Classical music is one of the genre which has been put aside from the global evolution of streaming music online.
Streaming music started of mainstream music, where each ‘song’ has one title and one artist. It was good enough for many genres but never fit classical music, for several reasons:
Most classical works don’t have titles. Musicologist build titles from the type of the piece (symphony, concerto, …), the numbering, the catalogue number (Opus 1) and the key (D minor, …). This is generally not enough because titles are similar from one composer to another. Then, the composer has to come along with the title of the piece to make it really distinguishable.
Artists in classical music are something vast and very important. If Muray Perahia plays a piece of Johann Sebastian Bach, who is considered as the ‘Artist’? Perahia or Bach?
For orchestral music, things are little tougher: two other ‘artists’ appear: the orchestra and the conductor. The one-artist only option remains a headache for most classical products. A definitive choice may be hard because some products highlights a composer, others an orchestra or a soloist, and others a conductor.
These tags come from the early MP3 tags, as told in this very informative Atlantic article:
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
The Various Artists solution
An option for music providers is to set the artists as “Various”. That way they don’t have to choose one single artist, and don’t lie. However this is an awful solution as this data does not say anything at all (and is in English only). No users ever look for Various Artists albums, and such albums may be linked together (after all, two ‘Various Arists’ albums litterally share the same artist…).
The composer name in the title
As previously shown in the Perahia / Bach album, putting the composer’s name in the album title remain a widespread option. Few examples:
Main Artist and other roles
Having the experience of parsing thousands of XML files, I find the role options to be the best deal. Artists (composers included) can be defined at an album level and track level, with defined roles. One of these roles is the Main Artist. This is useful when a limited user interface have to choose which artist to put, or to put first. Providers choose what artists put at the album level, and can be subjective. It is also possible to ordered artists for advanced displaying purpose.
A role can be a Composer, Conductor, Soloist, etc as well as Main Artist (a meta-role in fact) or an instrument. Main Artist can be combined with a more detailed role. A same artist could be Main Artist, Soloist (although quite the same) and Violin.
The metadata are the hidden part of the iceberg, but already a challenging topic. It requires a complex system – which I build and maintain as a software engineer – to be able to select multiple artists, roles and numbering at multiple levels without making data entry employees become mad.
It’s then up to the platform graphical user interfaces to display this data conveniently (and fully), which is another challenge, especially on small screen devices.