Jazz has remained a very accessible art form partly because fans are educated by their own music collections. Albums employed text, photographs and graphic design to illustrate how a network of artists created a musical language together.
Without the physical album, online music stores will play a much larger role in teaching new listeners about jazz. While institutions, educators and preservationists will soon face the same challenges, music stores will be the first to use digital interfaces to educate the listening public about jazz.
The digital music era should offer listeners more information about jazz, not less. The stakes are high. If jazz fragments into millions of digital files, future generations could be left with a maddening cultural jigsaw puzzle. This music could quickly become one of the mysterious art forms that is translated to the public by a small group of experts.
Most people downloading music from a free P2P network are aware that, in terms of the absent and incorrect information that comes with MP3s, they get what they pay for.
While online music stores do not sell high bit rate audio, the quality is consistent. And perhaps more importantly for jazz preservation, stores like Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store (ITMS) promise accurate information about the music.
The consumer that buys an album on ITMS should have access to the same liner notes, session information and songwriting credits that are sold with the CD version. Online music stores should facilitate rather than hinder access to this information before, during and after a song or album is purchased.
Why single out the ITMS? Apple's store has the best interface and quality of service. Most online music stores have similar problems, in part because they all receive data from record companies (based on ISRC codes). Since ITMS is currently the most popular online music store, competitors will use it as a standard. The top position in this new marketplace allows Apple to guide record companies to improve their digital music products .
While browsing for albums, ITMS lists the name of the album, the artist and "released." Shoppers might assume "released" implies the release date of an album, but "released" often refers to the date the CD version of an album was released.
In the ITMS several Coleman Hawkins albums have the correct release dates: the compilations were released in the 1990s.
But Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster has the release date of 1997. This date refers to a Verve re-issue of the 1957 album. This problem affects a large number of jazz albums. When the album is selected and purchased, information about the original recording date is never given.
Experiencing music arranged into albums is an important part of understanding jazz. While it is easy to browse albums on the ITMS, the continuous release of compilations can make it difficult to identify original albums released during an artist's lifetime.
An "original albums" filter could easily solve this issue.
The ITMS sells many box sets and single albums as "partial albums." When the music buyer discovers a partial album there should be an indication as to what songs have been lopped off. The store should list the complete songs in order, with the unavailable songs shaded out.
Removing the identity of artists is one of digital music's largest threats to jazz preservation. A full understanding of jazz goes beyond the "Great Man" theory and recognizes the influence of side players - the wide network of people that developed this musical language together. Selling songs and albums separated from names disrespects the artists and hinders the education of new listeners.
ITMS often does not list the names of the musicians who play on jazz albums. When they do list the names, it is never on a song-by-song basis, making the information confusing and useless on compilations and box sets.
Consider what is offered on the definitive Miles Davis discography, Miles Ahead: A basic query form allows fans to search all sessions and songs played by side musician. Will online music stores someday have a feature like this? Or will they continue to discard names, ensuring that listening to jazz in five hundred years will be similar to viewing a painting in a museum by an "Unknown Dutch Master"?
Box sets and CD reissues often feature meticulously researched session information, as well as essays from experts. Having this information sold with the music enables jazz fans to educate themselves and others. Most jazz albums for sale in the ITMS have none of the original album's liner notes or session information.
There is a section of the interface that appears on some albums called "Album Notes." Users might assume "album notes" are the same as "liner notes."
The "Album Notes" for Miles Davis' Kind of Blue feature a review of the album. This text is not the original liner notes, nor is it the notes created for the 1997 reissue.
Only when the user scrolls to the very bottom of the "Album Notes" is the source revealed in a tiny font: Muze, Inc (a third party content provider). ITMS should highlight not hide the fact that the "Album Notes" have nothing to do with original liner notes.
Finally, when the "Album Notes" does list a group of musicians who play on the tracks, their names should be links to the ITMS database. ITMS application does not allow users to select and copy "Album Notes" text, making it difficult to paste a musician's name into its own search box.
After a song has been purchased, the buyer has to return to the ITMS to read the "Album Notes." If they hear a sax solo and want to figure out who played it, they will have to log in and search for an already purchased album.
One solution to this problem is better utilization of the "Get Info" dialogue box. An extra tab could feature an album's liner notes and complete session information.
On the "Info" tab there is the name of the song, album and artist and genre. Information about the song is based on the limited ID tag format that MP3s use. There is a large "comments" field that is rarely used.
This part of the interface should show both the release date of a CD and the year the original album was released. This issue is especially important for the myriad of jazz compilations that are sold, as ITMS usually displays the year the compilation was issued rather than the original recording date.
ITMS displays that a song is a part of a compilation using a check box (a casual survey indicates that this feature is often not utilized). A link to the original album the song appeared on would be a useful addition to this section of the interface.
Album covers shrank drastically when CDs were introduced. They vanished in P2P interfaces. They have returned as thumbnails in the ITMS. Only after songs have been purchased does ITMS show album art larger than a thumbnail - and only if the user selects an option to display it at the bottom of the screen.
Album design is a significant part of jazz culture. Before music video, record companies relied on striking graphic design and photographs to capture the feeling of music. The visual language of album cover art can be read by jazz fans to determine when an album was recorded and which label produced it.
If online music stores do not offer the correct release dates, session credits or original liner notes, browsing by album art may be the most effective way for jazz fans to find music.
Now is the time to improve the iTunes Music Store, before seemingly minor omissions and mistakes propagate through millions of listeners' music collections.
Music customers have the opportunity to convince Apple Computer and its competitors that improving their stores will not only play an important role in preserving jazz, but also make their product a better value.
Suggested text: I am a loyal customer who would buy more music from your store if it was sold with the same information (cover art, photos, dates, liner notes, session and songwriting credits) that I get when I purchase a CD.
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