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What's the Difference Between ISRCs and ISWCs?

Picture of Henry Schoonmaker
3 minute read

The music industry — especially the publishing side — is full of acronyms. ASCAP, BMI, IPI, and DSP are just a few examples. Working songwriters are also forced to familiarize themselves with Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), Collective Management Organizations (CMOs), and Mechanical Rights Organizations (MROs) that represent them around the world. 

Two acronyms that may not be as familiar are ISRC and ISWC. Both have a major impact on collecting your royalties though, so it’s crucial that you know 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) helps catalog individual sound recordings (or “master recordings”) around the world. It is a unique 12-character alphanumeric code assigned by a record label, distributor, or sound recording owner to a specific recording performed by an artist or band.

The structure of the ISRC is set up to distinguish the recording from hundreds of thousands of others worldwide. The first two characters are the country code — usually the home country of the label or distributor. The next three characters are an alphanumeric code issued by the ISRC agency; it sometimes reflects the record label or distributor and their release number. The next two digits are the issue date of the ISRC. (In this example, it means the ISRC was issued in 2014.) The last five digits are a unique identifier for the person (or company) registering the ISRC. It may also reflect the release’s catalog number and the song’s track number within a release. 

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 as a physical product, digital download, or stream. A song that is released as part of a single and album will have a single ISRC, since it’s the same recording. 

One song will have multiple ISRCs if several recordings of the same composition exist, whether it’s a live performance, a cover version by another artist, a demo, or another previously unreleased recording.

Do I Need an ISRC?

A simple way to figure out if you need an ISRC 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 properly register your songs for royalty collection and get paid when your songs are streamed.  

Publishers, collection societies, record labels, distributors, and digital music services use ISRCs to match master recordings to underlying compositions. This includes Songtrust; we cannot collect mechanical or YouTube royalties without them.

How Do I Get an ISRC?

If your label or distributor doesn't assign your ISRCs (most will), you can visit the RIAA-run to fill out a form, pay a one-time $95 fee, and receive access to an online account with a registrant code and a two-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 — ASCAP in North America, for instance — to a musical work. It tracks the song title, songwriter(s), music publisher(s), and corresponding ownership shares.

Do I Need a Different ISWC For Multiple Versions?

A composition only gets one ISWC even if it's an arrangement 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 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 Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues”; it has been covered by multiple artists (including Cash himself) on many different studio recordings and live albums. There’s only one ISWC for the song, but dozens of ISRCs exist for the different recordings.

How Do I Get an ISWC?

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. 

Songtrust does not require ISWCs when you register your songs with us, but we highly recommend that you add them in if you have them.

How Important Are They?

ISRCs and ISWCs are digital fingerprints in today's world. You can 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 them. 

Each time someone streams your song, royalties are generated and your ISRC/ISWC lets collection societies, digital streaming platforms (DSPs), and other organizations know what just happened. They’re the primary way these royalties make it into your pocket.

Still a bit confused? Join one of our upcoming Music Publishing 101 sessions for a refresher and any remaining questions you may have.

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Ready to register your songs? Use this checklist to find out what important metadata you'll need handy to maximize your collection opportunities.

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