Have you ever used ASCAP’s ACE Title Search? We did, just the other day. A friend was trying to contact the publishers of an almost-but-not-quite public domain ditty to obtain permission to use the work in an original stage play. Unsurprisingly, he had no idea where to go to find this information. We cruised over to the ASCAP site and entered in the song title. It didn’t take long to find a match, and more importantly, the work had publisher contact information. Victory!
If only it were that easy across the board.
As we’ve pointed out many times in the past, there is no centralized repository for information on musical works (the underlying composition in a piece of music; think lyrics and notes on paper). There is also a lack of cross-industry standards to identify songs or match them to recordings. Given these barriers to identification, ASCAP’s ACE Title Search is very much welcome. Because you can’t get paid if people don’t know who to pay.
Keep in mind that as a regulated US Performing Rights Organization (PRO), ASCAP only licenses musical works for public performance (venues, AM/FM and digital radio). They don’t license mechanical royalties for the reproduction, sale and distribution of an underlying work. Still, their repertoire is very large, which means you may be able to use the ACE system to find the contact info for a publisher in order to obtain permission for another use.
First up is Titles. This is pretty straightforward. If you know the name of the song, you can enter it here. Of course, many songs share titles, so if that’s the only piece of data you have, it could take a while to locate the exact tune you’re looking for. If you know the songwriter you can search that way. Unfortunately, there’s no combining criteria. Say, for example, you were looking for “Girl,” written by Lennon/McCartney. You could search by title, but that would turn up an awful lot of songs that aren’t the Beatles classic, including works in which the word “girl” is only a part of the title. You can look up Paul McCartney or John Lennon individually, but considering how prolific they were as a songwriting team and as solo acts, you’ll probably have to do some scrolling.
Searching by performer is helpful, especially considering that many popular recordings have an entirely different songwriter than performer. Rod Stewart’s recording of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” is a good example. Say you managed to secure the rights from Universal Music to the master recording of “Downtown Train” for your movie. You still need permission from the publisher. But you don’t know who that is. If you enter “Rod Stewart” as the performer in ACE, you get ROD STEWART and STEWART ROD. That’s cool—you’ll just search both. Scrolling down, you see a song called “Downtown Trains,” plural. But everybody knows that the name of the tune is “Downtown Train, not trains. Still, there’s a publisher contact—at least an email address—so that’s a start. But now you’re wondering how many royalties might not have made it back to Tom Waits due to the variance in title.
You can also search by publisher. That might be good if you’re looking at full catalog and need to crosscheck a work. You can’t download individual publisher catalogs, but you can download the entire ASCAP repertoire. Unfortunately it’s in a text file, so it’s not easily merged with existing spreadsheets. But today you came to the site to find an individual publisher for a specific song. It’s a good guess you wouldn’t be here if you already had that information.
It’s cool that ACE lets you search by Work ID—a set of numbers associated with a musical work. Again, if you had that number, you probably wouldn’t need to look up the other info. And it’s important to keep in mind that Work IDs vary from service to service, society to society, so if you’ve got a Work ID from somewhere else, it may not be useful here. What you need is a universal numeric identifier that allows us to identify a piece of music anywhere, in any database across the globe.
And there is one! It’s called the International Standard Musical Work Code, or ISWC. Having that number for a musical work is like the keys to the kingdom when it comes to searching for a piece of music. Well, sort of. Say we want a synch license to use the song “We Care a Lot” by Faith No More in our snowboard video. We found the ISWC using ASCAP’s ACE, but when we search the mechanical rights administrator Harry Fox Agency using their SongFile system, ISWC isn’t even a search field. Weird!
You might think we’re complaining about the lack of standardized, publicly searchable databases for music. You’d be right. But we’re not picking on ASCAP. To the contrary: we think it’s awesome that they make their entire repertoire publicly available. We also think there’s a lot more to do to make the process of locating copyright owners more efficient. After all, this is how music is licensed and how artists are paid.
At this year’s SXSW, Future of Music Coalition CEO Casey Rae moderated a panel on music licensing that quickly became a discussion about data standards and transparency. When he asked the panelists, “what does transparency mean to you?” Keith Bernstein of Crunch Digital responded: “It means I can now see how shitty your data are.” Point taken.
We can and must do better. Whether you’re a songwriter, composer, publisher, label, or someone who uses music, you need to have confidence in the systems to manage information. Otherwise we’re leaving money on the table and missing opportunities. We hope that ASCAP’s system continues to evolve its functionality and that others are inspired by the important work they’ve done so far.