ISRC vs ISWC - What's the Difference?

The music industry, especially music publishing, is full of acronyms - ASCAP, BMI, IPI and DSP are just a few. If you’re a working songwriter, you should know about collection societies like Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) - such as ASCAP and BMI in the US - and Collective Management Organizations (CMOs) - which represent songwriters in some other countries. But two acronyms that may not be as familiar are ISRC and ISWC - let alone, what they mean. These two acronyms have a major impact on collecting your royalties, so it’s crucial that you know them, what they mean, and how they differ. Don’t worry, we’re here to help.  

What is an ISRC?

The International Standard Recording Code (or ISRC) is an identification system used around the world to catalog individual sound recordings, aka master recordings. An ISRC is a 12-character alphanumeric code/unique identifier (It’ll look like this: US-S1Z-99-00001) assigned by a record label, distributor, or sound recording owner to a recording or audio file of a single song performed by an artist or band and separates it from the hundreds and thousands of other sound recordings worldwide. 

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The structure of the ISRC is meant to reveal some information in itself. The first two characters are the country code—usually the country of origin of the recording. 

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The next three characters are an alphanumeric code issued by the ISRC agency, which sometimes reflects the record label/distributor and release number. 

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The next two digits are the issue date of the ISRC (in this example, it means that the ISRC was issued in 2014). 

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The last 5 digits are a unique identifier for the person (or company) registering the ISRC. Sometimes it can also reflect the release’s catalog number and the song’s track number within a release. 

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Overall, the ISRC verifies the artist name, track title, album name, label name and Universal Product Code (UPC). The same ISRC applies to a recording whether it’s released on a physical product, like a CD, as an mp3 download, or on streaming services. Furthermore, a song that is released as a single and then again as part of an album is exactly the same recording and so has the same ISRC. But, one song will have multiple ISRCs if multiple recordings of the same composition exists - whether that’s a live recording, a cover version by another artist, a released demo version, or any other recording.

Do I need an ISRC?

A simple way to figure out if you need an ISRC code is to ask yourself this question: Is my recording being released for public consumption? If the answer is yes, then you'll need an ISRC to then properly register your songs for royalty collection. Publishers, collection societies, record labels and music services use ISRCs to match master recordings to underlying compositions. If your ISRCs aren't being sent to collection societies, services like Spotify won’t know who to pay when your songs are streamed.

How do I get them?

If your label or distributor doesn't assign your ISRCs (though most will), any independent artist or band, label, or music distributor can visit USISRC.org, which is run by the Recording Industry Association of America, to fill out a form. You’ll pay a $95 one-time fee and receive access to an online account with a registrant code and a 2-letter country code. This registrant code is yours for life, and will allow you to register up to 100,000 unique ISRCs a year.

What is an ISWC?

The International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC) is an 11-character alphanumeric code or international identification system cataloging individual compositions (usually songs), rather than recordings. An ISWC is an identifier usually assigned by a collection society, like ASCAP in North America, to a musical work. It tracks the song title, songwriter(s), music publisher(s), and corresponding ownership shares.iswc

Do I need a new ISWC for multiple versions?

A composition only gets one ISWC, even if it's an arrangement of or adaptation of an original composition. However, if the new "version" of a song has different songwriting splits than the original, then it is a different composition and therefore would get a new ISWC. An ISWC can be linked to any number of ISRCs, while each ISRC is linked only to one specific recording. Think of the song “Folsom Prison Blues” written by Johnny Cash, which has been covered by multiple artists as well as released by Cash in different recordings on studio and live albums. There’s still only one ISWC for the song, but dozens ISRCs for the different recordings of the song.

 

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How do I get one?

ISWCs are assigned by most collection societies when your songs are registered. You can also get one by visiting the International ISWC Agency. In the United States, ASCAP is the official ISWC issuance agency; you can request an ISWC from them whether or not you're a member.

Let’s get real -- How important are these?

ISRCs and ISWCs are digital fingerprints in today's world. You can also think of them as a barcode on a product at the store - your song is the product, and the store is the global royalty collection ecosystem. If there’s no barcode, you can’t track sales or figure out how to charge for it. Beyond that, the store won’t know if that  product was even sold or in stock. Each time someone streams your song, royalties are generated -- your ISRC and ISWC operate as that barcode, letting collection societies, digital streaming platforms (DSPs), and other organizations know that your song was streamed. The primary way these royalties make it into your pocket is by linking these streams to your ISRCs and ISWCs.

Still a bit confused? Join one of our upcoming Music Publishing 101 virtual sessions for a refresher and to ask our publishing specialists any remaining questions you might have. 

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