Working towards a universal music database: Alan Cross

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Back in the Olden Days when there was a Sam the Record Man in every mall, you might remember a massive looseleaf book that lurked somewhere in the store.

Locked on a metal stand and filled with bright coloured pages (yellow, orange, pink) covered in what must have been a four-point font, it was a catalogue of artist, titles, labels, and matrix numbers of hundreds of thousands of recordings. If the store didn’t stock what you were looking for, you’d head for The Book, find what you needed and then have it special ordered.

As far as anyone was concerned, The Book was a printed database of the entirety of humanity’s music. It seems both mysterious and wondrous.

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Bookstores had something similar. In 1970, a standard was created to give every book a unique identifier: an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). All books come with a 10- or 13-digit number somewhere on or inside the cover. Each edition and each variation has its own number. The hardcover, the paperback, and the e-book have separate IDs. If you need to acquire a copy of a book, it’s as easy as going to the ISBN Database and launching a search.

If this has been done for books, then it certainly must have been done for music, right? Surely someone must have found the 21st-century equivalent to that big book at Sam the Record Man.

Well, no. At least not entirely. And it’s complicated.

The musical equivalent to a book’s ISBN is something called its ISRC: The International Standard Recording Code, a 12-character numbering scheme introduced in 1986 designed to keep track of the world’s audio recordings. This is easier said than done because each and every audio recording needs to be assigned a unique number. That means every recording of a song, every remix, every edit, every reissue — in other words, every conceivable version — needs its own ISRC for this to work.

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Albums need one, as do each of the tracks on that record. If a song is released as a single, that’s another number. If there’s an edit of the song, that’s another ISRC. And every time a song is remixed, a different ISRC is needed for each one.

The goal is to have an ISRC applied to any available audio recording, from promo dance singles destined for DJ booths to audio books to officially-released interviews. This will allow anyone anywhere to identify any recording for the purposes of copyright.

This numbering system is increasingly important in the digital age when it comes to getting paid. The artist, the producer, the composer, the remixer, the label, the publisher — everyone associated with the creation of any recording — needs to be credited. If that exact recording cannot be identified, people risk not being paid for its use.

Here’s why this is so important. Let’s say you wrote a song called “I Love You.” Song titles cannot be copyrighted, which means your song has the same title as hundreds or even thousands of other songs written since the beginning of time.

Your track is uploaded onto the streaming music services. But given that your “I Love You” is brand new, there are many other songs with the same title that are vastly more popular than yours. At the end of the month, the streaming music services look at their logs, see what songs were streamed and write royalty cheques to the rightsholders. But without ISRCs, how do they differentiate between all the “I Love You” songs? In most case, the service will just default to the “I Love You” which has been historically the most popular.

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Therefore, even though your song may have streamed 100,000 times that month, you lose out on that income because it lacked a unique identifier.

Here’s another issue. Your “I Love You” becomes a hit outside of Canada, but because the song was never registered with that territory’s performing rights organization, the company entrusted with collecting royalties, you run the risk never getting paid.

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This leads me to another issue called “black box royalties.” There are many songs out in the wild for which ownership cannot be established. Performing rights societies collect royalties for this music, but they can’t find the writers, so they are considered “lost.” And we’re talking about a lot of money pouring in from streaming music services, radio, television, apps, movies, and more. In 2017, the global value of black box royalties was around US$2.5 billion and involved more than 46 million unidentified songwriters.

An ISRC would help solve that. But as it sits there waiting to be distributed, that money is earning interest every second. There may be some in this world that are quite happy with that arrangement and aren’t anxious to solve the black box problem.

There are organizations looking to sort out this chaos. A UK company called Paperchain is trying to find a solution to the distribution of black box royalties. Meanwhile, performing rights organizations are working to better identify songs. And more artists are branding their songs with ISRCs within the metadata of their digital material and printed on the physical copies of their works.

But given the enormity of music out there, we’ve got a long way to go before we have what we thought were getting with that book at Sam the Record Man.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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