I’m Obsessed with my mp3 Tags

There. I said it. It’s the first step to recovery.

Like John Cusack in High Fidelity, continually organizing his record collection, I have this itch, this unhealthy fixation on keeping my mp3s in pristine order. I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that every one of my music files has its proper notation.

For those of you scratching your heads or quickly Googling “mp3 tags” (My parents, my sister – you know who you are), here’s a quick primer: mp3 tags are data associated with each music file that describe what the song is. This data include information such as title, artist, album, year released, track number, and even genre, rating and album art. By having all of your music files properly tagged, you can easily find your music and organize it any way you want with the click of a button.

Most of the time, this data is automatically added when you rip a CD and encode into the mp3 format. But with my obscure collection (indie artists, demos, live recordings), those tags aren’t always correct or complete. So I have spent hours – probably days – going through each song, making sure that all information is correct.

I attribute it to several reasons:

  • My mother is a librarian. All my books are organized by the Dewey Decimal system; I’m trying to apply the same concept to my files.
  • It’s one of the very few things I have complete control over.
  • It’s a good way to get intimately familiar with your music collection.
  • Two words: Smart playlists. (More on that later)

Many tagging tools can automate this process, and they are a godsend. But it’s not so clear cut; tagging is an inexact science containing some subjectivity and requiring some thought. For instance:

  • Duplicate songs. Do I need separate files for Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” if I have copies of Blood on the Tracks, The Essential Bob Dylan and the Jerry Maguire soundtrack? To maintain the integrity of the album, I keep multiple copies.
  • Individual tracks. This includes singles, one-hit wonders, and standout tracks from substandard albums. I don’t want my album list to contain Pop Goes the World if the only song I have from the album is “The Safety Dance.” I try to somehow bring these songs together in some type of collection: Singles – 1983, Songs by One-Hit Wonders, or even Good Songs, Bad CD.
  • Genres. Ah, the genre field. What to do with it? This can be easy – categorizing everything as Rock, Pop, Country, R&B – or it can get extremely complicated. For instance, according to the All-Music Guide, Prince is categorized as Funk, Urban, Pop/Rock, Club/Dance, Dance-Rock, Neo-Psychedelia, Hard Rock and College Rock.I try to make it as easy as possible. I don’t want to spend hours figuring out whether Eric Matthews is Baroque Pop or Chamber Pop.

Finally, there’s the rating field. At first, like my above example, I didn’t want to try to figure out how good each song was. (Is U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town” three stars or four?) But I read some advice in a forum one day from someone who recommended rating every single song in their catalog. I did this (it took several months of listening and rating), and it helped tremendously:

  • I deleted dozens of albums that simply weren’t good. I had them simply based on a recommendation from someone, but hadn’t bother to really listen to them.
  • It made the quality of smart playlists that much better. Smart playlists are dynamic lists of songs that are organized based on criteria that you choose – for example, I can tell iTunes to group together all songs from 1994 in the Rock genre. When I add a new rock song from 1994 to my iTunes catalog, that smartlist is automatically updated with the new song.

    With every song rated, I can choose all the five-star songs from 1994 in the Rock genre, thereby ensuring that I’m going to like everything I hear.
    (Recommendation: smartplaylists.com is an essential site for those interested in the creation and maintenance of, well, smart playlists.)

I hope I’m making the case that my obsession is good, or at least rational.

Stop looking at me like that.

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