The Music Industry’s Biggest Little Problem
Ever wonder why some royalty payments that you are CERTAIN you should be able to collect just aren’t hitting your mailbox or direct deposit? The problem, most likely, is metadata.
In the music world, metadata most commonly refers to the song credits you see on services like Spotify or Apple Music. But, it also includes all the underlying information tied to a released song or album, including titles, songwriter and producer names, the publisher(s), the record label, and more. That information needs to be synchronized across all kinds of industry databases to make sure that when you play a song, the right people are identified and paid. And often, they aren’t.
Metadata sounds like one of the smallest, most boring things in music. But as it turns out, it’s one of the most important, complex, and broken things. It leaves many musicians unable to get paid for their work.
Entering the correct information about a song sounds like it should be easy enough, but metadata problems have plagued the music industry for decades. Not only are there no standards for how music metadata is collected or displayed, there’s no need to verify the accuracy of a song’s metadata before it gets released, and there’s no one place where music metadata is stored. Instead, fractions of that data are kept in hundreds of different places across the world.
As a result, the problem is way bigger than a name being misspelled when you click a song’s credits on Spotify. Missing, bad, or inconsistent song metadata is a crisis that has left, by some estimations, billions on the table that never gets paid to the artists who earned that money. And as the amount of music created and consumed continues to increase at a faster pace, it’s only going to get messier.
It’s critical that metadata is distributed and entered accurately, not just for a song or album’s discoverability, but because metadata helps direct money to all the folks who made that music when a song is played, purchased, or licensed. Documenting everyone’s work is also important because, at the end of the day, that attribution could be how someone gets their next gig.
There are multiple ways this process can go awry. The first is that, because there’s no standardized format for metadata, information often gets discarded or entered incorrectly as it’s written down or moved between people and databases.
A label’s database is likely different from Spotify’s database, which is likely different from the databases of critical collection societies, like ASCAP and BMI, which pay public performance royalties to musicians.
Each database has its own set of rules. If Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Jessie J collaborated on a new track, and it was delivered to Apple Music with all of their names in the same artist field, that would cause what Apple Music and Spotify call a “compound artist error.” Entering an artist’s name as “last name, first name” would also result in a rejection. There are ways to embed metadata in a song file to ensure everything travels together, but distributors generally request that it be removed since it can cause “issues with the upload.”
The second big problem is that the information being entered in the first place is frequently wrong. A song can pass through multiple songwriters, producers, and engineers before it gets released by an artist, and every new contributor adds the potential to screw things up. The longer the chain of custody for the data, the greater chance a portion of it will be incorrect. A songwriter could fat-finger a name inside one of these databases, or a producer who briefly worked on the track could be left out, or a faulty merge between two databases could cause a technical error that erases information.
All these little errors add up. It’s estimated that as much as 25 percent of royalty payments aren’t paid to publishers at all, or are paid to the wrong entity.
In an ideal world, once a song is finished, the metadata would be crafted by the artist or the artist’s producer, and they would submit that data to the record label, distributor, or publisher(s) involved for verification and distribution. In reality, the process is frequently more rushed and haphazard — artists and labels hurry the process along in order to get songs out, and metadata is frequently cleaned up later as mistakes are noticed.
It’s possible to correct metadata errors afterward, but that’s reliant on someone catching that error and then correcting it in every database where it appears. Even if it does get fixed, that doesn’t mean an artist gets all the payments they’re due — every company and collection society has different rules about how long they hold on to unclaimed royalties.
Having a centralized database and set standards for music metadata sounds like a straightforward goal, but getting there has stumped many of music’s largest and most powerful entities for decades. There are many reasons for this, but the tectonic shift to streaming is a major contributor.
Additionally, songs are now being consumed and monetized in many different ways that weren’t available just decades ago. Today, a major hit could have hundreds of different versions, like remixes, covers, sample packs, lyric videos, recordings in other languages, and more, all of which can, in total, generate trillions and trillions of transactions that each bring in fractions of a cent.
Not only is there way more content to catalog, music rights are very fragmented to begin with, and so slices of a song’s metadata are often kept across a variety of databases. Labels, publishers, collection societies, and others all maintain their own databases, none of which come close to having all of the information about all the works that exist in the music industry.
To see how truly complicated music data is, here’s a horrifying flow chart from The Music Maze and an explainer from Sonicbids on how to track down song ownership, which ends with “consider paying for research.”
The creation of a global centralized database for song metadata has been attempted multiple times, but has always ended in failure. Among the numerous reasons: in-fighting between different arms of the music industry, international governance challenges, reluctance to share information, and funding issues. There are other, more practical roadblocks as well, like varying languages, differing copyright laws, and music industry cultures and traditions across the globe, which are often at odds with each other.
There isn’t much agreement on if any particular arm of the music industry should lead the way or be responsible for fixing music metadata. Some think digital music distribution companies like TuneCore or DistroKid could do more to educate artists, as it’s often an artist’s only touchpoint before their music is live on streaming platforms. Others think the streaming platforms themselves could set an example for better metadata by displaying more credits, which would encourage everyone involved to make sure the data is right.
But a lot of artists don’t even know they should care about metadata, or that possible metadata issues could be affecting their paychecks, because royalties are so complicated. Splits, a free mobile app, lets artists create a digital agreement that manages a song’s collaborators and their percentages of ownership. There’s also Creator Credits, a technology that works within music production software Pro Tools to embed song credits within the Pro Tools files themselves.
Although the idea of crafting centralized and standardized metadata is daunting, many say it’s not something to give up on. Aside from cleaning up record-keeping errors, it would help prevent other musicians from “dripping pennies,” and connect them with the money they’re due.
Credit to The Verge.