Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
In today’s music landscape, independent artists have unprecedented opportunities to share their music with the world, and many of these opportunities are possible all thanks to the Universal Product Code (UPC). A UPC code is a unique identifier that helps track album sales through various distribution channels. To effectively distribute and sell your music, you should understand the role of UPCs.
What is a UPC code?
A UPC code (and yes, it’s redundant to say “UPC code” since the “C” stands for code, but that’s still how people refer to them) is a standardized barcode used for product identification. In the US, the UPC barcode you see most often on products is technically called a UPC-A, which consists of a 12-digit number along with a corresponding barcode that can be scanned by retailers and distributors.
In the music industry, UPC codes are assigned to albums, singles, and other music releases to track sales and facilitate inventory management.
A UPC is composed of the following components:
- Prefix and company numbers. The first six digits of the UPC code indicate what category the product falls under as well as the company selling the product. In the music industry, this would be the record label (or the artist, if the CD is published independently).
- Item reference. The next five digits represent the specific music release or product.
- Check digit. The last digit of the UPC code, which is mathematically calculated based on the preceding digits to ensure the code’s accuracy.
Difference between a UPC Code vs ISRC code
It’s worth distinguishing between UPC codes and International Standard Recording Codes (ISRC codes) as they serve different purposes in the music industry.
While UPC codes identify specific products, such as albums or singles, ISRC codes are unique identifiers assigned to individual songs or music videos. ISRC codes track the usage and performance of a specific recording across different platforms and media outlets. They help artists and record labels receive proper royalties and attribution for their music. If you record a song called “My Song,” you will assign an ISRC code to that song and that will stick with that song no matter where it is used, whether it is on your album or if it’s released as a single or used on a compilation.
In summary, UPC codes are used for product identification and sales tracking, while ISRC codes are used for tracking individual recordings and collecting performance royalties.
Difference between a UPC code and an EAN
An International Article Number (EAN), also known as an EAN-13, is the international version of a UPC code, with the first digit indicating the country in which the company that sells the product is based.
Per its name, the EAN-13 is 13 digits long. Any UPC can be converted to an EAN by adding a zero to the beginning of the UPC. All point-of-sale systems understand both codes. If you have a UPC, you do not need to get a separate EAN.
Do I Need a UPC code to sell my music?
Yes, you need a UPC code to sell your music via any retailer because stores need them. You cannot sell your CDs or vinyl records at stores without them. Period.
There are also a host of benefits to using UPC codes beyond needing them for store sales.
Benefits of getting a UPC code
- Track sales and royalties. UPCs enable you to track album sales accurately. They provide data on the number of units sold, revenue generated, and the performance of your music in different markets. This information is vital for understanding your fanbase, planning future releases, and collecting royalties.
- Enhanced promotion and discoverability. Many online platforms, music stores, and streaming services require a UPC code to list and distribute your music. By having a UPC code, you increase the chances of your music being discovered by new listeners and gaining exposure.
- Inventory management. With a UPC, you can effectively manage inventory and distribution of physical products like CDs, vinyl, or merchandise. It helps you keep track of stock levels, reorder when necessary, and ensure accurate reporting of sales.
- Global distribution. Distributors and retailers around the world recognize and use UPC codes for tracking and managing music sales. Having a UPC makes it easier to distribute your music internationally and reach a broader audience.
- Professionalism and credibility. Having a UPC adds a level of professionalism to your music release. It shows that you are serious about your craft and that you have taken the necessary steps to ensure your music is properly identified and accounted for in the industry.
- Billboard charts. Want to know how to get on the Billboard charts? Part of the criteria is record sales for your physical release, and having a UPC is part of how those sales will get tracked for charting.
Should I get a different UPC code for CDs and vinyl?
You do not need a separate UPC for your CD and vinyl release. You can use the same code for both — and even for the digital version. However, there may be reasons why you want a separate UPC code for each version. Whether you should obtain different UPC codes for CDs and vinyl depends on your specific needs and distribution strategy.
If you plan to release the same music on both formats, using the same UPC code simplifies sales tracking. It allows you to consolidate sales data and track the performance of your music across different formats.
However, there may be cases where you want to differentiate between CD and vinyl releases. For example, if you offer exclusive bonus tracks, different packaging, or limited editions for each format, having separate UPC codes can help you track sales and inventory for each release individually.
Ultimately, the decision to use different UPC codes for CDs and vinyl should align with your marketing and distribution strategy.
How do I get a UPC code for my music?
There are two ways to buy UPC codes for your music:
- Join a GS1 member organization. GS1 is the global organization responsible for administering and managing UPC codes. Join a GS1 member organization in your country to obtain a unique company prefix. The cost to join depends on the number of UPCs you will need. The cheapest option is $30 for one code, but if you ever need more codes than that, you will have to upgrade to another plan, and those start at $250 — plus they have annual fees that start at $50. The plus side of getting your own code is these products will show up as belonging to your personal label. Learn more here.
- Buy a UPC from Disc Makers. You can easily add a UPC code to any physical CD or vinyl release you manufacture through Disc Makers for just $20 (and there is no annual fee). The only potential downside is that Disc Makers will show up as the record label. But that’s not an issue for most independent musicians — you still own the rights and control everything about your release.
How do I use a UPC code?
Once you have a UPC code, here is how to best employ it:
- Assign UPCs to your releases. Once you have a company prefix, you can assign UPC codes to your music releases. Each album, single, or product variant should have a unique UPC code. This is easily done through your distributor. If you buy it through Disc Makers, this is automatically done when you buy your CD or vinyl package.
- Register Your UPCs. Register your UPC codes with the appropriate music industry databases or organizations. This step ensures that your music and associated sales data are properly linked to your UPC codes. This is easily done through your distributor.
- Include the UPC on your album artwork. Once you receive your UPC codes, incorporate them into your album artwork. Place the barcode on the back cover or packaging of your physical products, ensuring it is scannable by barcode readers.
By following these steps, you can obtain a UPC code for your music and ensure your releases are properly identified and tracked.
Philip Kinsher is a writer, editor, and musician with a predilection for YA Sci-fi Fantasy books and rock and roll. And golf and pickleball.