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Metadata is the biggest small problem that plagues the music industry

Recently, a musician signed on a large indie label told them they owed up to $ 40,000 in song royalties they would never be able to collect. It was not that they had missed payments to a single song – that was, they had missed payments for 70 songs, going back for at least six years.

The problem they said was metadata. In the music world, metadata refers mostly to the song credits you see on services like Spotify or Apple Music, but it also contains all the underlying information associated with a published song or album, including titles, songwriters, and producer names, the publisher (s), the record company and much more. This information must be synchronized across all industry databases to ensure that when you play a song, the right people are identified and paid. And often they are not.

Metadata sounds like one of the smallest and most boring things in music. But as it turns out, it is one of the most important, complex and corrupted, allowing many musicians unable to pay for their work. "Every second that goes by, and it's not resolved, I drip pennies," said the musician who asked to remain anonymous because of "the consequences of even mentioning that kind of thing happens."

Entering the correct information about a song sounds like it should be easy enough, but metadata issues have plagued the music industry for decades. Not only are there no standards for how music metadata is collected or displayed, it is not necessary to check the accuracy of a song's metadata before it is released, and there is no place where music metadata is stored. Instead, fractions of these data are stored in hundreds of different locations around the world.

The problem is therefore far greater than a name being spelled when you click on a song's credits on Spotify. Missing, bad or inconsistent song metadata is a crisis that, after some estimates, has left billions on the table, which is never paid to the artists who earned the money. And as the amount of music created and consumed continues to rise at a faster pace, it only becomes more messy.

It is critical that metadata be distributed and entered precisely, not just for a song or album's discovery, but because the metadata helps direct money to all the people who made the music when a song is played, purchased or licensed. Documentation of everyone's work is also important because "This attribution could be how someone gets their next gig," says Joshua Jackson, head of business development for Jaxsta, an Australian company that authenticates music information.

There are several ways that this process can go wrong. The first is that because there is no standardized format for metadata, information is often discarded or entered incorrectly as it is written down or moved between people and databases.

A label's database is probably different from Spotify's database, which is probably different from databases of critical collection companies, such as ASCAP and BMI, which pay public premiums royalties to musicians. "Part of the problem is the fields that everyone has chosen to write to their software to fill out these credits are all different," says entertainment lawyer Jeff Becker of Swanson, Martin & Bell. "So if a credit is sent to a database that says Pro Tools engineer & # 39; but the database does not have that field, they either choose to change it or ignore it altogether. Typically, they ignore it and the credit has nowhere to go. "

Every 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 their names in the same artist field, Apple Music and Spotify would call a "composite artist error." Entering an artist's name as "last name, first name" will also result in a rejection. There are ways to embed metadata into a song file to make sure everything is traveling together, but distributors generally require it to be removed, as it may cause "upload problems."

The second major problem is that the information entered in First Place is often wrong. A song can pass through several songwriters, producers, and engineers before being released by an artist, and each new contributor allows to turn up. The longer the chain of storage for the data, the greater the chance of being part of it. A songwriter could easily omit a name inside one of these databases, or a producer who worked briefly on the track, or an erroneous merger between two databases could lead to a technical error that deletes information.

Although a song, metadata can become complicated in ways you might not expect. In a guest post to HypeBot Annie Lin, senior corporate counsel at Twitch, uses Katy Perry's "Firework" to show how messy a song's data may be. Capitol Records owns the recording to "Firework", but five different songwriters with five different music publishers own their own percentages of the composition rights, and all their information must be included in the metadata so that they can be credited and paid.

Does this have many people working on a track are not uncommon, says Niclas Molinder, founder of the music metadata company Auddly (now session). In 2016, the average hit song had four songwriters and six publishers. It creates many opportunities for metadata to be submitted incorrectly. And if a person's credit is missing, spelled incorrectly, or does not correspond to a streaming platform style guide that can muck up payments for everyone involved. All these small errors are added. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of royalty payments are not paid to publishers whatsoever or paid to the wrong entity.

"You can get your data properly in your database," says Molinder, "but if you don't get the others 100 percent correct too, and if they don't get yours, no one is paid."

In an ideal world when a song is finished, the metadata will be designed by the artist or artist's producer and they would submit that data to the record company, distributor or publisher involved for verification and distribution. In fact, the process is often more hasty and random – artists and labels rush the process together to get songs out, and metadata is often cleaned later when errors are detected. "Many of these credits and negotiations do not happen on a single piece of paper, and so do that," said Joe Conyers III, co-founder of Digital Rights Management Platform Songtrust.

