Two Sides Of The Same Coin: ISRC And ISWC

Spinning-coin-8678822ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) and ISWC (International Standard Musical Work Code) are the two codes responsible for cataloging business transactions associated with both composition and sound recording copyrights. Here's a breakdown of how they work, and how they earn artists royalty payments.


Guest Post by Louis Matteo of Loudr



When it comes to music metadata, the ISRC and ISWC are two of the most important puzzle pieces for cataloging business transactions, from record sales to music licenses, and for making sure that everyone get paid for those transactions – from record labels and artists to music publishers and songwriters. 

Although each code consists only of a few numbers and letters — 10 in the case of ISRC, and 11 in the case of an ISWC — it provides the glue that connects rights holders, digital music services, performing rights societies, and anyone else that plays a part in the business of digital music. 

Regardless of your role in music, it's important to get to know the ISRC and ISWC, and to have an understanding of how the codes help to connect the pieces.



The ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is an internationally recognized identification system used by 57 National ISRC Agencies appointed by the International ISRC Agency led by IFPI in 57 Countries to catalog all genres of sound recordings and music video recordings. An ISRC is a unique and fixed identifier assigned by a record label to a specific recording (CD, audio file, video, etc) performed by an artist or band. Only one ISRC should be assigned to a recording and should never be reused to represent another recording. Basically, an ISRC is a music tracking code that verifies associated recording information including:

  • Artist name

  • Track title

  • Album title

  • Label name

  • UPC


The ISRC was developed and introduced in 1986 by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is an independent, non-governmental international standard-setting assembly composed of representatives from several national standards organizations. It sets international standards for areas of commerce, such as the bar codes you may see in stores.  In a sense, the ISRC is a kind of bar code for recordings.


If you put a piece of music into the commerce stream — that is, where people can buy it, you'll probably need an ISRC. Independent artists, record labels, and music distributors all issue and assign an ISRC to each unique recording released on CD, download, or streaming by retail or digital music stores. 

For example, if an artist signed to a record label recorded an album of 10 tracks, the record label would assign 10 unique ISRCs to all ten tracks. Once assigned, those 10 unique ISRCs will represent those specific recordings in perpetuity… aka forever!

ISRCs are widely used in digital commerce by download services such as iTunes and by collecting societies such as SoundExchange in the U.S. An ISRC can also be permanently encoded into a product as its 'digital fingerprint'. Encoded ISRCs provide the means to identify recordings for music services to distribute sales and royalty payments to artists, record labels, and music distributors.


In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America owns and operates the website USISRC.org. Any independent artist or band, record label, and music distributor can visit this site, fill out an online web form, pay an $80 one-time fee, receive access to an online account with a "Registrant Code", and obtain a 2 letter "Country Code". 

For independent artists and labels that release their music through distributors like Loudr, DistroKid, and CD Baby, the distributor often takes care of obtaining and assigning ISRCs to tracks on behalf of the artist and/or label prior to distributing the music to external stores such as iTunes, Apple Music, and Spotify.


ISRCs are always 12 characters long, in the form "CC-XXX-YY-NNNNN". 

  • When creating an ISRC, you begin each code with a unique 2 letter "Country Code". (After December 6, 2010, new registrants in the U.S. used the country code "QM".)

  • "XXX" is a three character alphanumeric registrant code of the party issuing the ISRC.

  • "YY" represent the last two digits of the reference year – the year in which the ISRC was assigned to the recording. 

  • "NNNNN" is a 5-digit number that identifies the particular sound or video recording, unique within the scope of the reference year.

For example, a recording of the song "Hit Song 2015" by the U.S. group Hit Band has been allocated the ISRC code QM-ABC-15-00001:

  • QM for United States

  • ABC for label or distributor

  • 15 for 2015

  • 00001 is the unique ID for this specific recording


An ISRC identifies a particular recording of an underlying musical work (music, lyrics and song structure). For example, the band Walk The Moon's record label releases the album version of "Shut Up and Dance" with an encoded unique ISRC. Next up, Walk The Moon's record label releases the radio edit version of "Shut Up and Dance". A DJ hears the radio edit, decides to make a remix of "Shut Up and Dance", gets permission from Walk The Moon's record labeland music publisher, and releases a recording titled "Shut Up and Dance (REMIX)".


Will Walk The Moon's record label assign the same ISRC to all three recordings? If you answered no, then you are correct. Each unique recording will be assigned its own ISRC to track sales and pay royalties to different sets of rights holders.



