As consumers take advantage of technology to stream and download music across a growing assortment of applications, it has become harder to keep track of all of those exchanges. With services like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora (just to name a few), there are more options than ever to choose from. Things get more complicated as smartphones become the norm in more and more countries each year, which means there are more consumers who are able to use these apps. All of this activity in the marketplace makes music-tracking a problem. To address this, the Recording Industry Association of America partnered with the International Organization for Standardization to come up with a code to improve this process. The result: the International Standard Recording Code, or the ISRC. This guide will explain how this foundational identifier works with the music business, it’s history, and how to get these codes for a record.
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ISRC stands for International Standard Recording Code and it’s a 12-digit code that is assigned to each unique sound recording. As a reminder, a sound recording is a “ work that results from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.” Put simply, a sound recording is the recorded performance of a song.
Any sound recordings that are made commercially available will need an ISRC. Without the ISRC, it would be much more difficult to keep track of when recordings are used and when one should be getting paid. The ISRC is essentially a bar code for a recorded track, and it’s through the identification of this bar code that royalties are able to be collected. More than just a string of numbers, the ISRC contains specific data that ties a record to a specific creator (more on what exact data is tied to an ISRC later on).
Let’s briefly run through the history of why this code exists in the first place, and then we’ll break down the code itself as well as how to get one.
The creation and first use of the ISRC began in 1986 and was introduced by the Recording Industry Association of America through their collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO, by the way, sets international standards of identification for products across all industries, not just for the music business. With regards to the ISRC, it was their goal to come up with a uniform system for tracking record uses.
Independent artists, record labels, and music distributors alike will want to issue an ISRC to each unique sound recording released on CD, for download, or for streaming. The format of the sound recording doesn’t matter (physical or digital) —if it’s being distributed, licensed, or made available for purchase, it needs an ISRC in order to be tracked.
On an album of 10 tracks, each track is a unique sound recording, and therefore the album contains 10 ISRCs, one for each track. Exact copies of a sound recording don’t need a unique ISRC. If it’s the same copy of a sound recording downloaded thousands of times via iTunes, the ISRC remains the same for each copy.
Sound recordings remixed as new masters and compositions covered by a new artist require new ISRCs. James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go” has a different ISRC from Luca Schreiner’s remix of the same song. If I decided to cover the song myself, you probably wouldn’t want to hear it, and I’d need to get a new ISRC for my cover of the song. That would mean 3 different ISRCs for the same song, one for each different sound recording.
How do you get an ISRC?
ISRCs can be obtained via USISRC.org. The first step is to obtain what is known as a registrant code. This code allows people to assign up to 100,000 ISRCs a year for one’s works or the works of a client. The registrant code can be applied for with payment of a one-time $95 fee via their website.
Record labels or music distributors that issue ISRCs for their clients must sign up for their own registrant code as an “ISRC Manager.” They must register with the US ISRC Agency and comply with their terms in order to be given permission to issue ISRCs on behalf of their clients. More info here.
As stated above, any of the key players (artist, record label, and music distributor) can assign the ISRC to the works in question—it all depends on the particular situation of the artist.
It’s most typical to see a music distributor assign the ISRCs on behalf of the artist’s record label, although as stated above, an independent artist can take care of the ISRCs themselves, no record label or music distributor needed. This can be done most easily through services like CD Baby, TuneCore, and DistroKid.
CD Baby offers free membership and will stock your music digitally for a 9% commission on what you sell (15% commission on CD Baby Free). TuneCore will stock your album online for $29.99 for the first year and $49.99 for each following year. They also offer a $9.99 annual fee for singles and a $19.99 annual fee for ringtones. TuneCore sells itself, in part, on the fact that they don’t charge a commission. DistroKid offers unlimited single or album uploads for a flat fee of $19.99 per year, and they don’t take commission.
These services will take care of ISRCs, licenses, and will place your music on Spotify, Google play, iTunes, and other digital stores while helping you collect on royalties. Only CD Baby and TuneCore offer assistance with administration for compositions (through CD Baby Pro and TuneCore Publishing respectively, which cost extra of course), so subscribers to DistroKid will need to search elsewhere for help with administration for compositions. More detailed information can be found in our Music Distribution guide.
To land a record deal, you have to have the credibility of an established artist in order for a team of professionals to want to invest in you and take a risk with you (connections help too, of course). These distributors, however, offer their services to anyone, so it’s not a bad place to get started as an indie artist. Check out their sites and do more research in order to find out which package is best for you:
Independent artists might partner with an independent producer to help record and release their music. There are cases where mastering software automatically assigns ISRCs, so anyone getting their sound recordings mastered should double check with their engineer or producer to see if this is automatically being done.
All ISRCs last the entire life of the sound recording regardless of whether or not they were issued by an ISRC Manager or an independent artist.
ISRCs are always 12-digit codes that can be broken down into 4 parts.
1. Country Code: Up until late 2015, the country code for U.S. recordings was “US” or “QM.” It is now “QZ” for post-2015 U.S. records.
2. Registrant Code: 3 character code issued to the registrant.
3. Year of Reference: the last two digits of the year the ISRC was assigned.
4. Designation Code: A made-up string of 5 characters assigned by the registrant, not to be
repeated within the same calendar year.
Example: In 2010, Katy Perry released her single Firework on Capitol Records. The ISRC code for Firework is USCA21001262. Let’s break this code down.
Please note that, in the case of digital media platforms, hyphens are not used as part of the code and should be removed when researching or delivering ISRC codes to a platform.
The ISRC USCA21001262 would then be used to track downloads, sales, and streaming of Firework , aiding greatly in the collection and distribution of royalties.
Finally, it makes sense to explain just how the ISRC is useful in tracking the use of sound recordings. The ISRC verifies the following information that is tied directly to each sound recording:
One can check to see if a sound recording already has an ISRC here:
YouTube CMS allows one to check on a specific sound recording, or one can simply google search for the
release by searching something as simple as “Katy Perry Fireworks ISRC.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/bMEQaJ1dbw4
On the publishing side of business? Want to learn more about the music business in general? Check out our guide on the ISWC—similar to the ISRC, but applicable to compositions instead of sound recordings. Check out our guide here.
Authors: Eric Villalpando, Rene Merideth, and Aaron Davis