Music metadata issue leads to lost revenue for artists

For decades, the music industry has been a rigged game. We’ve all seen this before: The artist typically always gets screwed, and the house (the major labels and suits) always wins; business as usual. The debate over fair compensation for artists, songwriters, and producers has raged for years. Unfortunately, the issue has gotten worse with the rise of streaming.

Indeed, streaming services have injected more complications into the equation to the point that artists are hemorrhaging money. Outlets typically focus on artist payout for streaming numbers. Moreover, another way artists are losing money is through incorrect metadata for a song.

Free for All

In an eye-opening report on The Verge, song metadata has left the recording industry’s pockets lighter, somewhere in the billions of dollars. How? The record industry never bothered to make one standard system or database for everyone to use. Labels often have systems for attaching metadata to a song. As a result, metadata has been split and split again, creating a fragmented hellscape of metadata.

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This process, in turn, causes people involved in creating a song not to get paid properly. Metadata helps when a listener searches for a song on Spotify, and it also provides accurate attribution. However, a roadblock occurs when metadata is transferred to different databases.

A label may have several fields they fill out before sending credits to Spotify or Apple Music’s database. But these streaming platforms’ fields may be different or might just ignore certain fields a label uses. That leaves some fields and credits missing from the metadata transfer since some systems either ignore it or throw fields out entirely.

The Nature of Music Today

Music is, by nature, collaborative, which is overwhelmingly the case with pop music. For instance, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” features eight credited songwriters along with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Plus, three producers worked on the track. But when artists release songs with multiple people credited, the potential to screw up metadata increases. Any incorrect transfer of data or wrong input of a songwriter who helped write the song increases the complexity of the metadata string.

Even beyond the songwriters credited, each song may have multiple publishers that metadata must account for to make sure everyone gets paid. Pop songs these days average four songwriters and six publishers. These small errors and missed payments compound to the point that songwriters and artists are losing out on thousands of dollars.

Everything Now

Furthermore, the speed at which artists create music today is a factor. Most of the time, to capitalize on buzz or to grasp the attention of a listening public who have so many options, artists have to release music frequently.

According to The Verge, labels and artists upload over 25,000 songs a day to streaming services. As such, labels often rush out music with incomplete metadata. The m.o. is to get it out first and clean up the metadata later. But that requires changing the metadata in all of the databases, and no one’s trying to do all that.

Another factor to consider is the numerous distribution channels that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Beyond physical copies of music, people listen to music through YouTube, it’s recorded in different languages, labels repackage songs, and artists release lots of remixes. Unfortunately, multiple versions and listening platforms translate to more unwieldy metadata that is tough for any system to tackle.

Ultimately, it’s a cruel irony that artists and labels possess the power to make a song stretch further than ever, but that gift also cuts their profits significantly.

One Database to Rule Them All

In many ways, the music industry has adapted to new technology. It’s also an industry, though, that operates on entrenched traditions and practices. The idea of a centralized database and system for music metadata has existed for years. However, because of disagreements and a reluctance to change the way things work, it has never come to fruition. And it may be too late to implement one now.

Meanwhile, music and the way artists create it and how consumers listen will change. The waters of metadata and attribution will get even murkier down the road as AI and other machines begin writing and creating music. Until then, artists can only hope that their metadata is in order and that they’re getting their fair share.

However, history tells us it’s not looking good.

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