ISRC codes explained

Feb 21st, 2010 by Mike Wells in Tutorials

ISRC stands for: International Standard Recording Code

This article provides written and visual tutorial overview of what the codes are, why and where they are used, and how to get them for your release when you need them.

ISRC stands for:  International Standard Recording Code

What are they?  What do they look like?:
Think of ISRC codes as a “barcode-per-track” or a “serial-number-per-track”.  ISRC codes are unique codes that allow the copyright owner (artist, band, label, etc…) the ability to track sales through distribution and performances of songs.  The ID3 org made a great analogy of calling ISRC the “recording industries answer to ISBN”.
Furthermore, you will find that digital distributors (CD Baby, IODA, The Orchard, etc…) will not be able to distribute your music to digital music stores (iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, etc…) without them.  Lastly, you will find references to another formal name of “ISO 3901″, that being the ISO Standards name for the ISRC designation.

The ISRC format consists of 4 codes:

1)  Country Code
2)  Registrant (Agent) Code
3)  Year Of Reference Code
4)  Designation Code

Example:
US-Z03-08-32476

How can I get them?
ISRC codes can only be generated by an ISRC Agent, which are appointed by the IFPI/RIAA. You can apply to become an agent by filling-out the ISRC Application Form available at the IFPI website.  Additionally, some mastering facilities (including Mike Wells Mastering), most labels, and some digital distributors (CD Baby, IODA, etc…) can generate the codes for you being agents themselves.

Where do I find them in my music?:
ISRC codes, when encoded into a CD, appear in the table of contents (TOC) which is within the Lead-In portion of the CD (where track markers, CD-Text, disc layout info, etc. are stored).
Audio programs (Sequoia, Sadie, etc.) and CD Diagnostics programs (Plextools, Clover Systems, etc.) that can read CD TOC information can show you the ISRC codes contained within the PQ Subcode stream.

What about MP3 and other digital asset formats?:

Digital Asset files (MP3, etc.) use a tagging format called ID3 (http://www.id3.org/) to label each files with information like Artist, Track Title, Album Art, etc.  Since the time of writing this article in 2007, the ID3 org shows support in their standard as of  version ID3v2.  however many tagger applications neither have an ISRC field you can populate (assuming you have ISRC codes that have been generated for your release), or have the ability to create a field and call it “ISRC”.
Within the digital distribution marketplace (IODA, The Orchard, etc.), each digital distributor tracks your release information (called “metadata”) within their proprietary system.
Hopefully we will see a standardized tag format for ISRC appear in the future as the industry continues to move exclusively into the digital realm.

Who is the owner of the ISRC codes?
Agents generate the codes; the “owner of the recording” owns the codes. If you are the owner of the recording (band, artist, label, etc…), then you are the owner of the codes even if another party (such as a mastering house or replication house) generates them for you.

When should I apply the codes?
It is best to apply the codes in the mastering stage, as the codes then become embedded in the masters TOC (Table of Contents), and are replicated with the product during manufacturing. This allows the codes to be picked-up when encoding into digital distribution assets such as MP3/AAC/etc… and guarantees the widest possible coverage of the codes as they map to the songs.

Uniqueness in the marketplace:
It is worth mentioning, that it is possible for codes to be re-generated by other parties. For example: You have a local band record with you, you send them to a mastering house that generates ISRC codes for the tracks and embeds them in the master. The band then replicates the product themselves and sets-up an account with a digital distributor (CD-Baby, etc…). It is now the bands responsibility to inform the digital distributor that their product already has ISRC codes, and these codes should be carried along per-track into the digital distributors’ model of encoding and submitting songs to digital retailers (iTunes, etc…), as the band is the “owner” of the codes, and per the specification, there should be only 1 code per-song (remixes and other special circumstances aside, see the ISRC Handbook for more details).

Additional Information:

ISRC Homepage at the RIAA:http://www.ifpi.org/content/section_resources/isrc.html
ISRC FAQ:        http://www.ifpi.org/content/section_resources/isrc_handbook.html
ISRC Agent Application:http://76.74.24.142/F7901D48-88C3-3020-4EDD-641E60985ADB.doc
ISRC Handbook:                    http://www.ifpi.org/content/library/isrc_handbook.pdf
RIAA FAQ on ISRC: http://www.riaa.com/whatwedo.php?content_selector=whatwedo_is_r_c_codes
ISO 3901 Spec:             http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail?csnumber=23401

14 Comments

  • Hi. Have just had my CD mixed and mastered in LA but didnt get the request for ISRC codes until after the process was too near finished to do anything about it!

