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The alphabet soup of today’s music industry.


By Michael Nickolas

ISRC, UPC, EAN, ISWC, IPI/CAE – codes, codes and more codes! As a music creator selling, licensing, distributing and streaming your product, you’re going to run across these acronyms. What do they stand for and what will they do for you? How do you get them? I’ll cover the details of each of these below.


What does it stand for?

International Standard Recording Code.

What is it and what does it do?

An ISRC is designated to uniquely identify a specific recording. By using this code a recording can be tracked for its digital sales and streaming income. So any site that sells your music as a digital download, or any of the streaming services you submit to are going to require an ISRC for each of your tracks.

Given that the ISRC is a unique identifier, there will be only one code per recording. Alternate versions and timing edits each get their own ISRC. “My Song”, “My Song Instrumental” and “My Song 30 Seconds” will all be assigned a different ISRC.

The ISRC format is as follows: XX-ABC-12-12345. The dashes aren’t required but they can be put in to make reading the code easier for us humans.

Using the example XX-ABC-12-12345:

XX is the country code. In the US it will be US, QM or QZ.

ABC is the identifier assigned by the National ISRC Agency to the entity (Registrant) issuing the code.

12 is the year the code was assigned to the recording.

12345 is the recordings designation code. This is created by the issuer.

ISRC’s work on an international level and are permanent to the recordings they are assigned to. They can be embedded in an electronic files metadata.

Where do you get it?

If you are using a distributor like CD Baby, DistroKid, Tunecore or the like, your tracks will be assigned ISRC’s as part of their distribution process. It’s all handled automatically, nothing for you to do specifically.

As a self-distributor you can get ISRC’s from authorized ISRC Managers like mastering studios. Here is the list of ISRC Managers appointed by the US ISRC Agency. Only these companies are approved to assign ISRCs on behalf of the owner of a recording https://www.usisrc.org/managers/index.html.

Another way is to become a Registrant yourself as a “Recording Rights Owner”. The cost is $95 and your Registrant Code is yours for life.

One thing to consider, there are cases where you could end up with multiple ISRC’s assigned to a single recording, which shouldn’t be. For example, it’s possible to upload your music non-exclusively to a company that makes it available for streaming in businesses, stores and restaurants. They assign it an ISRC when you upload it. Later you use a different distributor to get it on services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music, something the first company didn’t offer. The result is two ISRC’s for one recording. It will have to be changed at one or the other to remain consistent.

How does it help me get paid?

Your digital download sales and streaming activity will be tracked by ISRC’s. You will also need ISRC’s should you join SoundExchange, the collection society that collects and distributes digital performance royalties. Same with uploading your catalog information to Songdex, the database for “Music Reports”, a company that deals with music rights clearances for digital services. I also assume ISRC’s will be needed for the upcoming mechanical licensing collective database which goes into effect January1, 2021 as part of the Music Licensing Modernization Act (https://www.copyright.gov/music-modernization/faq.html).


What does it stand for?

Universal Product Code.

What is it and what does it do?

UPC’s are used to track the sales, physical or digital, of full products. So whereas an ISRC references a single recording, a UPC references a collection of recordings as a whole – like a CD or vinyl record album. The product doesn’t have to be physical, a UPC can represent an all-digital collection.

The barcode graphic we all are familiar with for a physical product is generated from the 12 digit UPC and this of course is scanned from the retail packaging at the point of purchase. It is recommended to treat CD and vinyl as different products by getting a unique barcode for each.

The UPC format is as follows: 0 12345 67890 5

0 12345 is the company identification number assigned to the owner.

67890 is the number assigned by the owner to reference a specific item.

5 is the checksum digit calculated from the preceding numbers.

Where do you get it?

Like ISRC’s, UPC’s are assigned by your distributor. If you’re self-distributing you can buy a UPC from a service offering individual UPC’s for sale. A quick internet search will point you in the right direction. You can also join GS1 (www.gs1.org), formally known as the “Uniform Code Council”, to be assigned a unique company identification number, called a GS1 Company Prefix. This will allow you to create UPC’s/Barcodes for multiple releases. Prices to join vary with the lowest starting at $250.

How does it help me get paid?

