Album by album, country by country

The commonly held view that artists release a set of albums is a simple and easy to remember notion, but it's overly simplistic from a music collector's perspective. We tend to think of artists releasing bodies of work - albums - but when you get down to the nitty-gritty it's that "R" word that matters to music collectors - "release".

When you build a music library, whether it's physical or stored on your computer, you need to think release, not album. It's the release, the actual collection of files or physical media, that you are in possession of. It is but one manifestation of the album; further manifestations come in the form of different country releases, digital re-masters, anniversary editions, and more.

Some releases differ from country to country. The artwork for Only by the Night by Kings of Leon is very different depending on whether you have purchased the United Kingdom version or one from anywhere else. The track listings for the UK version of The Stone Roses is different to that of the US version.

It's not just country by country. Over time, different releases of an album get different treatment. Here, again with the cover art, note how the artwork changes from the original US Highway 61 Revisited to the the digital media re-release.

These types of inconsistencies matter to music collectors and record sellers alike. It's not just track listings and cover art; there are other differences between releases:

  • Barcodes
  • Catalog numbers
  • Lyrics (due to, for example, censorship)
  • Media changes changing track positions (e.g. vinyl or cassette "sides")


The initial response to this may be to slavishly tag all of your releases so they correctly obey the metadata, track listings, cover art and more from the country of release.

That's fine, but it ignores the perspective of the music library owner.

If I have collected both the UK and the Japanese versions of any one particular album then I probably want something in the album identifying the fact. The trouble is that not many music players support showing the country for any given release and so it becomes difficult to differentiate album to album.

So we are left to re-use existing tag fields such as a given album name (remember, it's the release name, not the album name) and to mangle those fields with something... for example:

Vanishing Point [Japanese import]
Led Zeppelin III [deluxe edition]

Getting metadata and artwork correct

So much for theory, what about the practice? The unfortunate thing is that this gets quite difficult to apply to a computer music collection. We need to consider (1) how we get the country-by-country data in the first place, then (2) how to apply it.

The good news as far as getting the data is concerned is that this data is readily available. Just take a look at the exhaustive depth of data for the different releases of Revolver and you can see the data is out there.

The bad news is that getting it effectively, and in a scalable fashion, is more difficult. To automate the process implies including the locale data as part of a metadata query, because any automated software will require input data to know how to build queries to make to online music metadata databases. Not all music databases support this, and no software exists that will include this data in a query (that I know of - please leave a message in the comments if you know otherwise).

Things get easier if the query uses track listings or audio fingerprints, and they are sufficiently different from release to release. That way you stand a chance of distinguishing between the releases.

But say you have retrieved the country-specific data, what do you do with it?

The first thing is to tag the RELEASECOUNTRY field. Unfortunately this is a very underused tag, and only really commonly agreed-upon within Vorbis Comments (and therefore FLAC, which by and large uses Vorbis Comments).

From there it's a matter for the music collection owner. You need to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to differentiate between releases and tracks from releases when building playlists?
  • Do I want to instantly see when a track that is playing is from an imported release?

If either answer is yes, then it's likely you will need to change the ALBUM NAME field to include some annotation relating to the release. Whatever you choose - attempt to do this in a consistent way. For example:

  • Include the annotation in square brackets
  • Always place at the end of the album name
  • Use sentence capitalisation

Note that Roon supports using both square brackets and parentheses as album annotations. When music players do this, it becomes a useful way of both browsing and viewing differing releases as they play.

So, the lesson, as ever, is organise your library as it makes sense to you but be consistent!

Thanks to mandiberg for the image above.
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The Music Library Management blog

Dan Gravell

I'm Dan, the founder and programmer of bliss. I write bliss to solve my own problems with my digital music collection.