As noted here a while back, the covers of vinyl records or home-made mix tapes have a lot of value that has been discarded in the drive towards digital music services such as iTunes, Rhapsody and so on. As well as visual representation, basic elements of contextual information - aka metadata - which were effortlessly conveyed via cover art, are generally missing. Definitely a case of one step forward and two steps back, with unknown consequences for music.
In my New Musical Experiences piece I noted a couple of potential solutions - which were stop gaps at best - including an interface for browsing music via their sleeves, known as Cover Flow. This at least created some connection between visual and aural experiences, though it did little to resolve the omission of more structural metadata. Development appeared to stop a while ago, and as of last night we know why. It's perhaps one of the key additions to iTunes 7. Here's a pic from the Apple website illustrating the ideal:
John Coulthart and Colin Buttimer note what this means and generally welcome its inclusion. However, iTunes is optimised to use the album artwork at the iTunes Music Store to populate the cover art in your collection - which of course means Apple gets to see all your music, by the way, though they explicitly say they chuck that data away - and the iTunes catalogue has such a proportionately small set of recorded music that many collections won't be helped by this at all. Anybody whose tastes hover one iota either side of the mainstream won't be helped, due to the strategy and business issues around the music marketplace mitigating directed against the user so heavily. Additionally, there are all the basic issues around matching names of albums from your collection to Apple's. Put simply, chances are that your album's artwork won't be in iTunes. (You can add it yourself, which is good, but not even I bother to do that.) So for many, the experience is often going to look like this:
Hmm. Applications like Synergy handle this better, by using Amazon.com's cover art database as its provider, leading to far higher hit rate - ultimately meaning that album art can be pulled back into the music listening experience. Good, even at a pathetically small size.
[Update: However, when it works, it is truly folding something of value back into the music playback experience. iTunes is currently thrashing away, playing matchmaker with several thousand albums in my library and its Music Store database. Slowly but surely it's adding a visual context back into music playback, as many of us had requested, at least for some small percentage of the albums I've ripped. Cover Flow provides something of the more 'gestural' interface I'd suggested too. Now, if they'd just build the mini projector ...]
Sadly, there's little on the structural metadata front, save a new (?) addition, 'Album artist', which is possibly intended to help with compilations or DJ mixes. Unclear, and again it illustrates how difficult it is to convey the richly textured context that physical products intrinsically handle well. Something like Kieran Hebden's DJ Kicks set is clear enough on the shelves - it's compiled by Hebden, aka Four Tet, featuring numerous artists across different tracks, including remixes by DJs of tracks by other artists and so on. To map this thoroughly into iTunes is still tricky and I can't see many users doing it. Ditto the mysterious 'grouping' option. (There are far more difficult 'edge cases' than these - as discussed.) However, the annoying and disruptive gap that used to be audible in such mix albums - also live albums or music which isn't song-based - has now been fixed in iTunes 7, with the ugly term 'Gapless album'. It still generally requires user intervention, which most won't do. However, at least the option is there and this is another major tidy-up (though does it work on iPods too?). Further metadata issues could only be dealt with by a more concerted engagement with supportive environments such as Musicbrainz (whose brilliantly-coiffeured founder, Robert Kaye, is sitting behind me, incidentally, working with us at BBC Radio & Music Interactive this week.)
There are quite a few other small additions to iTunes 7 too, such as remembering playback points and a general tidy up of the Music Store interface. So despite the flaws and oversights, it's good to see Apple beginning to at least address issues that have been present since v1 of iTunes. Keep on it.
Of course, all the news will mainly be about the movie download service, though I can't get too excited about this yet. It's too expensive, the resolution is too small, the DRM aspects will serve against the user, and fundamentally, business strategy issues mean the content offering is so small and uninspiring - really, who cares? Technically, it's a step forward, but without content, that's all it is. Kudos to Apple if it gets the 'watch movies on TV' iTV service going, though - despite my snitty description there, it'll actually be a huge step forward if they can bring a smooth user experience to an area that market-driven development has shot through with interoperability issues. Good luck to 'em.