Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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1010 words

Obviously I hardly ever am impressed by businesses. In fact, these things puzzle me. For the past week or two the news have been full with some monetary problems. With bad American mortgages, with banks going bust, or very nearly going bust. With the stock markets falling. And with things apparently being so critical that even central banks decided they need to move. From the news commentaries I read things were mostly caused by the finance models used by the ‘geniuses’ being too risky and things just starting to fall over because of that. Commentaries also suggested that people had been pointing out that things are too risky for years. Yet, now everybody is surprised and ‘shocked’. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if bits of the financial world just took less profits once in a while. Whatever they do seems to be more dodgy than productive anyway. But I suppose that capitalism will have its way and the people who screwed things up will still get their bonuses or unreal ‘salaries’ at the end of the year and just some of the people who trusted a bank will be the ones who have been screwed.

The thing I am wondering about though, with central banks quickly providing money and all is what the cost of this to the central banks and taxpayers will be. And whether anybody sits back laughing now and making even more undeserved money at other people’s expense. The next question would of course be if such turbulence in stock markets could be artificially created to trigger ‘help’ from central banks and take even more money from working people in that way. Certainly would be a great business model, I guess.

Compared to stock markets, even something ‘virtual’ like the iTunes Music Store suddenly looks like an actual business that actually does something. But it’s just very poorly maintained. Of course we have learned in the past years that it is filled with duplicate albums and low-quality unedited metadata. And once you start looking at classical music, that really starts hurting. Although the metadata for that probably exist, I haven’t found a way to browse by composer or to get a listing of all recordings of the same work. Searches may come close to that but they leave a lot of noise in the results and are far from giving you a quick overview.

In addition, the ‘album’ concept is particularly harmful here. If a classical work is just half an hour long, you will frequently find two of them on a single CD. Which probably is fair given the price of classical CDs. But these works are not necessarily closely related and if you are interested in one of them, you won’t necessarily be interested in the other at the same time. Of course the iTunes concept allows people to easily just buy the tracks they want. In fact, the Music Store even includes the ability to group a bunch of songs in a CD to be a single ‘Work’. That is rather convenient and makes a lot of sense.

And of course there’s also the solid business idea behind it that you can sell the whole ‘Work’ for a price that is larger than the number of its tracks times 99 cents. Which, given the length of movements, may still be a fair deal if you consider the price per minute, I suppose. When things are going well, they look like this:

Brahms Symphonies by Berliner Philharmoniker/Karajan at iTMS

But somehow these nicely arranged offers are in a minority. The majority of what is offered, and particularly the iTunes Plus EMI stuff, just is in a chaotic state. And by chaotic I don’t just mean that movements aren’t properly grouped together. I mean that they take the liberty to make certain movements ‘album only’, thus trying to force you to buy the full ‘album’, which may well be a €25 or €40 multi-CD equivalent, just to get the track you want. They could just put a ‘Fuck Off’ sign there instead.

In fact, after just browsing around a little, I managed to find pretty much everything done wrong or inconsistently. They write Bartok when they mean Bartók (and the name is spelled correctly in huge letters on the record cover art); They don’t give complete orchestra names and leave the cover art in the window at a size so tiny that you cannot read it on there; They manage to have ‘Works’ on an album as mentioned above but not for all of the works contained on that album [evil album]; They manage to spell adjacent tracks with essentially the same name differently; And, right in ‘hurting your own business’ territory they even have albums with ‘album only’ tracks but which are marked as ‘partial album’ and which you cannot buy as an album [idiotic].

Bartók album with a multitude of faults on iTMS

Alltogether this makes shopping around much less fun. And really reduces whatever advantage iTMS may have over file sharing networks, proper CD stores or amazon.

