Useless HOWTO: Finding barcode numbers between different formats

Over the course of cataloging my music collection, I came across a useless skill: finding barcode numbers of titles between formats.

It’s not a skill pertinent to anything released after the early- to mid-’90s, but it is helpful to fill in gaps for anything released before then. This skill does require some equally useless prerequisites (although they’re probably not useless to the folks who track these kinds of things.)

To demonstrate this skill, I’ll recount my hunt for a barcode number of a cassette I’ve long since let go for a title that’s long since been out of print.

First, the prerequisites …

Components of a music release barcode

Derek Sivers over at CD Baby wrote a quick primer about how barcodes work on CDs. His article says the first six digits of a barcode indicate the manufacturer of a product. What do the other numbers represent?

For major label titles, the next five digits serve as a catalog number, while the second-to-last digit indicates the format: 1 is vinyl LP, 2 is CD, 4 is cassette, 7 is 7-inch single. (I learned that from my days as a record store employee.) The very last digit of the barcode tends to be ignored.

Let’s take the barcode for Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels, for example:


Manufacturer no.: 075597

Catalog no.: 79242 (there’s overlap between the catalog and manufacturing numbers)

Format: 2

Extra: 0

Look at the barcode for most Nonesuch titles released in the United States, and the first six digits should be 075597. Anything released by a Warner Music Group label will most likely have 07559 as a start of its barcode. I’m not sure whether this convention applies to independent labels, and I’m fairly certain Japanese releases don’t follow it. I’ve seen no evidence of a correlation between Japanese catalog numbers and barcodes.

Knowing that much about barcodes, I set out to find the barcode for a cassette by the Concord String Quartet released on Nonesuch containing George Rochberg’s seventh string quartet, plus Samuel Barber’s string quartet and his vocal work, Dover Beach.

The search

A bit of luck helped in the search for this barcode when a Google query turned up a site of old Nonesuch catalog numbers. The cassette in question has a catalog number of 78017.

The first six digits of the barcode is definitely 075597, so it’s safe to concatenate the catalog number and the manufacturer number by their common digit, 7:


I want to find the cassette, so the next digit is going to be 4:


That leaves the final digit. How do you figure that out? Google once again comes to the rescue.

If you search Google for a barcode number — let’s take Black Angels again — a match with the independently-run UPC database returns a link. It’s not a fool-proof way because the wrong digit might return a FedEx tracking number. (And it’s annoying when those two numbers coincide.) Most of the time, it’ll just return nothing.

To find that last digit takes a bit of brute force. It can be one of 10 options, so I kept plugging in a single number for that last digit till I came across a result that matched the UPC Database. Of course, Google and the UPC Database could only verify the existence of the barcode, not what the product actually is. So it’s off to Amazon, where barcode numbers can used as search terms. And thus, we have corroboration. (Although I’m pretty sure it was Concord on that release and not Sequoia.)


Eh. There is none. I have no idea whether anyone will find this skill remotely useful, unless you spend way too much time caring about the details of your music collection — which I evidently do.