How valuable is metadata? Metadata was the buzzword of choice in the blogosphere back when if:book was started, somewhere between when everyone was talking about everything in terms of XML and when the hype moved on to social networking. You don’t hear quite as much discussion about metadata in the new media world these days, but it hasn’t gone away.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines metadata as “a set of data that describes and gives information about other data” and dates use of the word back to 1987. Metadata isn’t actually a new concept for the digital age; rather, it’s a new word for something that’s always existed. If we think of the text of a book as data, the title and author are metadata, as is the publisher. They’re things that are outside of the text, but still of primary importance to how we read a text: while we like to think that we don’t judge books by their covers, we do, again and again. We have to: there are too many books.
Jace Clayton, who performs music as DJ /Rupture, has an elegant demonstration of this in the Silver Shed gallery in New York right now. A spindle attached to the wall of the gallery is full of CD-ROMs, free to visitors; if you take a CD home and stick it into your computer, you’ll find that it contains all of Clayton’s commercially available musicÂ – 130 MP3s, 550 Mb, six and a half hours of music. One catch: Clayton has destroyed all of the metadata for the tracks. Each file is named something like “DJ_Rupture.mp3” (you can’t have 130 files with the same name, of course, so the punctuation varies). Track names, album information, dates have all been erased; if you dump the MP3s into iTunes, there’s the artist’s name but nothing else. A companion piece by Rocio Rodriguez Salceda presents an archive of digital photographs with the generic filename of “foto_02.jpg” (a Google image search returns 560 results) which the artist has printed on edible rice paper for the culinary delectation of visitors to the gallery.
It’s easy to come up with a moral for Rodriguez Salceda’s piece: all these photos, diverse as they are, start out with the same name in the camera and, when eaten, end up in the same place. Clayton’s piece is interestingly ambiguous, especially in the era of BitTorrent and MP3 blogs. Given enough time, it’s not that hard to download the entire discography of any band you can think of. (Books and movies haven’t been digitized quite so thoroughly, though it’s not hard to imagine that it’s only a matter of time.) As a working musician, this isn’t something that’s been lost on Clayton. On his blog last year, he wrote an insightful piece about Oink, a now defunct BitTorrent site, where he was surprised to find every piece of music he’d ever released available for download in high quality. In the age of the digital, he points out, “there’s lots of demand but no scarcity at all, which either requires that we rebuild an economic model not based on supply & demand, or start embracing commons analogies”. Oink’s functioned like a library (albeit an illegal one) and paid attention to the quality of its metadata: “downloading an album from Oink would be both fasterÂ .Â .Â . and give you more information about the CD than sites like iTunes”.
Taking Clayton’s CD-ROM in the gallery gives the visitor everything and nothing: all of Clayton’s music is there, but none of its metadata (except for track lengths). The music can be playedÂ – on shuffle, probablyÂ – but the listener can only guess what it might be. Something’s missing. One might bring in Clayton’s music here. As a DJ, Clayton has taste catholic enough to make everyone else feel parochial: London dubstep, Autotuned hip-hop, French rai, African funk, Colombian cumbia, Dutch punk,Â high German experimentalism all find happy coexistence in his work. (See, for a more concrete example, his radio show on WFMU or his old Gold Teeth Thief mix) It’s a music emphatically of the present cultural moment, when one can stay up to the minute in the latest Bollywood tracks in the middle of Wyoming, given an Internet connection and incentive. For the listener, part of the joy of Clayton’s musicÂ – or his radio showÂ – is trying to guess what exactly he’s playing and where it might have come from.Â Eclecticism has become something of the bugbear of 21st century pop music, but Clayton’s Â writing (at random:Â 1,Â 2,Â 3) suggests that his love is not simply of novelty, the perpetual risk of eclecticism, but an active involvement with the people and cultures behind the music. In a word, the metadata.
Or from another slightly different direction: in aÂ pieceÂ in Bidoun last year, Clayton explored the work of Muslimgauze, the pseudonym of a British musician named Bryn Jones, who released an astonishing number of albums of industrial drone with Middle Eastern overtones, a not inconsequential number posthumously. The music is instrumental, and can’t be said to have politics; not so for the track names and packaging, much of which is virulently anti-Israeli. Reading the life of Bryn Jones into his musicÂ – a bedroom-dweller, he was neither Muslim, as one might expect, nor had he ever been to the Middle East – complicates the listener’s reactions even further. Clayton describes the experience of listening to one track:
Indistinct noises swirl around, implying multiple narratives on the brink of intelligibility. If you hear his songs as space, their length and repetitive nature seem less like mistakes. But then you remember their titles. 8AM, Tel Aviv, Islamic JihadÂ ! Regardless of one’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s unnerving to think of oneself as grooving along to a call to arms.
Music without metadata for Clayton is something from a more innocent time. He remembers coming across the records as a teen:
Although Muslimgauze’s imagery has always suggested to me some neo-Orientalist version of Leila Khaled’s cosmopolitan Hepburn-as-hijacker chic, it barely made an impression as I started to listen. As far as I could tell, knowing little about Jones, the band was steeped in industrial music’s culture of provocation. Laibach had the totalitarian-irony look down pat; Coil opted for a gay-magick vibe; Psychic TV fetishized Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Muslimgauze embraced militant Arab agitprop. Every “transgressive” band needed an outrage, and their album covers were neither more nor less meaningful than anyone else’s. Under the assumption that Muslimgauze was a group of British Arabs (secular, who probably dressed like Goths and wore eyeliner to the clubs), I disregarded the album art and dived into the music. It’s harder to do that now.
Music’s metadata could once be ignored. The way we valued music in the 1980s and the 1990s is part of a world that no longer exists: when music’s economic value has to be reassessed, the way we reassess the music as a whole changes as well. The way we value music might be increasingly moving to metadata.