I’m not alone in my craziness. At the very least this guy is on my side.

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3 comments on “Music Nerd Meets Archivist: A Guide To Cataloging An Unwieldy Digital Music Collection

  1. I have a similarly obsessive iTunes tagging schema that I have been using for years, tweaking here and there as I come up with different methods of organization. The Sorting fields are my absolute favorite, and I have any artist with a last name alphabetized that way. It’s also useful to group artists with different names that are actually the same people. For instance, my Plunderphonics 69/96 album has various anagrammatic pseudonyms for Artists, with the Album Artist being John Oswald. all these fake names would appear in my list of artists until I realized I could put “Oswald, John” in the sorting field for all of them and they would stick together.

    The Genre field is my most hated at this point. Nothing ever seems specific or vague enough to satisfy my categories, so I basically just use it to separate the high-brow classical or experimental artists from the pop and rock rabble.

  2. John Foliot Jun 21, 2012

    see… I figured that eventually I would discover another person who gets it.

    So currently my mp3 collection numbers in at over 60,000 tracks (although there are duplicates due to the various recordings in the archive – for example if I have an original album and a greatest hits album…). I will also state up front that I HATE (with an extreme and prejudiced passion) iTunes, and for that matter all things Apple – they are too controlling IMHO and I want to be in charge of my computer, not Apple. But I digress…

    Given the storage issues I am faced with (currently the library is stored on a NAS, and I *REALLY* need to get another Terrabyte storage unit for backups), I have created “Categories” directories for the music similar to old-school record stores (I worked in that business for almost 20 years, so old habits die hard). They is “Americana/Roots/Country” which includes old-school and contemporary country, folk, and related artists – sometimes that is a judgment call on my part, “Pop/Rock” which covers artists from essentially post Beatles/British Invasion to today, “Big Bands and Vocalists” which covers pretty much everything from the late 20’s through to about the 50’s, Fusion/Jazz (jazz from Be-bop on and Fusion in the Chick Corea vein), Rock ‘n Roll/DooWop/Rockabilly (Primarily 50’s and 60’s), Soul/Funk/R&B (from approximately Motown to today – no rap), Swing/Jump (mostly the black counterpart to big bands, from roughly pre WW2 and Cotton Club Blues and Rhythm to the early 60’s pre-Motown), World/Reggae/Intl (self explanatory), Soundtracks/Misc, Christmas (that one is a sickness I tell you: ~13 Gig./3,000 tracks), and a “Compilations” Section that has sub-headings that mirror the Primaries above (compilations/pop&rock/album title). So much for filing.

    For the Mp3v2 labels, I too do a fastidious job (or at least the best I can) ensuring the tagging is clean: Artist/Title/Track Number/Album/Release date/Album Artists (the notorious V.A.) and album art are the minimum. For Disc Number, I only use this field if there is more than 1 disc, and I use the pattern 1/3, 2/3, 3/3 throughout.

    Recently I’ve been re-naming the mp3 files themselves, to better reflect some additional data and for consistancy. Now each mp3 file takes the structure: number – artist – title.mp3 (01 – Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar.mp3). After much deliberation, I’ve decided to merge all the files of a multi-disc recoding into one file directory, and to accommodate that I re-number the file names into the hundreds (so that the first digit represents the disc number), for example: 201 – Pink Floyd – Hey You.mp3 (from The Wall) Over the years I’ve progressed from 300 X 300 px album covers to 500 X 500 (and sometimes I fail those sizes and have to settle for smaller), but nothing gets checked in without art.

    Should you wander on down to the Windows world, the software I use is Mp3Tag (by Florian Heidenreich) – this is absolutely THE BEST tagger I’ve encountered, with the ability to set up batch operations: Case conversion? No problem, 1 click and it’s done. Artist and title buried in the file name, but no MP3V2 tags for that data? There is a “file to labels” conversion button, click and done. Album artwork embedding? Easy! Artwork extraction? Just as easy. Finally, it links to a number of different music databases (freedb,,, discogs and MusicBrainz), so often a little sleuthing through there will source out the missing title info. (and if that fails, but you can source the tracklist via Google, it has a text import feature as well – it is truly an awesome application!)

    I use my Windows manager for a lot of the file placement/classifications, and an now obsolete Windows app called MusicIP Mixer – superior to the iTunes genius feature, where you can seed a playlist and then output a random playlist based on levels of “tightness or looseness”. It’s a shame it is no longer supported, but it’s great for random sampling of your library – pick a mood song and off you go. As it builds out a local data-base from which to build those playlists, it is also a great tool for specific searching of a song or artist, and I turn to that often.

    I also use both MediaMonkey player (a decent player with an auto-DJ feature) and WinAmp (best for CD ripping and moving files on and off my Android portables over wifi). I also have something called subsonic which allows me to stream my collection over the interwebs :) – although I think I’ve killed it’s library/database capacity due to the size of my library. But in case you are curious: – it’s kinda clunky these days as the box that it is running on is old and tired, and Comcast DSL has it’s issues, but not too shabby for an under-my-desk media server. I’ve also loaded up some of my more favorite music on Googles music cloud, which I can access on my phone and tablet where-ever there is a signal (including in my car thanks to 4G and bluetooth pairing).

    See – who needs iTunes?

    Good luck in your archiving, and enjoy!

  3. Not only do you love the good ol drone, but you can’t tolerate poorly tagged MP3’s. I think you might be a kindred spirit in the disguise of an anti gravity bunny. Keep up the good work.