With thousands of songs being downloaded and streamed across physical and digital mediums, it’s a daunting task to get accurate statistics on music usage. All of this noise in the music marketplace only gets louder as smartphones become the norm in more and more countries each year. To help cut through this noise, the International Standard Musical Work Code was implemented to set up a uniform identification system for tracking the use of compositions, which in turn helps rightsholders get paid.
This guide will explain how this foundational identifier works with the music business, it’s history, and how to get these codes for a composition.
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Table of Contents
Whether on the radio or through a streaming service, every record is based upon an underlying composition that, in essence, defines the song. This “underlying composition” dictates the melody, lyrics, and structure of a recorded performance (or sound recording). Over the years, the music business has grown to need a uniform system for identifying compositions and tracking their uses.
The ISWC, or International Standard Musical Work Code, takes care of just that—it’s a 10-digit code that’s tied to each composition/song.
An ISWC may be paired with any number of records so long as they do not consist of derivative works , or new arrangements of a composition, often including different or parody lyrics. Remixes or covers do not fall under “derivative works,” and thus any number of remixes or covers could have the same ISWC because they’re based on the same composition.
More information on derivative works here
Luca Schreiner’s remix of the song “Say You Won’t Let Go” contains the same ISWC as James Arthur’s original record. Schreiner’s remix is not a derivative work, so it doesn’t need a new ISWC. Both records contain the same lyrics and melody even if they’re producing a different sound.
Derivative works, where licensed and approved by the original rightholder(s) of the song, will need to obtain a unique ISWC, as it is no longer the same composition as the original.
The ISWC was first developed in 2002 by the France-based International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC) in collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
The ISWC contains the following data:
The ISWC was created to help with tracking the usage of any given composition, which helps in the collecting of and distribution of royalties for a songwriter, publisher (if a songwriter is signed to a publisher), or performing rights society (depending upon the territory where they are primarily based).
All ISWCs begin with the letter “T” and are then followed by a unique nine-digit number, and an additional “check digit” calculated using the Luhn formula at the end (the Luhn formula is used to validate sequences like credit cards and was developed by IBM scientist Hans Peter Luhn).
Click here to access a database run by the International ISWC Agency where all ISWC codes can be searched
Obtaining an ISWC is a bit different from getting an ISRC. When it comes to the ISWC, there’s something called the International ISWC Agency that’s responsible for the overall ISWC system maintenance and administration. They appoint and oversee the work of regional and/or local ISWC numbering agencies. These regional/local agencies are then authorized to receive and process applications for ISWC and allocate the actual ISWC numbers to the musical works.
Publishers and creators outside of the United States need to contact their local/regional ISWC agency in order to secure an ISWC for their work(s).
A list of all ISO agencies can be found here.
The following information must be supplied to the agency in order to obtain the ISWC:
While publishers will generally assign the ISWC for an artist, independent artists are also able to use distributors like TuneCore Publishing and CD Baby Pro to take care of the administration of their compositions. TuneCore Publishing charges $75.00 to administer unlimited songs, but collects a 10% commission on royalties collected. CD Baby Pro charges $34.95 to administer a single or $89 for an album and doesn’t charge a commission on royalties collected.
Once issued, the ISWC helps songwriters, publishers, distributors and performing rights organizations monitor use of their repertoire.
On the recording side of business? Want to learn more about the music business in general? Check out our guide on the ISRC—similar to the ISWC, but applicable to sound recordings instead of compositions. Check out our guide here.
Authors: Eric Villalpando, Rene Merideth, and Aaron Davis