The world of music distribution can seem like a complex one, especially for new artists…
Why do music distributors exist? What is their purpose? Why do you need them?
There are countless questions that can lead to decision paralysis and stop you from taking the next steps in your music career.
Which is why we put together this guide.
Here we will help you navigate the music distribution minefield.
What to Expect
Music distributors charge a fee to get your music out to their distribution partners, which usually include a few dozen platforms, like Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, Deezer, TIDAL, Napster, and more.
The exact fee structure varies from company to company.
Some services will charge you once and keep your music online perpetually. Others will charge you monthly or yearly and will take your music down if you don’t settle with them ongoingly.
Choosing a service that’s matched to your needs is important. I prefer services that charge me once to keep my music up forever but depending on your marketing efforts and release schedule, you might choose other routes.
Digital partners also vary from one company to the next. Some will get your music out to more. Some have fewer partners. That said, most if not all music distributors will get your music out to all the major platforms.
Do Music Distributors Care About Me?
I wish I could offer a simple “yes” or “no” answer here, but I can’t. There are just too many factors.
Understand – Alan Cross says 24,000 songs are added to streaming platforms daily. That means one million tracks per week! Translation: Music distributors have their work cut out for them.24,000 songs are added to streaming platforms daily. Click To Tweet
Small, independent, up-and-coming music distributors might be able to give you a little more personalized attention compared to more established services.
But a major player like CD Baby engages in ongoing promotion and marketing activity, maintains a website and warehouse, publishes blog, podcast, and video content, hosts a conference each year, and more. Even with a staff of nearly 150, I’m sure they keep busy serving their customers.
And that makes it sound like independent music distributors are going to give you more of a reason to stick around. But you still need to ask yourself whether you trust them. They’re not likely to have the credibility or clout of a major service provider, and they may not distribute as widely as a major player either.
As it stands today, your music career is in your own hands, period.
Do Music Distributors Provide Promotion for My Music?
Generally, no. I’ve covered the difference between music distribution and music marketing in the past.
And this is one of the reasons independent artists wonder whether their distributor even cares about them. Because music distributors are not music marketing agencies.
Music distribution, for the most part, is a self-serve operation. You upload your music and artwork, provide release information, make your payment, and the distributor takes over from there.
Some new distributors like TuneGO are branching out by adding promotional services. But in most cases, you should not expect such services to be free, and like PR, results are going to vary. A lot.
Music is a subjective experience, and while there is a fan base for everything, building your tribe often takes many years – sometimes a decade or more.
It helps to think of distribution and promotion as two separate things, and to plan for both.
Why is the Music Industry so Disconnected & Siloed?
Analyst and editor Dmitry Pastukhov wrote an article on Soundcharts covering the 10 parts of the music industry, which he defines as:
- Music distribution
- Live and touring
- Licensing and sync
- Artist management
- Music publishing
- Audience and fans
Although there are many subsets to each, and there are some sectors that aren’t even represented here (Performance Rights Organizations, for example), it’s a good starting point.
The main reason the music industry is so siloed and disconnected is because it’s slow to adapt. The major labels are beholden to tradition, and they’re not in a hurry to change, likely because they like control.
The Problem with “Just Go with XYZ Company”
Like most, you’ll probably talk to other artists, maybe even musician coaches like me, and hear someone say, “just go with XYZ company – they’re great.”
This is how many artists make critical career related decisions, including the courses they take, the coaches they listen to, the marketing agency they pick, the contracts they sign, and more.
If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with great partnerships. But just because someone says “TuneCore is best,” for example, doesn’t necessarily make it the right choice for you.
I know people that love TuneCore, and I know people that couldn’t get away from them fast enough.
I would urge you to do your homework before committing, because “music distributors are all the same” couldn’t be further from the truth, just as “all musician consultants are the same” is categorically false. We all have different strengths and specialize in specific areas.
You’re not stuck with music distribution services. There are other ways of getting your music out there, and there are other ways of monetizing your music too. That said, the only way to get your music on major platforms (that’s practical) is to utilize a distribution service.
And more to the point, each distribution company brings something different to the table and specializes in specific areas.
How to Choose a Music Distribution Partner
If you’re looking for the right music distribution partner, here are the key questions you must ask yourself:
What Are Your Goals?
It seems like a “duh” question, but you should only ignore it at your own peril.
Do you take your music career seriously? Then shouldn’t you work with a serious music distribution partner?
If you’re a hobbyist, don’t really care where your music ends up, or don’t mind your music being taken down (for no reason), go ahead, risk it with a “free” music distribution service or a company that doesn’t specialize in the field.
If you take your independent music career seriously, though, trying to save money on everything is the wrong way to go. Music distributors like CD Baby, TuneCore, and Ditto Music are well-established and for the most part, trustworthy.If you take your independent music career seriously, trying to save money on everything is the wrong way to go. Click To Tweet
How Do You Want to Monetize?
This is a huge consideration many artists don’t even think about. If income is important to you, then you can’t possibly ask a more critical question.
Artists often love the idea of their music being on Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, etc. (because it gives them credibility) and don’t even stop to think about how they’re going to generate an income from their hard work.
The payout on a platform like Spotify is $0.0033 per stream. I’ve often called that “made up money” because you can’t divide a penny.
But the point is – you need 1,000 streams just to earn $00.33, 10,000 streams just to earn $33.00, 100,000 streams just to earn $330, and so on.
If music is just a hobby to you, or if you have no intention of monetizing your career, more power to you. Otherwise, betting on music streaming alone to make a living in music is financial suicide. Let me know how it goes.
