What Does Apple Music Do when Multiple Artists Have the Same Name?

There are lots of people who have the same name. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of John Smiths in the world. In acting, in some countries, it is not possible to use a name that has already been used. The Screen Actors Guild and the British Actors Equity Association stipulate that if a name is already used, you must come up with a stage name. As Wikipedia says:

Nathan Lane, whose birth name (Joseph Lane) was already in use; Stewart Granger, born James Stewart; and Michael Keaton, born Michael Douglas. Diane Keaton, whose birth name is Diane Hall, took her mother’s maiden name as a stage name after learning that there was already a registered actress named Diane Hall in the Actors’ Equity Association. Ugly Betty actress Vanessa Williams officially uses “Vanessa L. Williams” due to SAG guidelines, although the other actress with same first and last name (Vanessa A. Williams) is arguably less notable. Similarly, David Walliams changed one letter in his surname due to there being another “David Williams”. Terry O’Quinn of Lost fame changed his surname from Quinn to O’Quinn as another registered actor already had the name Terrance Quinn. Long-time Simpsons writer and Futurama executive producer David X. Cohen changed his middle initial from S to X because there was already a David S. Cohen registered with the Writer’s Guild of America. Julianne Moore was born Julie Anne Smith but found that all variations of that name were already used by other actors.

But in music, there are no such rules. So, for example, you may be a fan of Bill Evans the pianist, but if you search for him you will also find Bill Evans the saxophonist. In fact, there is also a country musician with the same name, and a bass player. And both the pianist and sax player show up more than once in search result on Apple Music for that name.

Bill evanses

The other day, I listened to an album of music by Toru Takemitsu: Orchestral Works, by Nexus, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and Carl St. Clair. It contains three works: From Me Flows What You Call Time, Twill By Twilight, and Requiem.


Carl St. Clair is the conductor, as shown on Discogs, but there are other artists with that name. In fact, since I “loved” the album on Apple Music, I now see, in the For You section, a whole list of suggestions of his music.

Carl st clair
I think it’s pretty obvious that the first two are not by the same “artist.” But my Apple Music profile will forever be tinged by the belief that they are, indeed, the same people, just working in different genres. And so the algorithm that recommends music will be skewed.

The solution is, of course, to “un-love” the album, which I will do. But highlights two issues with the way streaming recommendation algorithms work. First, when loving or liking an album, you are perhaps liking the music (in the case of classical music) with no concert about the artists. However, you are showing your interest in the composer, which is generally forgotten in these algorithms. Second, the fact that multiple artists with the same name are lumped together means that there is a good chance that you will pollute your profile with artists who you don’t care about, and have never even heard of.

The solution is simple grunt work; humans have to go through these things, perhaps using Discogs as a source, and separate out different artists. It’s not hard, but it’s time consuming. And it will never happen; music streamed is probably 80% from well-known artists, so the big streaming services just don’t care. Even though Apple averaged $1 billion dollars in revenue per day in the holiday quarter of 2019.

9 thoughts on “What Does Apple Music Do when Multiple Artists Have the Same Name?

  1. As I have opined here previously, it is all about data – its structure and storage is crucially important, but the industry (music and computer these days) is either too dumb to correctly analyse it, or they don’t care. You choose.

  2. You know, librarians have dealt with this problem for,oh, maybe 50 years or so. Maybe someone might ask them for advice.

  3. The guy who came up with mp3 tags meant well, but he didn’t know anything about music, databases, or cataloguing. Since it was better than nothing for the primary users at the time, the net swallowed it whole and it soon became virtually impossible to replace it with a better system. I suspect that most people really don’t care even now.

    Some services such as Naxos do a great job, but they aren’t really affordable for individuals. Naxos is U$21 or 31/month, and the catalog is smaller and much more focused than Apple Music.

    Naxos search is wonderful for classical, and lets you search by composer, year composed, release date, artists, period, featured instrument, arranger, and more. It’s a joy compared to iTunes. It also has the album art, publisher info, booklets as pdfs, libretti, and educational resources. It’s web interface only. It works well, but aside from content it’s not feature rich. Individual subscribers can set up playlists, but for institution subscriptions only certain people can do that (e.g. profs & students but not staff), so it’s mostly only useful for finding and listening to specific pieces at a specific time.

    In the advanced search, as you type in a value, it produces a list of the entries it knows about. Put Josquin into Composer, and you can choose from “Josquin des Prez”, “Ascanio, Josquin D'”, and “Baston, Josquin”.

    I did an artist search for Carl St. Clair, which turned up a bunch of albums. Clicking on one at random, the album track list has a sidebar with all of the metadata as links (also the booklet and a link to buy it on iTunes). The “St. Clair, Carl” link produced an artist page with a biography and a discography with sub-selections by type of work (Chamber Music, Choral – Secular, Orchestral etc).

    Such an improvement over “oh, you want classical? Here’s your elevator music!”

    Do any of the other classical oriented streaming services have anything even remotely approaching this kind of metadata richness? If so, I’d love to switch from AM. (I can’t count on having Naxos available; some years we have it, some years we don’t depending on budgets.)

    • Re tags: that’s not true. The ID3 specification includes a wide range of tags; it’s just that most music players don’t support all the tags. You could use ID3 tags for very detailed organization, with the right player. The problem here is more how artists and searches are handled online, with streaming services. I could, if I needed to, manually set the tags in my library to distinguish artists; for example, if I had any recordings from Bill Evans the sax player, I’d put the artist is Bill Evans (sax).

      As for Naxos, I never liked the interface, but their metadata is excellent. (I know the person who was in charge of it when they set it up.) I get free access via my library; you should check if your local library offers anything like that.

      I haven’t tried other classical services recently. I think Qobuz is better, but I’m not sure about any others. There is a certain amount of convenience for me with Apple Music that I really don’t want to give up.

  4. Is this a good place to reference your e-book *- ‘Take control of……MacOS Media Apps’? I’m flogging my way through the music on my iPods etc. simply to tag ‘Surname > First name’. Very useful when one doesn’t know (or can’t recall) a composer’s first name. *For which many thanks!

  5. This should be fixed, and somewhat easily, one would think. I’ve accidentally grabbed music before thinking it was a new release from an artist I liked and found out later it was someone else entirely. Wouldn’t every artist on iTunes/Apple Music have a unique ID of some sort?

    • You would think so, but it’s record labels who upload music and metadata, and Apple pretty much stays out of the way. (Same on other streaming services.)

      • To be clear, I meant Apple should have some way of separating the entries with the same names by whatever their unique ID is (there must be something that identifies artists uniquely behind the scenes on Apple’s side, or so you’d think) and then split those entries into distinct Artists on the Apple Music/iTunes side.

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