You know what ID3 tags are, don’t you? When your MP3 player shows you artists, album names, song titles and stuff like that – well, that’s ID3 tags doing their thing. So if you’ve ever listened to MP3s you’ll have come across them, even though their name makes them sound a bit nerdy and obscure.
These days I can’t get enough of ID3 tags. If I find an MP3 on my hard drive that doesn’t have ID3 tags it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. I can’t relax until it’s corrected. Slowly, inexorably, over many years, structure and organisation is coming to my digital music collection. It’s all thanks to ID3 tags.
It wasn’t always this way though. I used to be opposed to ID3 tags, an ID3 tag sceptic. When did my attitude change? There was no Damascene conversion, no eureka moment, no high-level defection to the ID3-tagging community. Instead it was more like boiling the frog – with me as the frog.
In the early days of digital music – before Napster – there wasn’t much of a call for ID3 tags and if I didn’t hate them it was only because I hadn’t heard of them. Here’s why you didn’t really need them back then:
- You didn’t own many MP3s – Small hard drives, limited bandwidth and few avenues for acquiring digital music meant that most people didn’t have a huge number of MP3s, so it wasn’t difficult to keep them organised using folders and filenames. Digital music collections had yet to grow to a size where information management became a real problem.
- Music players were pretty primitive – Digital music was very new and the supporting software was at an embryonic stage in its development. Remember MacAMP? We might look back on OS’s from the late 1990s and laugh, but the fact is that many people preferred using their file systems to manage MP3s, making ID3 tags irrelevant.
- Music was stored on a single device – Data was less portable then than it is now, and you didn’t tote around mobile phones, tablets, and other devices on which you wanted to play your digital music. This also reduced the need to organise and manage music collections.
- You rarely used other people’s music collections – Admit it, you used Napster, or something like it anyway. When file-sharing came along people started to poke around in one another’s MP3 collections, but before then it didn’t really happen so no-one cared how your files were organised. If it worked for you, that was good enough.
These factors combined to create a “real ale” approach to MP3 files. We thought up ways to organise files into usefully named directories – by year, by genre, by album, by provenance. We had conventions for filenames – artist, track number, title, all separated by hyphens. ID3-managed music collections felt messy and random, with no thought given to curation and structure. Our solution worked for us. It was good enough.
But then the 1990s turned into the 2000s, and then the 2000s got out of nappies and learned to talk and started forming opinions and views and making demands of its own. A brave new world came about, in which we had to reappraise our relationship with ID3s.
The tipping point probably came when our MP3 collections grew to a point that to adjust all their filenames, or reorganise them into a new folder structure, was an unspeakably time-consuming task that we couldn’t contemplate doing. Then we started to think, how can this stuff be automated? How can I do it in bulk? And that’s when ID3 tags started to appeal.
When I started using ID3 tags, it was like a benign drug addiction. You do it for a laugh at first, for a quick thrill, to save a bit of time through automation, but suddenly they’re in your life and there’s no looking back. The benefits of using them become clear.
You copy your MP3s to an unfamiliar device with an unfamiliar UI – but the informational structure is consistent, so your collection is just as usable. You do futuristic things like “scrobbling” your music to Last.fm – but, rather than submitting junk data to these services, ID3 tags make it actually work. And as your digital music collection grows and grows, you no longer have to worry about stupid things like which directory to stick a file, or how to handle compilations, because the decisions you make are easy to change later on.
For someone who came to digital music any time after the advent of iTunes, a world without ID3 tags would be an unfamiliar and awkward place. It’s strange to look back and remember how scornful I was about them, how much I preferred the “real ale” solution of folders and filenames which was never going to successfully scale.
ID3 tags are the unsung heroes of the digital music age. I like them now, and you probably do too – even if you’ve never actually heard of them.