too much typing—since 2003


hunters and collectors

Momus has an interesting article on record-store taxonomy (and yes, I'm sure he's aware of the oddly archaic air the whole notion of record stores might have). The essential problem is something I run into frequently, which is what to do in attempting to classify an item which is both A and B. One of my geekly traits is being fairly insistent on the classification system of my CD collection: CDs are stored alphabetically by artist (with some exceptions, below), within artist chronologically (what to do with collections is always iffy: do they go before the earliest represented selection, after the latest represented selection, or simply at the end of the artist's section?). That's the bulk of the collection - but after that is a separate section for various-artist items, which also includes tribute albums (which some folks might want to file with the artist so honored), soundtracks, etc. And after that is classical music - which I've organized in alphabetical order by recording label and within label by catalog number. That last one seems hopelessly arcane, I'll admit...and it certainly isn't obvious - but it does solve a problem. Some classical recordings might consist entirely of recordings by a single composer (whose name is, therefore, featured strongly on the cover). Others might consist of pieces by multiple composers and might be highlighting a particular musician or ensemble. Still others might be thematically organized. But here's the problem: here's a piano concerto by Composer X, featuring Musician Y and Orchestra Z, conducted by Conductor A. If I were a huge fan of any one of those, I suppose it would make sense to file the CD under that artist...but what if I'm a huge fan of several of them...or all of them? The label/catalog number solution simplifies: it uniquely identifies a CD, and it cuts through that selection process by saying "none of the above." Yes, it means I need to remember what label a recording is on in order to find it - but that wasn't all that challenging even before I assembled my music database, and now it's even less of an issue.

This system, logical as it might seem to me, still presents problems. Let's say there's a split CD, an EP each from two bands on one disc. Let's say I'm a huge fan of one band, while I've never heard of the other one. The nearest example I can think of is the Lilys/Aspera ad Astra split CD: I'm a huge Lilys fan, and although I'd heard of Aspera (they later shortened their name), I'm only lukewarm about their music. In that case, I just ignore the Aspera tracks where filing is concerned and put it in the "Lilys" section. But what about a split CD for two bands I like equally (or hadn't heard of: arrived for review, good enough to keep, not good enough to investigate further...)? Similarly: if all the other Kronos Quartet recordings are in the "classical" section, what do I do with their CD full of Thelonious Monk tunes, in which Monk is essentially treated as a composer? It's not a "tribute CD" (although I suppose it kind of is, just when Japancakes covers My Bloody Valentine's Loveless in its entirety), and it isn't played like jazz I suppose it becomes "classical" by default. And what about Frank Zappa? Most of his work, of course, just gets filed under "Z" for "Zappa"...but what about the two-CD London Symphony Orchestra set playing his original compositions? And what about the various other small ensembles that have played Zappa's orchestral or small-ensemble compositions...or arranged his rock-band pieces for same? Do those recordings go in the "classical" section, or in the "tribute" section, or in the main alphabetical section under the name of the ensemble (just as that Japancakes CD would be under "J"...if it were a CD and not merely a collection of mp3s I purchased from eMusic).

Momus's article notes that the record store he visited had created such intensely imbricating classifications that it became nearly impossible to determine where a particular recording might be found. And woe to the artist whose style varies dramatically over a career (like Momus's own): they get stuck in whatever genre they began, even if their later recordings bear no relation to that genre whatsoever. This is true also of online database genre labeling: Wilco is "country" forever and ever, it seems...even though there's not a single second that sounds like country music on their most acclaimed release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I know I find it maddening trying to shop at a store that's excessively enamored of this in the main "rock" section, the "indie" section, the "bizarro-pop" section, the "what the hell were they thinking when they recorded this?" section, or the "please - we'll pay you to take this off our hands!" section?

The ironic aspect of this situation is that I imagine stores categorize items by genre in order to help shoppers: presumably, it's easier to find "No Age" in a section helpfully labeled "indie" than if their CDs were in amongst recordings of all the other genres in the store. But is that true? Is it necessarily the case that someone looking for the No Age CD is likelier to be swayed into buying another CD by its mere adjacency in the "indie" section? My guess is that many, many factors enter into whether someone decides to buy a title they weren't planning on buying: whether they know of the artist, have heard some of the music, like the cover, etc. It seems to me that anyone likely to buy a CD without having heard most or all of it (that is to say, something they randomly run into on the shelves) is the same sort of person whose interests probably transcend particular musical genre designations...particularly those set up not by fans of the music but by the store, which necessarily has to choose how to categorize items without hearing the music on them. (I'm sure record labels help out here.)

So I'm with Momus: my ideal record store would (big surprise) file its selections pretty much the same way my own music collection is filed: mostly a big alphabetical selection, with various artists at the end (or beginning). As for the classical stuff: the advantage of a record store is that it presumably has multiple copies of the same if it's Emanuel Ax playing a Beethoven piano concerto, some copies can go under "B" for "Beethoven" for the Beethoven fans, while others can go under "A" for "Ax" for fans of Mr. Ax. Same with split CDs, ad hoc collaborations (Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs' "Sid and Susie" CD), and so on.

Incidentally, one advantage of the music database I use (Music Collector, from is that it allows multiple entries in the artist field, both for "album artist" and "track artist." So consider the second Billy Bragg/Wilco album of Woody Guthrie lyrics: I can have that show up under Bragg, under Wilco, under Guthrie (and I could create a separate entry for "Billy Bragg and Wilco" if I were so inclined) - and on the song that features Natalie Merchant on lead vocals, her name under "track artist" along with all the others (they transfer down from the album level). Unfortunately, Collectorz' MP3 Collector database program does not (yet) include a similar feature...rather annoyingly since, if it ever does in a future upgrade, a whole lot of relabeling will become necessary. (Note that "geek" is one of the labels for this post...)


125records said...

The one thing that used to drive me buggy about record store classification was back when I lived in Baltimore and ANYTHING by a black artist -- Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Living Colour, you name it -- was filed under "soul/R&B," even if they would fit better in "pop/rock." I think Amoeba Records here does a much better job with their filing.

2fs said...

Yeah - the implicit racism of such taxonomies is one thing Momus points out in his article. (Paging Stew - one glaringly obvious reason he named his band "The Negro Problem," of course...)