    Is it too late to do anything about it now ?

    Thanks, Anna

  • Hi Anna,

    It’s not “too late” in the sense that you can acquire them for digital distribution purposes, you just would not have them present in your physical product (the CD). I have heard stories of manufacturers adding the codes at the time of manufacturing, but that also adds an opportunity for mistakes to occur.

    Hope that helps, -Mike

  • where is possible to find a isrc code about own tracks released on digital distribution? thanks Alesankodj

  • Martin Nichols

    Hi. I’ve added ISRC codes to some promotional MP3s using the ‘generate metadata’ option in ‘Sound Grinder’. Using copy and paste, this software includes the dashes resulting in a 15 character code. When viewed (with ID3 Editor) the code appears in the correct box, but reads as your in example code above, not as in the lower screenshots. Is this correct, or should I manually remove the dashes and recode?

  • Hi Martin,

    As long as you have all the data for the code the dashes are not a requirement, just a presentation option. It sounds like Sound Grinder may collapse the code removing the dashes automatically. If so you’re in fine shape.

    Best, -Mike

  • Hi,

    Can a non-American record label apply to be a ISRC Agent?

  • hey mike, i was hanging out with Bradley Denniston from expression today he told you know everything about music distribution etc.. thank for all the info. so i have a single and and record coming out soon and trying to make a plan for all the right steps. i was looking into using this tunecore.com. my question is tunecore says i don’t need to buy any isrc’s they do it for me. is that smart?

    also is there a step by step blog for releasing single and record. with all the ascap, bmi, grace note ect..

    thank you mike!!
    jesse olswang
    916.204.4606
    jesseolswangmusic@gmail.com

  • Hi Jesse,

    For indie record promotion and release I would recommend checking out http://www.indierock101.com for some good advice, and the Tunecore site also has some great resources you can check out. Lastly, the Indie Bible is a great resource for tackling your own releas as well.

    Regarding Tunecore and ISRC’s, I would check to see if they are providing them with any hooks / ie: Who is the owner of the ISRC codes once they generate them for you? You or them? If having a non-exclusive relationship is important to your project you are better off obtaining your own through the RIAA.

    Hope that helps!
    Mike

  • Hi I’m Jason I need to know if I my isrc codes are inbeded in my masters.will the code be in the copy of all the songs I burn from my computer

  • I I’m Jason …I sent my music to get masterd and I want to know whenever I get them back if I was to upload the song (masterd version) including the inbeded isrc …and burned a copy of the song will the isrc code still be in the data and could be readable

  • Whats a redbook master…and what type of master should I be looking and what file or anything of that nature

  • Hi Jason,

    Thanks for your questions and hey happy new year! To answer your questions:
    -ISRC’s can be embedded into a master Red Book audio CD into the TOC (table of contents) or a DDP in the description file.
    -What is a Red Book CD? If you have a Red Book master (Red Book = a “qualified” audio CD / “qualified” meaning the disc has undergone some tests to verify that it passes a certain error rate, and when that is verified it is “Red Book” compliant)

    How to get at them in your masters:
    -If Red Book, you can extract them from your PQ sheet (if you received a printed copy / the PQ sheet is a printout of the TOC of the CD) or a program such as Plextor’s “Plextools” which will view the TOC and show you what is inside. Most modern DAW’s that have mastering features (Wavelab, Sequoia, CD Architect, etc) should have a feature that will “read” the TOC as well so you can get your ISRC’s that way.

    I don’t know of a program that will extract ISRCs from the TOC and embed them into an ID3 tag (for perceptual assets like MP3 etc) so you would have to hand-copy them into the assets. Neither .WAV nor .AIF have native support for an ISRC tag as well, so you have typically involved with the project (artist, manager, producer, label rep, etc) will hand the ISRCs to the digital distributor via some form they have/etc….

    Hope that helps,
    Mike

  • i had my single mastered and isrc code embedded in master.is the best way to send out copies of song to dee jays by using the master copy?since its got the tracking code embedded.and if i want to burn copies, how are these tracked were no one will steal song

  • Hi Paul,

    The ISRC is for tracking purposes yes and lives in the Table of Contents of the audio disc.

    The “tracking” of the ISRC is up to the system that wishes to track it (radio, digital distribution, etc), there are no implicit tracking systems.

    Lastly, ISRC’s do not stop the ability to copy a CD, they are not a piracy-fighting effort. ISRC was spec’d with the CD standard to provide a way to track a songs plays (primarily through radio) which later turned into good use for digital distribution.

    Hope that helps.
    Mike