What are ISRC, UPC and catalog numbers?

In the evolving landscape of the music industry, understanding the nuances of digital distribution is crucial for artists and labels. Key components of this ecosystem are the International Standard Recording Code (ISRC), Universal Product Code (UPC), and catalog numbers. These identifiers play a vital role in the tracking, management, and monetization of music. Let's delve into what these codes are and why they are indispensable for artists.


What is an ISRC?

The International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) is a unique identifier for individual songs or tracks. Each ISRC is a 12-character alphanumeric code that ensures every song is uniquely identifiable worldwide. This code is used to track and manage digital and physical music sales, making it easier to track royalties, especially in the digital realm where music can be easily shared and streamed.


Importance of ISRC for Artists

  • Royalty collection: ISRCs enable accurate tracking of music, ensuring artists receive appropriate royalties for their work.
  • Global recognition: With a unique ISRC, a song is recognized internationally, helping in global distribution and promotion.
  • Anti-Piracy Efforts: ISRCs assist in identifying pirated music, protecting artists' intellectual property.


What is a UPC?

The Universal Product Code (UPC) serves as a unique identifier for entire albums or products. Unlike the ISRC, which is specific to individual tracks, the UPC identifies the whole album or a bundle of songs. This 12-digit numerical code is essential for selling physical and digital music.


Why UPC matters for artists

  • Sales tracking: UPCs are scanned or reported at point of sale, making them crucial for tracking album sales across various platforms.
  • Chart eligibility: For an album to be eligible for charts like Billboard, a UPC is necessary.
  • Inventory management: In physical distribution, UPCs are indispensable for managing inventory and sales data.


Catalog numbers: The In-House identifier

Catalog numbers are unique identifiers used by record labels, distribution companies or independent artists to organize and catalog their releases. These codes are internal and vary from one label to another. Catalog numbers usually consist of both letters and numbers and should be sequential from release to release.


The role of catalog numbers

  • Organization: They help in cataloging and keeping track of various releases.
  • Internal tracking: Useful for managing a label’s or artist's inventory, especially for physical copies.
  • Historical reference: Catalog numbers can become a part of the history and legacy of the music, often used by collectors and fans.


As an artist, understanding and utilizing ISRC, UPC, and catalog numbers is fundamental. These codes not only assist in the effective management and distribution of music but also ensure that artists are properly compensated for their work. They provide a structured system for tracking sales, managing royalties, and protecting music rights. In a digital age where music distribution has become more complex and far-reaching, these identifiers are more important than ever. By embracing these tools, artists can navigate the music industry with greater ease and assurance.