And by now iTMS even refuses to add the ‘Work’ I decided for to my shopping basket! It keeps telling me that I cannot add two copies of the same work which makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately I am just trying to add the first copy of that work. That’s just crap and exactly the kind of thing that makes online shopping suck because it means you have to deal with ‘help’ or ‘customer service’ and because it makes you (me) feel helpless and at the mercy of buggy technology and PR moronicity. And of course said ‘customer service’ forces you to go through their pre-set FAQs first and then only leaves you the possibility to leave feedback in neatly categorised places all of which seem inadequate for your question. Obviously such systems wear you out and ensure that you’re in a bad mood by the time you actually get to ask a question about your problem. Which probably doesn’t make work-conditions for the people having to answer them any better. But that’s the corporate masterplan, I guess.

iTMS Shopping Cart not containing a work which it claims to contain

August 18, 2007, 0:01


Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

I used to be in to classical music, but not so much anymore, so I don’t have nearly as much experience with classical music on the iTunes Store as it seems you do. I’ve found the metadata on other genres to be quite good, with the exception of the annoying metadata issues with certain downloaded TV shows ( ABFs XXXV and XLVIII on my weblog).

However, whether a given track is sold individually or album-only is quite consistent, across all genres. If a given track is longer than 7 minutes, it automatically becomes album-only. I’m not sure the reasoning behind this cutoff, but it seems to hold up within your screenshots (the first one excepted since you’re dealing with “works” and not “tracks”). Of course, since classical tracks are much more likely to be longer than 7 minutes compared to other genres, it seems this policy unreasonably punishes those who like classical music.

August 18, 2007, 0:41

Comment by ssp: User icon

I really don’t have too much experience with classical music from iTunes either. With older recordings often being available at a reasonable price on CD iTunes didn’t have to offer too much, so I never investigated this further than for a few single tracks.

But with the new higher quality ‘Plus’ offerings and me wanting two specific works quickly, I decided to have a look again. What shocked me was that I didn’t have to look for these problems but I ran into all of them within a few minutes of trying to find these two specific pieces of music and trying to decide which recording I want.

These are steps which I consider to be quite natural and common.

Thanks for the 7 minute note. I wasn’t aware of that. The rationale probably being that you’d get too good a deal if they sold you a ‘long’ piece for just a Euro. While I am for simplicity Apple should have rather bitten the bullet of letting me have a good deal there or to price those tracks at 2 Euros or something. When they split up albums by ‘Work’ this isn’t a problem but in the many other cases it is.

I have been bitching about iTMS metadata pretty much from day one. And pretty much for the reason that if metadata aren’t good when they enter the database, it will be a lot of effort, thus cost a lot of money, thus be fairly unlikely that they’ll be improved. With the number of songs offered at iTMS growing and growing I just don’t see how this will be fixed.

Who will put in complete and consistent metadata. Who’ll make sure the year given is the actual year of the recording rather whatever the latest copyright/re-mastering renewal was (while in pop music bands usually just have a single album with a name, a classical artist may very well record the same piece several times in his career, making the date much more important). Who will remove spelling mistakes (and I count replacing non-ASCII characters by supposedly equivalent ASCII characters as such). And so on.

If Apple had had and used a strategy to provide comprehensive, correct and wide-ranging metadata, their store would be much more useful. Currently it may be possible to find all recordings by a certain conductor, but it can be awkward as their are albums mixing recordings of different conductors. And I suppose things start being much more difficult if you are looking for certain soloists or other details of performances. All the data for this usually is present in the liner notes. So I think a great chance was missed by not including the stuff into iTunes and iTMS properly.

August 18, 2007, 1:38

Comment by Joe: User icon

Interesting thoughts there. I love classical music, but I find the concept of buying single tracks of what would normally be multi-track works bizarre. Sure, we can buy the entire ‘work’, just as your screenshot of Karajan’s Brahms cycle, but as you pointed out, most of them are grouped as ‘albums’. Also, it is also unfair because the system seems to penalise classical-music listeners, as chances are, we’re ‘forced’ to buy multi-track works as it is common with classical music to span a work amongst multiple tracks.

But anyway, what really irks me is the blatant disregard to the metadata on classical CDs. Lots of sites exhibit this: Amazon, HMV, Play.com, etc. Even the CDDB’s data (which you get when you insert a CD into iTunes) routinely inserts the composer’s name into the Artist field. It’s as if they employed someone with zero knowledge of classical music to enter all that data.

August 20, 2007, 23:16

Comment by ssp: User icon

I agree that CDDB is (even more) hopeless on metadata for classical music. But that database is filled with user created data rather than being fed by record companies who (should) have all the data at hand.

While that’s not an excuse, it at least explains the low quality of the data provided by CDDB.

August 21, 2007, 0:42

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