Digital Music Distribution
So you’ve recorded, produced and mastered your first EP and your artwork is ready.
Well if you didn’t already know, unfortunately it’s not as simple as uploading your song to a streaming or sales platform like Spotify or Apple Music. You’ll first have to apply for an ISRC code for each of your tracks (for more info on what an ISRC code is and how to get one, click here) and then you’ll need to decide on what distribution provider to use. Each provider caters to different types of artists and each has its own pros and cons. To that end we’ve put together a list of some of the best providers for unsigned artists but we’ll get into those a little later in the article.
Firstly though, let’s take a closer look at what music distribution actually is.
What Is Music Distribution?
Music distribution is literally that – getting a record into the hands of the customer. In the past when the Dinosaurs still roamed the earth and when Vinyl and CD’s were still commonplace, that would have meant physically shipping hard-copies of music to record stores for a customer to buy it but now in the digital age we find ourselves in, the possibilities of distribution have risen exponentially and are taking us in directions no one would have dreamed of a decade ago.
Why Digital Distribution?
At its heart, the point of digital distribution is that it lets you cut out all the middlemen that have hitherto been present in the music distribution business – from shipping the physical product to the costs associated with actually making the CD or Vinyl record.
By far one of the most important changes that digital distribution has allowed for is that it also lets unsigned artists to list and sell their music on a variety of digital retailers (think Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon) which foregoes the need to even be signed to a record label, in fact it has forced the record labels to adapt, with many now focusing their efforts more on the (mostly digital) promotion of the artists that they have signed.
Once upon a time you needed to be signed to a label for anyone to hear your music but now, anyone can sell or stream their music without being signed.
Another very important facet of digital distribution is data. Imagine being able to see what areas of a country or city engage most with your music and then being able to either tour in those areas or digitally target them with ads for an upcoming launch you have. It’s also a no-brainer that you’ll also receive purchase information which can tell you what platforms are performing (in terms of sales) and which ones aren’t.
To that end, let’s dive in and have a look at just a few of the major players when it comes to getting your music distributed – we’ve also included a handy one-liner summary on what makes that platform great, but remember, what works for someone else might not work for you so definitely do your research and shop around for the best result. The information below is only intended as a guide to get you started and shouldn’t be used as your only source of information.
UPDATE: As of January 2019, Spotify has announced their 'Preferred Distributers' for the year which includes two platforms; CD Baby and Distrokid. The reason they have been singled out according to Spotify is that they meet the highest standards for providing quality metadata and protecting against infringement.
Digital Distribution Services (in no particular order):
CD Baby is one of the biggest and oldest players in the distribution market with one of the key factors that differentiate them being that they combine digital distribution with the physical kind – that way you’re covering all your bases should any fans of your music want a physical copy of your work. Like with many of these platforms, CD Baby also allows you to license your music for TV, film and games. It features all the regular purchase and geographic data as well as a handy playlist feature which tells you which platform/playlist your music is featuring on.
Why CD Baby? CB Baby combines both physical and digital in a single package so you don’t miss out on any potential sales.
Featured Platforms: Amazon, Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music, Tidal, YouTube Music and more.
Pricing: Standard – $9.95/single, $29/album, Pro - $34/single, $69/album
These prices are one-off payments, once you pay, your music is up forever though CD Baby does take a 9% cut of profits (and 30% of YouTube profits).
For more information on pricing and what each package offers check out CD Baby’s website here.
Tunecore is one of the oldest digital distribution services around (second only to CD Baby) and as such market themselves as the world’s leading digital music aggregator. They also have one of the most comprehensive publishing and licencing services available right now through Tunecore’s direct memberships with rights collection agencies which means for every download, stream or radio play, you are getting paid and not missing out on any potential royalty payments. Unfortunately, they also don’t do payment splitting however their data and analytics is one of the best you’ll find.
Why Tunecore? Tunecore doesn’t take a cut of your sales and it has very insightful and clear analytics.
Featured Platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Google Play, YouTube Music and more.
Pricing: Single – $9.99 (per year), Album - $29.99 (per year), Ringtone $19.99 (per year)
For more information on pricing and what each package offers check out Tunecore’s website here.
