• 05.14.13

Why Digital Liner Notes Will Change The Way You Listen To Music

Remember liner notes? They used to come with every record, tape, and CD, and detailed every composer, musician, and engineer who worked on an album (what, you think Beyonce does everything herself?). Unfortunately, the concept never made it to the digital era. That’s about to change, opening up brand-new ways to discover music online.

Why Digital Liner Notes Will Change The Way You Listen To Music

Subscription-based streaming music service Rhapsody may change the way we discover music. By the end of 2013, the company will be the first such service to include digital liner notes in song data. Why do we care? Because by including digital liner notes, listeners will be able to search Rhapsody not only by song title and artist, but by all the contributors to that song as well, making digital music discovery exponentially richer.


The push by Rhapsody is part of a new campaign from the Recording Academy, the organization that puts on the annual Grammy awards. Called “Give Fans the Credit,” the idea behind the campaign is to use technology to bring liner notes to digital music discovery, which is becoming more important to the recording industry as consumers increasingly find new music from social networks, music blogs, and discovery services, rather than from retailers.

“Discovery is a key part of today’s digital music services,” says Daryl Friedman, chief advocacy & industry relations officer for the Recording Academy. “By knowing who wrote, produced, and played on the tracks, consumers will be able to discover even more great music.”

What are liner notes, exactly? Maybe you’ve never seen them because you never owned a vinyl album, where the concept originated and flourished. Liner notes made it to CDs in the form of those booklets where the pictures and lyrics live, but because of their small size, the print is often tiny and cumbersome. These days, however, you probably download or stream music, which means you rarely see information on songwriters, engineers, session players, background musicians, or producers. In case you’re unfamiliar with who these people are and what they do, here’s a breakdown:

Songwriter: Also known as a composer, songwriters write the actual music and/or lyrics for a performer. Example: Bruno Mars didn’t write “Grenade”–he just sang it. A man named Claude Kelly did the writing.

Engineer: An audio engineer uses their technical genius to operate recording equipment, mixing consoles, amplifiers, etc., to manipulate live sounds into what you hear in your headphones. There are studio/mixing engineers who work inside the recording facility, mastering engineers who make final adjustments to the overall sound of the track, and more engineers who coordinate the live sound you hear at shows.

Producer: Producers act as a project manager for the recording process. Phil Ek, producer for The Shins, Modest Mouse, and Fleet Foxes,describes the job this way: “A producer is the person who creatively guides or directs the process of making a record, like a director would a movie.”


Background Vocalists: These singers make the primary singer sound even better–adding harmonies and depth and additional voices. Rumor has it Elton John and Sheryl Crow started their careers as background singers.

Session Player: Session players are musicians or singers who perform with a band during a specific recording session or live show, as opposed to being permanent band members traveling with a band on the road. One of the most notable session musicians was bassist Carol Kaye–said to have played on over 10,000 recordings in her career, including “La Bamba” and much of Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album.

The campaign and Rhapsody’s plan to provide digital liner notes are both ambitious, but there’s one major roadblock: The database that provides this information won’t be ready until 2015. In the meantime, websites like Rovi and SoundExchange do provide some song information, but Rhapsody can’t count on those services for complete data. In order to make this information available to customers by the end of the year, the company may be looking at months of time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly work.

Rhapsody’s struggle to provide this information ought to provide valuable insights to the team working on a public database of song information. That project, called the Global Repertoire Database (GRD), is being overseen by representatives from 14 organizations including APRA, Sony/ATV/EMI Music Publishing, Google, and iTunes.

The goal of the GRD is to centralize the proprietary song information databases run by these industry leaders into one public store of song information that streaming services, Internet radio stations, online retailers, MP3 blogs, and consumers can access. In addition to giving music discovery services new sets of data to play with, the database will allow recording industry professionals to receive proper credit for their work and even help the industry pay royalties more accurately.

Enabling digital liner notes will allow modern consumers to engage with music at a much deeper level, and bring lost information from the analog era back to the industry. The development is long overdue, but for music lovers who want more from the discovery experience, it’s one worth waiting for.


Jackie Shuman (@jackieprobably) is a music supervisor and the East Coast Director of Platform Music Group. She specializes in film, television and commercial placements for independent artists.

[Image: Flickr user Marco Santa Cruz]