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There’s one thing an mp3 won’t replace for the music fan — and that’s the liner notes. Why the hell not?

liner notesWhen people talk about the loss of the physical artefact in online music, they’re often talking about the liner notes. The information, artwork and explanatory or exploratory essays that accompany a good record. And they’re right.

You might get the front cover of the album in the ID3 tag of your music file — or even a link to a review of the record, but it’s not the whole booklet, and nor is it the extra artwork and back cover.

I mean, just because you can’t hold the paper in your hands, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get all that interesting and desirable stuff, right? In fact, in these days of user-generated content, wikis and rss feeds, shouldn’t you actually be able to get more?

Sometimes when I listen to music, I like to read about the music as it plays. But even though a website isn’t right for that — for a great many reasons — the characteristics of the online environment, and the nature of digital files, still suggest that metadata should be a key feature of the experience of digital music.

It isn’t.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get the front cover, artist name, year, album title and tracklist — equivalent to two sides of a single square of paper slotted into a CD jewel case. Disappointing stuff.

But what if you could get ALL of the information — and more?

Producer credits, explorations and analyses of individual songs, accompanying essays, photography from the recording session, personnel listings — and then fan- and expert-created content as well. All in a nice, easy to flick through package on your computer screen or portable player.

It wouldn’t be that hard to do. I propose a web(2.0)-based platform — possibly even a wiki — that allows for the entry of data of that sort of nature that can be easily exported to an XML file that can be downloaded and either (a) embedded in the file itself, (b) stored in a local folder or (c) accessible online at the point of playback.

A centralised server for that sort of thing — a bit like CDDB (or even Gracenote themselves) — would be the order of the day.

The way to do it from a consumption perspective would be through the installation of a small piece of software that would scan the ID3 tag of the song currently playing, and locate within it a URL for the XML file (perhaps kept in the under-utilised ‘comments’ field). The XML file would contain the pure data that would make up the content of the liner notes to be displayed. These would be quickly downloaded and imported.

Because XML data contains no style or presentation information (unlike HTML), the application itself would then present the liner notes in a format that was appropriate to the viewer. Different skins, if you like. The content could be presented in any way you see fit: a simple black on white text page that echoed a CD insert booklet, a glossy art photography book layout, a flash animated skin in which the pages turn like a ‘real’ book, and so on.

You might prefer a Def Jam presentation approach, where I might want my liner notes to look like Impulse! sleeves of the late 60s. Or you could assign different skins to different genres.

Reissue labels could provide extensive notes to accompany their releases. Major labels could embed the entire booklet of their latest CDs on the iTunes download without recourse to clunky PDF files. Allmusic.com could port their content to the project. Fans could upload and edit their own discussions of the album. Independent labels could mobilise their fan base to contribute text and image content.

Premium content sites could commodify ‘authorised’ sleeve art, as well as significant, high quality liner notes for an ever-expanding library of music. Moreover, the service would be easily backward-compatible with a simple initial scan of the user’s music directory, and a download and embed of the right XML files (or links thereto) into the correct fields of the ID3 tags within the existing music library.

And, of course, you’d be able to select exactly what sort of liner notes you were interested in. If you wanted the essays that the Observer Music Monthly would start contributing, you’d select (or subscribe to) that. If you didn’t want fan-generated explanations of the importance of the record to their own personal life journey, then you could just filter that out. Customisable record sleeves.

As the systems would all use XML for the data, all of the different services would be entirely interoperable. You could choose to opt in to any number of the services that would grow to support such a project, and they would just work together.

Some smart cookie might even code something in Ajax so you could drag and drop sections of text and image to create your own personalised presentation of an album’s metadata. And the information could always be expanded, refined and updated, with the help of our dear friend, RSS.

Personally, I’d like to see the Open Source community do something with this — from both a software development and a content provision perspective.

But there’s a market for all the smart people in business enterprise to come up with clever ways of displaying and interacting with that content. A sexy ‘Onliner Notes’ interface for the iPod for a £10 download. I’d buy that. Or perhaps a bit of software that displays the XML content as if it was a classic gatefold record sleeve. Wouldn’t that be perfect for those widescreen laptops?

It’s an overdue idea, as far as I can see. It’s an opportunity for record companies to reinvest their music with a collectiblity and value that goes beyond the value of the song-in-itself, and begins to recognise the value that consumers associate with their own investment in the collection, organisation and conceptual mapping of their own music.

Why is music free? Perhaps in part because the digital music file exists as audio data, floating contextless among the Word documents, jpegs and other data floating around the average hard drive. As such, it has a much lower degree of resonance within the ‘lifeworld’ of the consumer.

Liner notes provide the opportunity to situate that music. Provide it with the context that will allow consumers to attribute cultural value to the music. And that’s a good deal of the reason people like to buy vinyl. Quite literally, it means more to them.

Let’s invest mp3s with some of that.