Stores selling both digital and physical albums require a UPC. So no UPC, no sales!


 What does it stand for?

European Article Number and is also known as “International Article Number”.

What is it and what does it do?

An EAN is in effect indistinguishable from a UPC and is basically an international version of a UPC. EAN adds a 13th digit to a UPC and the first two digits make up the country code. The barcode graphic is the same and a UPC can meet the EAN standard simply by adding a leading 0 to it.

The EAN format is as follows: 49 12345 67890 4

49 is the country code.

12345 is the manufacturer code.

67890 is the product code.

4 is the checksum digit.

Before 2005, stores in North America had trouble reading EAN’s because of the extra digit. After 2005 the EAN countries came together with the Uniform Code Council (US and Canada) to form the GS1. According to the GS1 website – UPC’s are currently accepted around the globe and to quote – “Today’s scanners can now read EAN and UPC barcodes so there is never a reason to put both types on a product. US companies should ONLY use the UPC barcode.”

Where do you get it?

Like UPC’s, EAN’s can also be distributor assigned, bought individually, or by joining GS1.org.

How does it help me get paid?

Stores selling both digital and physical albums require a UPC/EAN. So no UPC/EAN, no sales!


What does it stand for?

International Standard (musical) Work Code.

What is it and what does it do?

Just as an ISRC references an individual recording, the ISWC references an individual composition; that is the underlying intangible music work that makes up the recording. There will be only one ISWC assigned to a single composition. It is permanent and recognized internationally. It is used by performing rights organizations (PROs) to track royalties. An ISWC notes the works title and all composers, authors and arrangers of the work.

The ISWC format is as follows: T-123456789-0

T is the “prefix element”.

123456789 is the work identifier.

0 is the checksum digit.

 The public can access the ISWC data base at https://iswcnet.cisac.org/logon.do. A search can be completed by Title, ISWC, Creator’s name and/or Creator-ID (CAE/IPI number).

Where do you get it?

The ISWC is assigned by your PRO (i.e. ASCAP, BMI) when you or your publisher registers a composition. In addition, the ISWC website (http://www.iswc.org/en/index.html) states that if you aren’t affiliated with a PRO but want to be assigned an ISWC to “contact the official Agency of your territory”.

How does it help me get paid?

ISWC’s make it easier for PRO’s to track and compensate composers for public performances of their music. If you’re a member of a PRO and are registering your compositions then you don’t have to think about it. You’re getting these codes automatically and are all set!


What does it stand for?

Interested Party Information/Composer, Author and Publisher (Editor)

What is it and what does it do?

This is the number that uniquely identifies you as a songwriter or publisher with your PRO.

Where do you get it?

The number is assigned when you join a PRO as a writer or publisher. If you join as both a writer and a publisher this will be two separate numbers. An IPI/CAE is nine digits, is international, and is given to every writer and publisher joining a PRO.

How does it help me get paid?

The IPI/CAE is very important to getting paid public performance royalties by your PRO. There are thousands of “John Smiths” but there will only be one “123456789”. When you or a publisher register your works with a PRO, it’s this number that identifies who is to be paid when a particular work is identified as being used in a public performance like a television broadcast.


Here’s a concise breakdown to show how each code is representing a different aspect of the music business.

ISRC Represents a recording
UPC/EAN Represents a group of recordings as a whole like an album
ISWC Represents a musical composition
IPI/CAE Represents a writer or publisher


Having numeric codes is a necessity to computer tracking all these millions of pieces of information; knowing what each does for you can only be beneficial to your understanding of the business of music!

Michael Nickolas is a music creator, musician and author working in Massachusetts. Recent TV placements include the Lifetime Network’s movie “Deadly Hack”, Netflix’s “You” and NBC’s “The Voice”.


2 thoughts on “The alphabet soup of today’s music industry.”

  1. You as author will be paid anytime a particular work associated with your IPI/CAE number is identified as being used in a public performance like a television broadcast. So the answer is lifetime income, given consistent uses of your works.

  2. Hey Michael Nickolas,
    Could you please clarify a bit more about IPI/CAE payment when television broadcast is published and revenue starts generating as an Author should I get onetime or lifetime income?


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