Distrokid is a relatively newer service that focuses on simplicity and being intuitively easy to use. For one yearly price Distrokid takes no commission and you can upload an unlimited amount of songs.
It was also announced in the second half of 2018 that Spotify had acquired a minority stake in the company, meaning the relationship between the two is quite close and while nothing concrete has been announced as of yet, the Distrokid/Spotify relationship could produce some interesting features that other distribution companies might not be able to match. Unfortunately, where data and analytics is concerned Distrokid falls short of its competitors as it provides only basic purchase data and sales information.
Another benefit of Distrokid is that if you collaborated with someone on a song then payment splitting is super easy as Distrokid automatically splits your profits with your collaborators which can save you a lot of time and effort in the long run, an innovation a lot of other digital distributors are emulating.
Why Distrokid? Payment splitting makes life a lot easier and the relationship with Spotify could make for some interesting and unique opportunities.
Featured Platforms: iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon, Google Play, Tidal, iHeartRadio, YouTube, Deezer and more.
Pricing: $19.99 per year to upload unlimited albums and songs.
For more information on pricing and what each package offers check out Distrokid’s website here.
You might have seen or heard of LANDR as the online mastering service where you send through your mixes and get them mastered for a very reasonable price but now they have recently added music distribution to their business as well. If you’re already using LANDR to do mastering for your tracks then it might make sense to use them for distribution as well since with any mastering subscription distribution is free as well.
The platform is also still very much in its infancy which means there may still be some teething issues to iron out but on the whole, it looks like big things lie ahead for the platform. Another neat feature is a shared ‘workspace’ which is a space within the site you can work on a track with collaborators which works similar to google docs in the sense that you can have multiple people working on the same file at the same time.
Why LANDR? Combines seamlessly and is cost-effective if you are already using the platform for mastering. Lots of potential for future development.
Featured Platforms: iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon, Google Play, Tidal, iHeartRadio, YouTube, Deezer and more.
Pricing: 10 Tracks - $24 yearly, 30 Tracks - $48 yearly, Unlimited - $72 yearly
For more information on pricing and what each package offers check out LANDR’s website here.
Ditto Music is another one of the newer players in the digital distribution market and a slick one at that. Offering you 100% of all the royalties you make and no commission, the platform lets you upload an unlimited amount of songs for one yearly price and as you would expect, their analytics and reports are quite straight forward and easy to digest.
Worryingly though, there are many reviews of the platform that are far from glowing in their appraisal, citing customer support as being severely lacking (once people have started paying) and a few have even highlighted some apparently hidden costs, despite the main page of Ditto Music’s website stating that they don’t have any.
Why Ditto Music? Manage multiple artists all on the same platform and don’t pay any commission.
Featured Platforms: Spotify, Deezer, Beatport, Shazam, Google Play, Amazon, Vevo and more.
Pricing: $20 for unlimited distribution/year (One Artist), $29 for unlimited distribution/year (Two Artists)
For more information on pricing and what each package offers check out Ditto Music’s website here.
The New Kids on the block...
United Masters (UM) is a company looking to set itself up as a modern record label but offers digital distribution to draw in users. At face value UM can do the same as all of the above distributors i.e. upload your music to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, SoundCloud, Tidal etc. however United Masters offer goes far beyond that by attempting to offer a 'label services' service to its users.
United Masters is built off this idea of fostering Independent Artists, UM's Fouder & CEO Steve Stoute (former president of Interscope Records) says their goal is to create '200 Chance the Rappers' and allow artists to 'sign to yourself'.
This involves giving musicians an alternative to exploitative record label deals. Signing up to UM is free, but artists pay UnitedMasters 10% of their streaming Royalties to distribute their music across the internet from Spotify to YouTube to SoundCloud etc. UM so essentially users get "free" distribution and only forfeit 10% of their royalties for songs that they upload via UM and they maintain the rights to their master recordings.
It's what happens after a song has been distributed that supposedly sets UM apart...
