All About Metadata, Decoded

What data is needed for musical works and sound recordings to track their usage and allow royalties to be calculated?

Though it sounds technical, metadata is simply data about data, or, in the context of the music industry, information about the content of a song track or an AV production. For sound recordings, metadata is submitted along with the audio file to digital distributors, and for AV productions, it’s what’s included on the cue sheet that’s filed with the PRO.

Some of this data includes the basic identifying details—like the name of the music creator, the title of the musical work or cue, the title of the album or AV production, etc.—that aid discoverability (e.g., on DSPs and OTT media services). It also ensures that rights holders receive credit for their work, potentially raising their profiles and resulting in future projects.

Metadata also serves a more functional service—and one that is absolutely critical to the successful distribution of royalties to rights holders. Any time a musical work embedded in a sound recording or AV production is performed or reproduced, it is metadata that allows the usage to be tracked by various ecosystem entities, the appropriate royalties to be calculated, and the correct rights holders to be paid the agreed-upon shares.

While, in theory, metadata should keep the royalty pipeline running smoothly, in practice, the flow can be easily disrupted due to a variety of factors. The most significant problems arise when data is incorrect, incomplete, or incompatible due to human or technical error—and this is the case quite often. Since metadata changes hands and is transferred from database to database numerous times throughout the life of a work or recording, it can be easily corrupted. And because the data is duplicated over and over again, the errors are compounded, making it very difficult to correct mistakes after the fact.

These errors can result in unmatched royalties, which collective societies typically reserve for a set number of years, during which time rights holders can review the data and claim any funds they may be owed. After this window has closed, however, this money—which typically amounts to millions of dollars—is classified as “unallocated royalties,” and some societies will distribute it at their discretion while others refund it to licensees.

Since metadata-related problems can have a negative effect on all ecosystem players, there have been numerous collective attempts to solve them. Establishing a standard international database for all metadata continues to be a goal, but reconciling the way information is formatted, collected, and shared across borders has proven unsuccessful to date. A movement to standardize the data (rather than the database) is gaining momentum, however. An initiative of The Ivors Academy—an association for music creators in the UK—Credits Due seeks to unite music-industry entities around the globe in an effort to reduce the amount of metadata collected and shared to just five elements. For music creators, they are as follows:

  1. The Interested Party Information (IPI) number—also known as a Composer, Author and Publisher (CAE) number—which identifies music creators and publishers, and is assigned by a PRO (which is SOCAN in Canada) to its members.
  2. The International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC), which identifies individual musical works and can also be provided by a PRO.
  3. The International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) identifies sound recordings and music videos. Each track on an album is assigned a unique code either by a digital distributor, a country’s designated ISRC agency—which is CONNECT Music Licensing in Canada—or by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which is the international ISRC agency.
  4. The title of the work (and alternative titles, if applicable)
  5. The names of other contributors (e.g., writers, performers, producers, etc.)

By simplifying metadata in this way, the room for error would be greatly reduced, thereby ensuring that rights holders receive more of the royalties they’re entitled to.