If you want to learn more about how to generate an income in music online, I recommend our free training on the topic.
But if I were to break it down, there are basically two avenues that work:
- eCommerce. Whether it’s Sellfy, Shopify, Bandcamp, or another solution, the eCommerce route allows you to dictate the pricing of your products, sell digital and physical merch, set up memberships, and more.
- Direct response marketing. This is the more trendy but convoluted route espoused by the likes of Indepreneur. Creating and marketing sales funnels does work, but it also requires you become a fully-fledged digital marketer. Still, as with the eCommerce route, you have complete control over the pricing of your music. Plus, you can sell order bumps, digital and physical products, courses, memberships, and more. ClickFunnels is fine, but our recommend campaign builder is 10XPro.
How Much Music Will You be Releasing?
Many artists go on a yearly subscription with a partner that gives them the privilege of unlimited releases, forgetting that it can take three to 12 months just to record, mix, and master a great album, never mind release, and promote it properly.
If you truly are a prolific producer, and you’re constantly making new beats and other works from your home or project studio, unlimited distribution is a sweet deal. But it’s not that great if your release schedule is more like that of a conventional artist who has one release every one to two years.
Plus, most distributors like this will not keep your music up if you do not pay the yearly fee.
If you’re going to be releasing 30+ tracks each year, there’s a good reason to opt for an unlimited plan. Otherwise, a one-time fee to have your music up perpetually is a better deal, period.
Examples of Music Distribution Services – Our Top 4 Picks
We could endlessly contrast and compare different music distributors and talk about what they offer (there are other articles for that), but at the end of the day, that may only lead to more decision paralysis.
Based on our experimentation, experience and research (and we do love experimenting), the following four picks are the best:
CD Baby is the largest online music distributor, and still one of the best.
Pay a one-time fee to have a release distributed everywhere (along with a YouTube Content ID) and never worry about it again. Upgrade (for an added fee) to CD Baby Pro to have them collect your music publishing royalties (which are always separate from music distribution). Set up multiple artist pseudonyms under one account. These are some of the things we love most about CD Baby.
UK-based distributor Ditto Music was established in 2005. Their distribution service is very similar to DistroKid’s in that you can release unlimited music for one, low, annual fee. They also submit your music to playlists, help you protect your music copyrights, and can collect your publishing royalties with Ditto Music Publishing.
We also like that they have a 30-day unlimited trial.
Every YouTuber and their dog will tell you that DistroKid is bar none the best option, but it depends a lot on how often you release as well as what features you need.
Here’s what I like about DistroKid. It’s simple. It’s very musician friendly. When you go to the Bank section from the dashboard, you can see exactly how many streams each of your songs has gotten as well as how much money they’ve made (many distributors have more complex accounting dashboards).
The one-time yearly fee for unlimited releases is also attractive.
But there are a lot of extras you need to pay for that sometimes come included with other distributors. A YouTube Content ID, with DistroKid, for example, costs $4.95 per year plus 20% of your YouTube ad revenue.
It’s a great distributor and it’s full of humanity and personality, but seriously, it’s not for everyone.
This one falls under the category of “one to watch.” We had the opportunity to interview founder John Kohl on the podcast, and like many artists, he’s aware of the fact that the music industry is very disconnected and isn’t integrated all that well.
Which is why, in addition to music distribution, TuneGO allows you to create NFTs and pay for promotion (honestly, their rates aren’t too bad). Basically, they’re out to help you create as many streams of revenue as possible. And it’s hard to find a partner like that.
We don’t love that there’s a yearly fee associated with each release at TuneGO, but we do love what they’re trying to do.
We’re about ready to wrap this sucker up but let me answer a few quick questions before getting back to my own music creation efforts!
Should I Use a Music Distributor at all?
You might have seen the note about our free training and how there are better ways to monetize your music. But understand one thing – you can utilize both streaming and eCommerce solutions!
Music distribution is an excellent solution for promoting your music, getting playlisted, building your monthly listener count, and so on. But that doesn’t mean you need to distribute every track you ever make (e.g., “hey, if you enjoyed our track on Spotify and want to hear what the whole album sounds like, head on over to Bandcamp and buy our album…”).
Is My Monthly Listener Count Important?
Which is why we don’t fault anyone for trying to build their streaming numbers. For better or for worse, people do pay attention to monthly listener count, and it can be very difficult to attract more followers, book better shows, develop PR contacts, and so forth, without first building your listener count.
That said, you don’t necessarily need tens of thousands of listeners. 1,000+ can help you get to where you need to go.
What About Free Music Distribution Tools?
We don’t recommend them as we cannot vouch for their effectiveness. Plus, their distribution partners are often few.
Ditto Music has a 30-day trial. Give that a go.
What Are the Best Music Distribution Services for Independent Artists?
As noted above, our favorite solutions are CD Baby, Ditto Music, DistroKid, and TuneGO, in that order.
If we change our mind, you will be in the know!
There are countless music distributors out there with new ones popping up all the time. As with any business model in the music industry and creator economy at large, there’s more and more attention being directed to new horizons in music distribution.
That said, some of the best options are still the old standbys – the players who are well-established and have served artists for 10 to 20 years plus.
There are many new developing technologies and opportunities that make this field an exciting one to watch, but if you’re an artist, I’d rather see you dedicate time and effort to building out your strategy than endlessly scoping out music distribution partners. Rest assured, your time would be better spent on your branding and marketing.
So, with that, I close this guide on music distributors. I hope you enjoyed it!
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