Panelists at Monday’s SXSW Interactive panel, “Music & Metadata: Do Songs Remain The Same?” made an interesting assertion about a topic I’d never though too much about, metadata, those little bits of digital information we attach to things to help us locate, organize and categorize.
The assertion: metadata “defines how we interact and talk about music—from discreet bits like titles, styles, artists, genres to its broader context and history.”
As SXSW transitions from a focus on interactive technology to music, this is perfect topic to examine.
Metadata is critical for search providers like Google and their competitors because they help organize search results. Businesses can use metadata to better track what things interest their customers. And the best digital music collections are meticulously meta tagged so that they are easy to sort and enjoy.
Musicians and music fans inherently want to categorize too, it’s how fans seek out new sounds and choose styles, artists and scenes to associate with.
Artists also understand the importance of marking their music with sounds, words and other references points that link listeners to a larger discussion.
Panelist Larisa Mann, a DJ and scholar from the University of Berkley, cited reggae artist Jr. Brown, as an example. His catchphrase, “Tu-Tu Tweng,” has become a unique identifier for fans. It’s a recurring phrase in his own music, a reference point when he guests on other artist’s work, and can lend credibility to DJs and new artists who weave this phrase in to their own performances.
By this logic, the Beastie Boys’ landmark 1989 album Paul’s Boutique is the ultimate example of musical meta tagging.
With help from producers the Dust Brothers, the band employed 105 samples and as many cultural and historical reference points – from Galileo to High Plains Drifter the Patty Duke show – in to the context of something larger.
At a time when hip-hop was still struggling to win mainstream acceptance, the album served as a cultural and historical road map of reference points. Fans could identify samples from Bob Dylan, the Eagles and others rock artists in the context of a decidedly hip-hop album. What’s most important is that these samples and references were presented in the context of something unique – they are piece parts in something larger, not Puff Daddy-style rehashes of other songs.
At #156 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Paul’s Boutique remains the preeminent example of organizing musical metadata in to something unique and lasting.