Master Your Craft: Understanding CD barcodes (UPC)

By Andile Nkosi

Pick up any CD you’ve bought and look at its back, you will quickly notice a Universal Product Code (UPC) or barcode as popularly known.  If you have bought a CD in a record bar, you would have noticed that the barcode gets scanned by the cashier while you are paying. The immediate question is why? Why do CDs have barcodes and should you (as a label/musician) invest in having a barcode for your CD? The answer is YES, barcodes are essential in ensuring record success at retail.

What are UPCs?
Universal Product Codes (UPC) are sets of alternating black and white bars representing numbers (12 in the U.S.; 13 elsewhere) that scanners recognize as unique from every other product.  UPC help standardize the identities of millions of products across different manufacturing, distribution and retailing systems, making sure that producers and consumers buy and sell exactly what they think they are buying and/or selling. Today, obtaining a UPC code for your product has become a standard requirement if you are to be part of the production, distribution and sales system.

How do UPCs work?
At the final stages of making your album, the label should contact a UPC provider (e.g. who would provide you with a unique UPC and image for a fee. The image is given to the graphic designer to incorporate in the CD/DVD artwork. The label/distributor is required to complete a Retail Form with each retailer/record bar that agrees to shelve the CD with includes the UPC number. This then enables the stock to be updated every time that album is bought which allows you to know the exact number of copies sold and remaining. Replenishing the stock then becomes easier as notifications can be set (e.g. via sms to the label as soon as CDs volumes are under 2oo units). 

This is how Billboard is able to create and rank chat topping singles and albums. To find out what music is selling in record stores, Billboard uses an information system that tracks the sales of music and music videos throughout the United States and Canada. By retailers scanning the CD/DVD barcodes, Billboard can collect sales information from cash registers each week from over thousands of retail, mass merchant, and non-traditional sources such as online stores, concert sales, etc.

Do I really need a UPC on my CD?
If you plan on selling through mainstream record bars such as Reliable Warehouse, Jet, Musica, Look N Listen, CUM books etc then you absolutely need a UPC for your release. This is since chain stores depend on barcode info to ensure accuracy and drive efficiency in their own sales, ordering and logistics, your album will not be shelved without a UPC. Digital releases (iTunes) also require a UPC. 

On the other hand, if you mainly sell to a handful of customers (e.g. off-your-car-boot sales) you don’t need a barcode. Or if you largely retail your products through spaza shops, boutiques, flea markets and other small-scale outlets that generally don’t rely on scanning equipment, you might be able to avoid the barcode requirement as well, though you should have your own internal way of keeping track of individual products.

How do I get a UPC for my CD?

The good news is that obtaining a UPC for your next release takes two easy steps.

Step1: Email requesting a barcode - 034 Music will respond with an invoice and a UPC form for you to complete.

Step2: Pay invoiced amount, complete form and return to 034 Music - 034 Music will generate a barcode and email to you within 5 working days

For any musicians serious about their career, a UPC codes is part of your passport to business growth, fortunately they are inexpensive and easy to obtain.


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