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Metadata for Songwriters: Everything You Need to Know

Picture of Henry Schoonmaker
4 minute read

Metadata is one of the most important, yet troublesome, elements of the modern-day music industry. Because of inconsistent recording info, millions of dollars never make their way to the right songwriters

Music can also be distributed globally through services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music now, making tracking, assigning, and paying out each and every use even more elusive without the proper data. This information gets overlooked and held by different pay sources instead, in what music industry professionals often call the “black box”, aka unallocated royalties.  

Follow along as we explain the importance of metadata and identify all the minute details you should double-check for your songs. 

What Is Metadata? 

Metadata is all of the important details about your song, or about a specific recording of your song. A few common examples are its release date, record label, publisher, and writer(s) information. There are a few significant times throughout your journey as a songwriter where metadata will be important, including when you:

  • Distribute a song or album
  • Register your song(s) or album with a collection society and/or publisher
  • File a legal or copyright dispute
  • Resolve a split/claim dispute
  • Pitch a song for creative opportunities (sync)

For example, let’s look at distribution. As this is generally the first step writers take once a song or album is complete, you’ll be starting with minimal metadata like the song’s name, genre, length, whether it’s explicit or not, release date, and songwriter(s). 

Once you input your metadata with a distributor*, they will generate unique IDs called International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs). These are assigned to the song itself; Universal Product Codes (better known as UPCs) are assigned to albums or EPs once they’re registered, adding a new datapoint to your song’s overall metadata information. These act as a unique identifier to your recording or product. 

This data may seem like a formality, but without it, your song wouldn’t be identifiable amongst the millions already out there. Giving all this information helps to ensure that all rights-holders will be paid for the use of your sound recording(s).

*Note: A distributor isn’t the only entity that issues ISRCs or UPCs, but it is the most common. If you self-distribute, or plan on working with a distributor, they can be purchased by the songwriter and provided to the distributor that way. 

Why Is Metadata Important?

In short: The unique information that’s assigned to you and your songs has a lasting impact on whether or not you’re getting paid. Remember when you were required to put your name on schoolwork so that teachers could grade it and track your progress? Metadata is similar, only now you’re the one keeping track of everything. 

Once you’ve recorded and distributed your song, you’ll need to have information ready for registering it with your publisher or collection society so that you can collect music publishing royalties. The metadata provided by you and your distribution company will allow your publisher or publishing administrator to register that song within their network for publishing royalty collection.

For instance, let’s say your song gets played on Spotify in the United Kingdom. The collection society there, PRS/MCPS, will get a report with streaming data in that territory. Then Spotify’s data gets matched to PRS/MCPS’ records. (This is where they assign that information to your song.) Once matched, the data and royalties get sent to your home collection society or your publisher, which is then paid to you. 

It sounds relatively simple, but in reality, it’s a tedious and time-consuming process. If there are any mistakes or something doesn’t quite fit, the royalties are frozen and held until they are able to make a match.

What Metadata Do I Need For Music Publishing?

Publishing royalties can get delayed for many different reasons. To make sure your metadata doesn’t get mixed up and you receive your royalties, you’ll want to keep everything correct and organized. Here are a few key pieces of data when you’re registering to collect publishing royalties:

ISRC: This is an alphanumeric code that stands for International Sound Recording Code. Each specific recording of a song has a unique ISRC.

Digital Service Providers (DSPs) and distributors all use this code to match streams up to your recording. You can find your ISRC directly through your distributor, or if it’s on Spotify, you can get it through their API or third-party apps like spotlistr

Think of an ISRC like a barcode. When an item's barcode gets scanned in a store, it goes into the database where it was sold. When a song gets streamed, the ISRC gets ‘scanned’ and entered into a report showing that it was streamed.

ISWC: The ISWC is similar to the ISRC. It stands for International Standard Work Code and is meant to represent the underlying composition of your recording. For example, if you do an acoustic version of your song, it will have a different ISRC than your original version, but it will always have the same ISWC, because it’s the same underlying composition (or “work”). Your composition will receive an ISWC when it is registered at a collection society such as a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) or a Collective Management Organization (CMO).

Writer Names: This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s extremely important to use the same name(s) across all your data. If you’re using your middle name, try to use it when you register your song everywhere. Make sure you’re coordinating with your co-writers and writing out their names correctly as well; there may be a lot of Jane or John Smiths out there!

Song title: If a song gets registered with a slightly different title or has special characters, there can be duplicate entries made. Or one of the entries can get matched and collect royalties, while the other might not receive anything. 

Be extra careful by adding alternate titles to your song registrations. For instance, if registering the Prince song (made famous by Sinead O’Connor) “Nothing Compares 2 U,” you’d want to add the conventional spelling, “Nothing Compares To You,” as well. 

Splits: Conflicting splits can also hold up a song’s royalty collection, especially if all the writers are registering different ownership amounts. Agreeing on a split sheet with your co-writers before you register or release your song anywhere can be helpful. This way, no duplicate entries will be made again and conflicting shares won’t freeze royalty payments.

When In Doubt, Keep a Record

Metadata is one of the most important parts of the modern music industry, especially in the publishing world. Keeping everything organized, and making sure you’re on the same page with your co-writers, can be the difference between getting all of your royalties or losing them to the dreaded “black box”. There are a lot of resources available — including in our resource center — to help you understand what information you’ll need to keep your career on track. When in doubt, keep a record; it never hurts to have more information you may never use than not enough when you need it. 

If you have questions about any of the metadata described above, please reach out to our team.


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