The ISWC (International Standard Musical Work Code) aims to do for compositions what the ISRC does for recordings. It is an internationally recognized identification system used by rights holders worldwide to catalog musical works of all genres — known synonymously also as "compositions", "songs", or just "the publishing" (the lyrics, melody, and song structure that make up a piece of music). 

An ISWC is a unique and fixed identifier typically assigned by a music publisher, or by performing rights societies like ASCAP in the U.S., to a specific musical work written by a songwriter or songwriters. Only one ISWC should be assigned to a musical work and should never be reused to represent another musical work, even if it is an arrangement or derivative work of the first written version. (i.e. "Sleigh Ride (Instrumental)" (Anderson) (T-071070336-8) and "Sleigh Ride (Vocal Version)" (Anderson/Parish) (T-916371897-6).

In essence, an ISWC is a music tracking code that verifies associated musical work information including:

  • Song title

  • Songwriter(s)

  • Music publisher(s)

  • Music publisher(s) ownership share(s)


The ISWC was developed and introduced in 2002 by France-based International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC) in collaboration, like the ISWC, with the ISO. It has been adopted and is used by 47 ISWC agencies, appointed by CISAC, in 69 different countries.

Music distributors and services use ISWCs as one way to track, license, and pay music publishers and songwriters for use of their works. For example, if a songwriter is signed to a music publisher and writes 10 songs, the music publisher would assign 10 unique ISWCs to all ten songs. Once assigned, those 10 unique ISWCs would permanently be associated with those specific songs.

ISWCs are used in digital commerce by download services such as iTunes and collecting societies such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the U.S. An ISWC can also be permanently encoded into a product as its 'digital fingerprint'. Encoded ISWCs provide the means to identify recordings embodying musical works for music services to distribute royalty payments to music publishers and songwriters. 

Each ISWC can be linked to an infinite number of ISRCs, with each ISRC representing a recording of the song identified by the ISWC. This means that if you use a service like Loudr Licensing to secure a mechanical license for your cover song, you would provide Loudr with the ISRC of your recording. That ISRC would then be linked to the ISWC of the song that you covered.   


CISAC, International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, owns and operates a website called ISWC International Agency. In the United States, CISAC has appointed performance rights organization ASCAP as the official ISWC issuance agency, and anyone, ASCAP member or not, may contact ASCAP to obtain one.

In the United States, to register an ISWC through ASCAP with CISAC, the following minimal information must be supplied:

  • Title of the work

  • Names of all composers, authors, and arrangers with their role and their CAE/IPI number (assigned by ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to songwriters and music publishers in the U.S.)

  • Work classification code (from the CIS standards list)

  • Identification of other works it is a derivative work of or from which the version was made.


All ISWCs begin with the letter "T", followed by a nine-digit unique number (from 00000001 to 999999999), and an additional check digit calculated using the Luhn algorithm at the end. (Written Format: T-345246800-1). According to Wikipedia, the first ISWC was assigned in 1995, for the song "Dancing Queen" by ABBA; its code is T-000.000.001-0.

The important distinction is that an ISWC identifies musical works, not recordings. The primary purpose of the ISWC is in royalty administration for rights societies (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the U.S.), and also in clearly identifying musical works in licensing agreements. The ISWC is also a useful reference system for music publishers and songwriters to track their song catalogues.


The ISRC and ISWC are powerful tools for song and recording catalogue tracking, music licensing, and royalty payments to record labels and artists as well as music publishers and songwriters. When matched correctly with associated music metadata, the ISRC and ISWC create a very valuable link that rights companies can leverage to compensate all rights holders. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Louis Matteo is the Director of Client Relations at Loudr. He has more than a decade of experience in intellectual property licensing, including his work in music licensing with Loudr and The Harry Fox Agency. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, as well as an independent artist.

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  1. A friendly comment, loving Loudr as I do:
    1. As important as it is that creators use ISRC, ISWC and ISNI, it is equally important that those who report their use of music report with them. If they do not report using these codes, the usefulness of the code is dramatically diminished because the code is highly unlikely to find its way into the reporting chain if the first reporter doesn’t use it.
    2. This is unlikely to happen with regularity and accuracy until there is a publicly accessible, comprehensive database of the codes.
    3. It is very important that there evolve a cross-reference between ISRC and ISWC. It should be as easy as identifying the recording to get the song writers paid.
    4. Yes, I added ISNI to the list, the Int’l Standard on Names and Identifiers. Every creator should have one.
    Thanks for the informative piece!

  2. Thank you! very essential, would like to lear more about new regulations on compositions codings ISWC and connecting to digital codes ISRC.

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