Turning Contracts Into Code: Why SoundExchange’s ISRC ‘Lookup’ Tool Matters

SoundExchange, the digital performance royalty collection agency, along with the international record industry association IFPI, this week unveiled its long-awaited portal that allows users to look up the IRSC number for nearly 20 million unique music recordings, along with associated metadata.

The lookup tool has been in the works for years and its launch represents an important milestone in the music industry’s often fitful effort to bring its scattered record-keeping up to date with the myriad ways music is used and consumed today. The database can be searched by track title, artist Music-Dials-Guitar-Case-Moneyname, release (i.e. album) title, version, recording date and file type. Metadata can be downloaded and incorporated with playback applications by digital music services.

The International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) system was established as an ISO standard for assigning unique identifiers to individual sound recordings in 1989 and is overseen by IFPI, the international federation of national recording industry trade associations. Compliance with the system was for many years spotty, as record companies continued to rely on their own in-house systems for identifying and cataloging recordings. Since 2006, however, the use of ISRCs has grown more consistent and widespread, thanks in large measure to Apple’s insistence that labels provide ISRC numbers for every track sold through the iTunes Music Store. More recently, streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora have embraced ISRC to track song-plays for royalty purposes.

Until now, however, there has not been anything like a comprehensive, centralized database of ISRC numbers linking them with useful and usable metadata about the recordings.

“The SoundExchange ISRC Search Site is a tremendous development,” American Association of Independent Music CEO Richard Burgess said in a statment. “[It’s] something we have needed for more than a decade, and will quickly become an invaluable resource for everyone in the music industry. For A2IM, this means greater transparency and will improve the accuracy of payments to our artists and labels.”

What the new search tool cannot yet do is map ISRC numbers to current data on who has the rights to license specific uses of a recording or to collect royalties for its use.

“This ISRC Search service does not present any data about who has the right to collect royalties in any territory or for any given use,” the SoundExchange site’s FAQ section states emphatically. “This site does not represent that the Release Label displayed does or does not have any rights to the Release listed. The data in ISRC Search is solely the factual metadata about recordings that have had ISRCs assigned to them.”

Filling in that map will require several more steps, according to David Hughes, CTO of the Recording Industry Association of America, which administers the ISRC registration process in the U.S.

“ISRC data is a foundation on which all these other [copyright management information] tools can be built,” Hughes explained at the Copyright & Technology conference in January. “The first thing we have to do is make sure we’re dealing with the exact same recording of the exact same underlying song and assign a number to that. We’re working now on disambiguating that. The next step will be to link that database to an ISWC database.”

The International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC) is a separate ISO standard that assigns a unique identifier to musical compositions, which are copyrighted separately from the sound recordings made of those compositions and often involve different rights owners and different royalty structures. The ISWC database is overseen by CISAC, the international federation of music publisher and songwriter societies.

Once those two databases are linked, Hughes said, “the industry or private parties can start building the sort of look up rights database we need.”

Simply identifying the current rights owners for compositions and recordings, and who should be paid for their use, can be notoriously difficult, however. Songwriting credits are often assigned after the fact, recording libraries and publishing catalogs change hands, rights are assigned and reassigned, record keeping is spotty, contracts are opaque.

“Forty years ago if you launched a music distribution company, what we used to call a record company, you might have dealt with 20 or 30 master recordings. Today you would have 30 million,” said Michael Simon, president and CEO of the Harry Fox Agency, which administers mechanical rights for musical works used in recordings in the U.S. “We take inbound data from all sorts of sources and then we crack open those files and try to figure out who owns what. It’s not easy.”

The scale of those challenges has left many in the industry skeptical that a centralized database is the answer to the industry’s rights-management problems, even if it can be built.

“When data replicates it fragments, it degrades,” Simon said. “Just the simple process of extracting the data from our data environment and putting it into your environment, it will not be the same when it gets there. Something will change. So we scratch our heads when people talk about creating a global database that will always be authoritative and current.”

The situation is increasingly urgent for the industry, however. The shift from a sales-based business model to a largely licensing-based model has put pressure on the industry’s archaic and often opaque system for licensing the use of recorded music while increasing demands from artists for greater transparency into how royalties are calculated, collected and distributed.

Imogen HeapAn emerging class of artist entrepreneurs have begun to look outside the traditional music business, in fact, for new ways to release their work and for new technologies to manage licensing and sales. In Part 2 of this essay, we’ll examine how some artists and innovators have begun to explore blockchain technology, the peer-to-peer platform undergirding Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as a potential new model for licensing and distributing music.

The music industry is not alone in facing an increasingly complex rights management landscape, however. Many other media sectors, from the publishing industries, to graphic arts and photography, to film and video, are grappling with similar data-management challenges in the face of ever-growing opportunities and demand for the exploitation of their intellectual property.

Efforts to meet those challenges are beginning to drive a new wave of technology innovation across multiple media sectors aimed ultimately at translating the work of licensing, contract management, royalty calculation and disbursement, and other administrative functions involved in managing a rights-based business into machine readable and executable operations that can run at a pace commensurate with the distribution side of the business.

Some of those technologies are new, such as the SoundExchange ISRC lookup tool, or Rebeat’s Music Enterprise Software platform. Some are being adapted from the financial and other industries, such as the blockchain and cryptocurrency behind Monegraph’s “monetized graphics” platform.

In coming week, Concurrent Media, in partnership with Digital Media Wire, will launch a new website and e-newsletter to chronicle the emerging RightsTech movement, and will host the first RightsTech Summit later this year.

Stay tuned.