How To

What is UPC?

Photograph of the blog post author, Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson


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What is UPC

What is UPC?

When selling products through traditional retailers or online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay it is necessary to have the correct product identification.

UPC barcodes (or Universal Product Code) is the way in which products get identified and are what enables products to be sold, tracked and reordered through supply chains. Without the correct product identification, it will cause issues with the supply chain.

The UPC barcode is the starting point to ensure product identification is right. The barcode symbology is broadly used throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries for tracking trade items in stores.

But, do music artists need a UPC barcode when selling music online or in-store? The answer is simply yes!

Read on as we cover some of your most common questions about music barcodes.


So, let’s start off by finding out what is a UPC Number and where is the UPC code found?

UPC is the abbreviated form of ‘Universal Product Code’ but also known as UPC and EAN (International Article Number). It is often used to define the UPC symbols which is ultimately a barcode with a 12-digit number called GTIN-12. The GTIN-12 is usually used to collect the UPC data originated from a GS1 Company Prefix and Item Reference.

The unique code can be found on a product such as an album or single so it can be identified. Unlike an ISRC code which represents individual tracks and sound recordings, the UPC code tracks your music as an entire physical or digital product.

Why do you need a UPC number?

It doesn’t matter whether you decide to sell your record as a CD in a shop or as a digital version on iTunes or other digital stores. A barcode is still needed in order to track those sales.

Stores (digital or physical) won’t be able to sell your music without the UPC barcode so it is really important you have one. Every release (single/EP/album) requires a unique barcode, for physical copies, there will be a barcode graphic used which is usually placed on the back of a CD. When it comes to digital releases the UPC number is the number used to track sales.

How many barcodes do you need for a release?

If you are based in the UK you will need a different barcode number for your physical record release and your digital copy.

Will you need a different barcode for each release?

Simply, yes. For each individual product, you are planning to sell it will need its own unique UPC code.

UPC barcodes are needed for sales tracking, therefore each variant of product needs to have its own unique UPC, this is so different products can be characterised with an individual UPC barcode. 

For example, if you have two releases under the same UPC code then you would not be able to easily track which one had the most sales and which to count the sale towards.

Should you make up a barcode


The numbers cannot be created by you as unfortunately the UPC code is calculated using a complicated formula.  The start of the code is a company’s own unique number, this is for security purposes and enables a store to detect any fake barcodes. 

The next part is a unique code to your record release, without this, it could mean your sales go to another artist if you both happen to pick the same barcode.

Why Do UPC Codes Have 12 Digits?

US Bar Code

A fun fact is there are two types of barcodes, UPC and EAN13. UPC is generated from North America and requires 12 digits in the identification number for a UPC barcode. EAN13, on the other hand, is usually from the UK and this requires 13 digits. 

Either form of a barcode can be used throughout the world. Online store identification systems are able to accommodate 13 digits in a barcode and a 0 digit can be added to the start of a UPC, any physical barcodes would remain as 12 digits.

A 12-digit UPC code is built up of three sections. Each section has a group of numbers classifying a different purpose. The first six numbers relate to the manufacturer, the next five digits of the UPC are a specific item number, and the final number is the check digit.

The manufacturer’s section of the UPC barcode is known as the UPC Company Prefix, the manufacturer will be assigned a number when they apply for a UPC barcode. Each item produced by that manufacturer will start with the allocated number.

Are UPCs ever shorter than 12 digits?

If you have some particular smaller item of merchandise then it can be difficult to fit along with a 12-digit UPC barcode on the small packaging. So, this doesn’t become a problem, it is possible to compress the zeros in a UPC to save on space, this will result in less than 12 digits appearing in the barcode.

CD pack with barcodes

How do you get a UPC code?

Most retailers, wholesalers and online marketplaces (such as Amazon) will need a unique identifier assigned to all retail products. Dissimilar to the manufacturer’s section of the number, the product identifier has to be globally unique as well as follow a worldwide standard.

Lots of music distributors such as CDBaby will assign you with a UPC code for albums and singles when you begin to work for them. GS1 US is in the United States and is a neutral, not-for-profit information standards organisation. They work to improve business processes and are a responsible establishment which ensures barcodes work everywhere, in every supply chain in every country.

If you would like to create your own UPC code for better control, you are required to get it through GS1 US.

Take the 4 simple steps to obtain a barcode:

  1. Apply for a GS1 Company Prefix.
  2. Assign a unique product number.
  3. Determine how your product will display barcodes.
  4. Order your UPC barcodes.

Check out the GS1 US website to access more information about Bar Code Graphics as well as watch a quick video which details information about numbering and USP barcode requirements. At the end of the easy tutorial, you will be given details about obtaining UPC barcode with a unique GS1 Company Prefix assigned to your company.

In summary, it is really important you get this right as any UPC barcode mistakes can be very costly if not properly implemented.

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