It is possible to correct metadata errors afterwards, but it depends on someone who captures that error and then targets each database where it is displayed. Although it gets stuck, it doesn't mean that an artist gets all the payments they are due. Each company and collection company has different rules on how long they hold on unpaid royalties. The $ 40,000 musician was missed because an error between two databases removed many of his credits. It wasn't the musician's fault, but too much time had passed before anyone noticed. The companies involved refused to pay him.

"We take it for granted that we can watch movie or TV credits on IMDb and see everything, down to production assistants," said Jackson, who recently hosted a standing room panel on metadata at the Music Biz conference. in Nashville. "But the changes in music metadata and standards are so slow."

It sounds like a simple goal to have a centralized database and set standards for music metadata – Jackson's idea of ​​an IMDb for music – but that has blunted many of the music's greatest and most powerful entities for decades. There are many reasons for this, but the tectonic shift to streaming is a major contributor. "There wasn't just an explosion in the number of releases, but the separation of the album," says Vickie Nauman, music technology consultant CrossBorderWorks. "We went from 100,000 physical albums released in a year to 25,000 digital songs uploaded a day to the streaming services."

In addition, songs are now consumed and made money in many different ways, which were not available just decades ago. "If you think back to when people first bought CDs, the only version of a larger song that was important was the greatest song itself," says Simon Dennett, Cobalt's chief producer officer. Today, a big hit can have hundreds of different versions, such as remixes, covers, sample packs, YouTube lyrical videos, other language recordings, and more, all of which can generate "trillions and trillions of transactions," as each Insert fraction of a cent . "The amount of data that now needs to be managed has become a huge problem," says Dennett.

There is not only more content to catalog, music rights are very fragmented at first, and then slices of a song Metadata are often held across different databases. Labels, publishers, collectors, and others maintain their own databases, none of which come close to having all the information about all the works in the music industry. (To see how truly complicated music data is here is a terrible flow chart from The Music Maze and one explaining from Sonicbids on how to track song ownership, ending with "consider paying for research.")

Creating a Global centralized database of song metadata has been tried several times, but has always failed. Among the many reasons: in-fighting between various weapons in the music industry, international governance challenges, reluctance to share information and finance issues. There are also other more practical roadblocks, such as different languages, different copyright laws and music industries, cultures and traditions across the globe, which are often in conflict with each other.

There is not much consensus on a particular arm in the music industry to lead the way or be responsible for setting music metadata. Some believe that digital music distribution companies like TuneCore or DistroKid could do more to educate artists, as it is often an artist's only touchpoint before their music is live on streaming platforms. Others believe that the streaming platforms themselves could set an example of better metadata by showing more credits, which would encourage everyone involved to ensure that the data is accurate. Some, like Jackson, suggest educating songwriters and producers to keep metadata records at the time of creation. "I imagine in the long term that it will only make all our jobs much easier when we get this [metadata] from the source as early as possible," Jackson says.

But many artists don & # 39; t even know that they should worry about metadata or that possible metadata problems can affect their pay slips because royalties are so complicated. A Grammy nominated artist I spoke to said, "Honestly, I didn't even want to know where to look to find out." Many startups try to make artists more aware of metadata, but it is an upward battle. Split, a free mobile app, lets artists create a digital agreement that manages a song's collaborators and their ownership interests. There is also Creator Credits, a technology that works within music production software Pro Tools to embed song credits within the Pro Tools files themselves.

What everyone agrees is that while things start to get a little better, there is one long way to go. "I remember putting things on TuneCore and it didn't ask you for any metadata. Maybe a song title, and that's it," says Doug Mitchell, director of customer success at Music Tech Company Exactuals. "Now you ask for more info as a genre. As the stores show more metadata, [TuneCore] asks this information. It's a start."

Although the idea of ​​making centralized and standardized metadata is frightening, many say it nothing to give up. Except for clearing up registration errors, it would help prevent other musicians from "dribbling pennies" and linking them to the money they owe. "The process of taking vastly scattered geographic data, vastly dispersed ownership data and enormous irregular data quality and pushing it together in a coherent aggregate global perception is a challenging yet incredibly noble mission," says Dennett. Conyers III makes it even easier: "It's a good dream."

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