On iTunes and ID3 tags: the new age of album art means it’s not just art from the album

Years ago, album art really was art. It meant something to the album (or you could hope so). It was big, and bold; the 12-inch black-and-white pictures that came with the double vinyl LP of The Who’s Quadrophenia – in 1973 – was a miniature version of the film (which wasn’t made until much later). If you bought any album by Yes (I confess!) or Genesis (all right! I was young!) or indeed anyone in those vinyl days, you got much more than just a record. There was the front and back, and sometimes the sleeve holding the record; it might be a “gatefold” so that the sleeve opened up. Now, of course the artist would have the usual thanks to mum and dad (in the case of The Who, saying that Quadrophenia was nothing like their own lives and that they’d bought them nice houses. In the Outer Hebrides) and the guy who bought the drummer’s cymbals. But there was plenty of art to look at to consider while you listened to the record.

Now? You’ve got 10,000 songs on your iPod; but no art to look at. Well, you can, but it’s on a small screen. Recently though I undertook the huge task of adding the album art to all my encoded songs – all 4,000-odd of them. That’s a lot of albums. Why? Because I’ve been trying out the Sonos music system, which includes a handheld console that has a much bigger and clearer screen than an iPod. And it looks cool if you show the album artwork on the screen to go with the song that’s playing. (The Sonos stuff is very, very cool; I’ll write about it presently in The Guardian. If you like music, and you’ve got a big digital library, I’d say it’s the thing to get. But anyway.)

A couple of interesting things about digital album art. Firstly, you can have more than one piece of artwork attached to any track. It’s true – in iTunes, try selecting a track, dragging a few different pictures onto it, and see what happens. The first picture you dragged on shows up, right? But if you then get the track information, click the “Artwork” tab, and edit, you’ll see all the images you stuck there. (I don’t know what the limit is on pictures there, but it certainly got me mulling about steganography. But that’s off-topic here.)

Secondly, there’s no point in worrying that a picture is going to bloat your track. A typical MP3 file uses about 1Mbyte per minute. If you add a 100K picture to a three-minute track (stuck into the “headers”), you’re in effect adding an eighth of a minute to the track size – or about 7.5 seconds of playing time. It’s not significant, really; and most picture files you’ll add are much more like 10-50Kbyte, which is nothing to worry about.

So where did I find the pictures? At first, using the very clever art4itunes.com site. You export your song list from iTunes (see the site; it’s simple) and then the site mulls it over a bit and throws back the album list and images from Amazon (US or UK; you pick, as well as picking the image size. Go for bigger; you won’t regret it.)

That was fine for a while, even if it did get quite boring dragging the picture onto the “Drag artwork here” image well on iTunes. Truth is, this is a very boring task. I’d have Applescripted it but couldn’t wrap my head around the process of finding the correct-sized image and adding those to multiple tracks. And at that time I was focussed on “right” – matching the album title and CD cover.

But then I ran into all my classical collection, which is much more difficult. Many are 20 years or so old (I bought them when CDs were new) and those versions haven’t been made for years, such as Karajan conducting the Beethoven symphonies. (I know, those are still around, but not the exact covers I had.) So I began using Google Images to see if that would turn them up. In doing that, I stumbled onto vinylparadise.com, which I know is in Japanese, but which is a wonderful collection of scans of covers of vinyl records.

It was my Proustian moment: I got the instant recall from some of those classical vinyl covers of looking in my youth at the hundreds that my father collected. The Firebird! The Planets, with a picture of the planets for the cover.

And then I began to think: actually, those pictures are better than the ones that were on my CD. So I began to look through the covers for suites like The Firebird, and chose the one that I thought was the best piece of art – what I’d like to look at while listening to Stravinsky.

But then I began to think some more. Why should I be encumbered by the picture that the record label put on the front of the CD? Why not have something appropriate to the track name, the year, the artist, the suite name? If vinyl LPs had multiple bits of art to look at, why constrain myself to a single image for all those different tracks just because they were on the same album?

So after the Proust came the epiphany. (I think it was the same for Proust. He got a multi-volume book out of it. I get a blog post. Ain’t progress grand?) Why not search for images on the artist name, the album name, the track title, the year it came out, for anything that I liked? If I’ve managed to break up the album into pieces, why not do the same to album art? Suddenly, I felt set free from a strange constraint that had been bugging me unconsciously all through the process.

I wrote a script that searched Google Images (and then later picsearch, which has a few more options) on that basis. (Unusually for an Apple product, iTunes has an excellent Applescript interface that lets you get at pretty much any aspect of a track, including details about the artwork(s).) I found stuff that you wouldn’t consider as being album art. But it was track art. It worked for me.

What’s next? Well, there are two strands here. First, there’s what you can do for yourself. If you’re good at scripting (sorry, Windows users, but I don’t know what’s available through VBScript and iTunes) then you could search for images and add those automatically to individual tracks. I may do that, updating as I go. As part of that, I wonder whether you could put an animated GIF into a track artwork. Now that would be smart, eh? Haven’t tried it. (Update: see comments. You can do it, but the results are disappointing.) And is there any way to make multiple bits of a single track’s artwork show up sequentially through a song? Or is that some unimplemented feature? Even more than that – music is such a personal thing; why not find tags on Flickr that match what you’re looking for? Or pictures from your personal collection? I know that the image that would have most resonance for me for Radiohead’s Just (on The Bends) isn’t the album cover; it would be a picture of Keelhaul at Bosherston Head. I have my reasons. We make our own personal playlists now; why not the same for the images that we tie to our music?

