Why isn't a song online?
Every day we hear from pop fans around the world who are frustrated that their favourite songs are not online.
Firstly it's important to address two common misconceptions. It's not Spotify or AppleMusic who are in a position to put music online (they are not a retailer like Tesco or Walmart where there is a buying team who choose what to put on sale), nor do they really interact with labels and pass on requests. Additionally, few artists own their material and are in a position to put their music online - they most likely do not have the right contacts at the label to facilitate this.
So why is a song you love not online? Generally this will be one of five reasons.
The song could well already be digitised but is not available in your country. Before Spotify, global playlists and simultaneous global release dates became a thing, it would be common for a record label to release something digitally in the artists home territory only (unless it was a really big international artist) with release in other territories planned for later (but sometimes not happening in the end).
Generally, in our experience, a label will hold worldwide rights though there are some exceptions (Belinda Carlisle's Virgin era being an example), so they can't just blindly widen the release of everything. When flagged with a label, they should be able to expand the availability of release (though for some labels this will be easier to do than for others).
The label hasn't got round to digitising it
There was a LOT of pop released in the pre-digital days and whilst the catalogue teams at labels are working as hard as they can to digitise old music, there simply aren't enough hours in the day. It could also be that the label has deemed a release not worth their time digitising.
It's not a simple case of Insert CD > Import to Spotify - a label has to get audio from the archives, source high quality artwork, check the rights situation (and sometimes a 20 year old contract), sort out label copy and metatag data and connect publishing info to ensure the songwriters receive royalties. That's a lot of work and if a song is only likely to get 30 streams a month (at less than a penny per stream), then it just isn't worth it from a cost Vs benefit ratio, particularly for a major label which has thousands of other releases to digitise.
The same ratio also applies for tracks that were not released on CD - it can simply not be worth the time to locate a master or digitise from DAT or vinyl.
It's not on a labels radar
This is probably the thing we come across most. Catalogue teams when delving into the archives are much more likely to digitise artists who have a body of work (such as a few albums and a greatest hits) and thus the fallen divas we stan who got dropped after one album or flop boybands we lusted after who never even got as far as releasing an album are unlikely to be on the labels radar until we point them out.
Additionally, with so many record label folds, closures and subsequent acquisitions (including various sub labels of the label they are acquiring), rightsholders can own so much music that they don't realise they have a gem in the archives until we point it out to them.
The rights have gone elsewhere
Rights aren't always forever. Sure, a manufactured pop act will sign the rights away in perpetuity, but for some music, the producers or production company will provide the label with a licence to release for a limited time period. This is most common with dance and club music where the producer licenced it to a major label for release. When this period expires the original rightsholders are not necessarily reminded that the period is over and any existing digital releases do not 'transfer' to them - they have to upload as a new release themselves.
Sometimes they can do this quick and easy, sometimes it will be in a backlog of other things to get online, sometimes it is beyond the technical capability of an individual rightsholder. In other cases, the rightsholder may have moved into a career away from music and in other cases, the rightsholder sadly can't be arsed.
Rights can also change hands between different labels and whilst the acquirer may be keen to digitise, they might not have the audio assets and thus can't upload. We've seen this a few times where a label is hampered by the careless archiving of the previous rightsholder. Similarly an original rightsholder may not have received audio files for remixes or alternate edits a local licencee may have commissioned ten years previously. In both of these cases, we regularly help provide labels with WAV files of audio tracks sourced from our collection, our followers collection or from people on Discogs.com.
This is the most unfortunate of the five and can often be insurmountable. Legal spats between performers and producers, samples that were granted for physical releases only or rights that lie with the Estates of criminals (Aaron Carter's debut album) are all things we have come across.
We have also seen examples of catalogue acquisitions go wrong where shoddy due diligence has left certain songs off the paperwork meaning that the acquirer has no record of legal ownership (and thus can not put online) but the seller similarly doesn't have anything to say they own it and digitise. Of course, lawyers could be brought in to advise but that's an expensive option that might not be worth it.