Contributing to Musicbrainz

Hacking on code is not the only way to contribute to the Free Software / Open Source Software community. Many applications rely on external datasets to provide some or most of their functionality and a contribution there helps all the projects downstream.

Ubuntu’s default music application Rhythmbox as well as Banshee, KDE’s Amarok and a host of smaller programs like Sound Juicer all offer the ability to rip CDs. For this feature to be seen to “work” in the eyes of the user the software needs to correctly identify the CD and add the appropriate album details and track names. To do this, these programs all query the Musicbrainz database and the quality of that response essentially decides the users experience of the ripping process; Will it be a one click “import”, or 10 minutes of filling in track names while squinting at the CD jacket? God help you if you have tracks with accented characters and an English keyboard.

What all this means is that every contribution to Musicbrainz results in a better experience for users of ALL of these programs. When someone somewhere decides to rip their favourite obscure CD, and the software magically fills in the track names and album details, its a pretty happy moment. So if you have wanted to contribute to the Free/Open Source Software community but don’t have the programming chops to do it, contributing to Musicbrainz is one way to help out.

The Musicbrainz dataset is under the Creative Commons CCO license which places all the data in the public domain. This means that your contributions will stay open to the public and we won’t have another CDDB/Gracenote situation where people contributed to a database that ended up charging for access. All you need to get started is to create a Musicbrainz account.

A typical contribution looks something like this. I’ll decide to rip one of my CDs and pop it in the drive. I launch Rhythmbox which will tell me if its not recognized:


When you click the “Submit Album” button the application will send you to the Musicbrainz website with the Table Of Contents (TOC) information from the CD in the url. Once on the site you will need to search for the Artist or Release to add the TOC to:


Most of the time there will be an entry in the database for the Artist and all that needs to happen is to add the TOC that you are still carrying from page to page in the url to one of the Artists CDs. In cases where the search returns multiple matches I usually explore the different options by ctrl+clicking on the results to open them in separate tabs.


Click through the artists albums until you find the one you are looking for, or add one if you need to. In this case there was one already there (and all the details including the catalog number matched) so my next step was to click the “Attach CD TOC”. This takes the TOC you can see in the address bar and attaches it to that release.


You will be asked to add a note describing where this information you are providing is coming from. In this case its coming from the CD. Add the note and you are done.  What make contributing to Musicbrainz particularly gratifying is that next time you put in the CD, it is recognized right away. My favourite kind of gratification: instant. You can also immediately see the results in Rhythmbox, as well as Banshee and any other application that uses Musicbrainz.



Its pretty great thinking that the few minutes invested in this process  not only solves your immediate problem of having an unrecognised CD, but also makes software all over the Linux ecosystem just a tiny bit better. That’s a win/win situation if I’ve ever seen one.


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