Secondly, since record companies seem to be trying to get us to buy CDs through incentives like more online content if we buy and click and register, why don’t they give us some more album art – for each track? – that we can add when we rip the songs? It would be clever. It would be cool. And it would both bring us forward into the digital age, where a “track” carries so much more encoded information than just where it is on a spiral track heading towards the oblivion of the spindle; and at the same time bring us level with, or perhaps slightly ahead of, those days when albums were big things that really were works of art.

Over to you: what does album art mean to you? Have you ever thought of it this way? How about now?

(Update: for Apple users, there’s now a downloadable Automator action that twill let you find out which tracks don’t have artwork. It’s written by Thomas Peters; the action doesn’t exist in the set of iTunes actions you get provided from scratch. It’s rather neat; it’ll even create a playlist for you (cough Small Paul cough). Have a look.)

12 Comments

  1. Interesting idea. I’ve done something similar with comedy CDs – searching Google Images for pictures of Hancock, the Goons etc – but not on a systematic basis.

    It never occurred to me to try pasting in an animated gif. Just tried it: iTunes displays the first “frame” as a still image.

  2. So you’ve discovered album art, too? At first I thought “Why bother?” but as I collected some tracks and albums that already had the art, I became hooked. I now have art for some 56,038 Tracks on 3,724 Albums. Well — not each and every one, as there are a few items for which art is truly impossible to find online — but damn near all.

    About one quarter of my tracks are ‘Books-on-CD’. Book #3 of the Patrick O’Brian ‘Master and Commander’ series is ‘H.M.S Suprize’ – just try finding album (or BOOK!) art for that. I had to make the art myself in GraphicConverter.

    After one complete trip through my collection getting art, I realized that I wasn’t always getting the optimum picture. I shoot for an image about 300 X 300 pixels with good brightness, contrast and saturation. I had been using AmazonMusic.com or CDUniverse.com for both info and art, but ultimately came to rely more on Google searches for both info and art when the usual sites failed, and even then often “adjust” the art for screen legibility with GraphicConverter.

    At least this arduous trek is over, and I can now add my art and info one album at a time as I add to my collection.

    Oh, and BTW, none of my collection was purchased from iTunes or downloaded from the Web.

  3. 56,038 tracks???

    Man, I hope, one day, I have the spare time to find pictures for 56 thousand tracks :)

    The liner art for Arctic Monkeys debut album consists of 12 photos, one for each track. But it seems like even those net-savvy young scamps missed out on the ID3 tag idea. I’m sure the MySpace community will rectify that in an easily-downloadable format given time.

    iTunes doesn’t let you create Smart Playlists via AppleScript though. Grrr.

  4. I prefer to stick with the approved artwork, but your point is well taken: I have no idea why the recording industry has not cottoned onto the idea that providing album art is their best response to downloading and sharing. I still recall fondly the actual postcards that came with Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here”

  5. Charles

    Wednesday 3 May 2006 at 1:59 pm

    The thing about the “approved” artwork for digital music is that, as I say somewhere, there’s only one per entire album – where we used to get a front, back, inside, and often other extras. (Recall the labels on Genesis records, with the Mad Hatter. What label was that? It’s a poor tradeoff.

  6. I think the Genesis label was Chrysalis.
    Just popped over to the Sonos site – looks interesting, if a little pricey for me at the mo’.My router is in the hall, so not a good place to have one of the ZeePee devices.
    A gotcha – art4itunes has a file limit of 5 million bytes … and my library comes in at 5.56Mb. A bit of editing required … and only 13,500 tracks, I feel ashamed after Barbarossa’s 56 thou. Still, I’ve only reached “Q” in the encoding stakes.

  7. Chrysalis is right.

    You mean that sort of stuff now sells for real money?

    Must check my collection of “vinnul”.

    I hasten to add that I have never bought a Genesis album. Pomp rock was alien territory.

  8. Aha, thanks for the note on the Automator action. Sadly, I don’t think it’ll create a Smart Playlist for me, which is a requirement: I need the playlist to update itself when I change song metadata, not just be created on smart criteria in the first place. Appreciate the thought though.

  9. Charles

    Thursday 4 May 2006 at 11:25 am

    True. The best method I found was to create a smart playlist looking for BPM = 1 (beats per minute. Nothing has a BPM of 1. Except if you set it like that.)

    Then you do an Applescript:
    tell application “iTunes”
    tell playlist “Library”
    repeat with atrack in the tracks
    if artworks of atrack = {} then set bpm of atrack to 1
    end repeat
    end tell
    end tell

    And you’ll have all those non-artwork things in your smart playlist. May take a while, but it’ll run in the background. You may want to have an exception if you’ve got the “iTrip” software in there.

  10. I find that the ‘album art’ dashboard widget is the best way to quickly add art. It chooses the right artwork about 95% of the time and you can add the art to whole albumns with a single click.

  11. Charles

    Friday 26 May 2006 at 2:00 pm

    For those who haven’t got it, the download is at http://www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/music/amazonalbumart.html . Only 56K, universal binary, looks tasty.

  12. The one you link to doesn’t work for me. This is the one I find works best.

    http://www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/music/albumartwidget.html

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