UM brings in all an artists streaming/social analytics, identifies the listeners, builds artists a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, and supposedly helps them retarget their top fans with pinpointed ads for tickets and merch. As an artist, you're able to connect all your socials to UM's platform and use the mixture of streaming and social analytics as insights into your music and fans.
UM is sleek, well-branded, well-marketed service, however, it has yet to prove that it offers any real value beyond digital distribution. Access to listener and fans insights is nothing new, all UM has done is consolidated it and bought it into the one spot. Also if their unique selling point is to replace record labels then their supposed label services advice is extremely generic and almost non-existent.
As a company, UM is still in its infancy and is attempting to tackle large problems (label services are a tough nut to crack as it's very difficult to deliver “personalized guidance on how you can grow your career” without any real insight into the artists unique circumstances) so we do see great potential in it for the future for two reasons.
One, UM has an excellent team working behind it, CEO & Founder Steve Stoute has a wealth of music industry experience and the team is made up of a combination of developers, marketers, A&R reps and data analysts manpower and marketing knowledge to build amazing features in the future.
Two, UM has excellent backers and industry connections. UM initally raised $70 million from Google's corporate umbrella company Alphabet, with Larry Page and was joined by prestigious venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, Silicon Valley investors Floodgate, and entertainment giant 20th Century Fox.
Startup Industry veteran and rap fan, Ben Horowitz, was so taken with UM's goal of enabling artists to market themselves globally as effectively as the top technology companies that he has joined UMs board.
Why United Masters? Convenient access to listener and fans analytics and insights. Great potential to develop into an artists services platform in the future given the team and funding behind the platform,
Featured Platforms: Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, SoundCloud, YouTube and more.
Pricing: 10% cut of royalties from streaming.
Another innovative approach to artist services, Amuse, was founded to answer the question "What would a record label look like if it was started today?". Similar to United Masters, Amuse integrated digital distribution into its array of services to bring initial musicians onboard.
Again, distribution is just the tip of Amuse's services... Emerging onto the chaotic music-tech market in 2015 Amuse quickly drew interest from global businesses (and similar to UM, millions in venture capital) due to its completely free music distribution service, which lets artists keep their royalties and rights and links up to major streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify.
What caught investors’ eyes was Amuse's offer of a dual business, with direct distribution and artist analytics on one side and a label-like A&R service on the other. When an artist signs up to use Amuse as their distributor Amuse has access to all their analytics and streaming numbers and when an artist’s music begins to show promise, the record label portion of Amuse has the opportunity to come in with the offer of a 50/50 licensing deal with the artist.
Essentially artists distributing their music via Amuse have the chance to sign with Amuse and receive expert label services such as Strategic Planning, Playlist Pitching, Artist Branding, Digital Marketing & Artist PR.
Amuse states it believes in "fair, artist-friendly record deals that give control back to artists", which takes the form of providing upfront payment for projects, splitting profits 50/50 with the artist. Artist's have the option to submit their music for a record deal consideration via the Amuse platform and if offered a deal, there is still no obligation to sign with them.
Amuse's newly unveiled “Fast Forward,” program is aiming to take this Label approach of upfront payments to the next level by paying artists for their future royalties.
"Fast Forward" uses machine learning coupled with Amuse’s “vast access to music consumption intelligence” to crunch the numbers on precisely how much an artist or group stands to make in the next six months of their career — and then pays them for those future profits. The system can automatically analyse's more than 27 billion pieces of data, such as streams of an artist’s latest album, to figure out an individual’s future royalties. Artists who use Fast Forward will be able to view and withdraw those future royalties from the Amuse app directly.
Why Amuse? Free Distribution, Potential to be Signed to Amuse Label, Payment of Future Royalties.
Featured Platforms: Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, SoundCloud, YouTube and more
Pricing: FREE! 50/50 Licensing Split if Signed to the Amuse Record Label.
There you have it.
Once again, we reiterate that you should definitely do your research when choosing a distribution platform to find out what works best for you as an artist, plus, there are many more than we’ve listed here. One thing everybody can agree on however is that digital distribution platforms have radically altered the landscape of the music industry and have even started somewhat threatening labels which has forced them to adapt their traditional roles.
There are definitely interesting times ahead for the music industry.