Music Distribution: The Ultimate Guide To Selling Your Music

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Music Distribution: The Basics On How To Sell Your Music

Making sure your music reaches your audience is the most important aspect of artist growth. Learn about music distribution and how it affects you.

Music distribution is the process that unites your music to the masses. In other words, it’s the final step in the journey to showcase your art to old and new fans alike. You may have a finished masterpiece on your hands, but understanding and grasping the ins and outs of music distribution is crucial in allowing your auditory treasures to reach the ears of listeners around the world.

What Is Music Distribution?

The distribution of music involves a chain of events that starts with the artist in the studio and ends with a download, stream or physical purchase of that recorded piece. Musicians must rely on this method in order to allow fans and new listeners the chance to consume their product and earn revenue for their hard work. Developing an effective music distribution strategy is beneficial for an artist’s growth — it provides increased visibility and the potential for a bigger paycheck in their pocket.

How Does It Work?

Music distribution begins with the artist themselves. Once the album is recorded, mastered and ready for release, the musician must get into contact with a music distribution company. While independent artists are forced to handle this leg work on their own, record labels have deals with distribution companies that assist them and their signed musicians. Typically, the distributor takes a percentage of every unit sold, and then the artist or label receives the leftover earnings. After an agreement has been made and the royalties are distributed, these companies ship the music to an assortment of different hubs for consumption including:

  • Streaming Platforms
  • Digital Music Marketplaces
  • Record Stores or Online Retailers/e-tailers

These unique music vendors offer up the project to their customers or subscribers. The listeners can stream, download or purchase the music– depending on the specific method in which they wish to acquire it. Finally, the profits are then cycled back through the distribution journey, from the retailer to the record label to the artist.

Physical Distribution

Physical distribution is the more traditional approach and the process in which an album is dispersed to record stores and wholesale retailers in the form of compact discs (CDs), vinyl, audiotapes, and other tangible mediums. Throughout the 20th century, artists would send the finished product of their albums to distribution companies, who would then send physical copies of these projects to retail outlets. This was the most efficient way to grow your audience during this time because consumers had no other way in which to uncover new artists besides scouring through loads of CDs hoping to strike gold.

With the rise of the Internet at the turn of the 21st century, music fans across the globe were introduced to an influx of music content in a more convenient location. While physical projects continued to deliver a personal touch of nostalgia to some consumers, the appeal of distributing your music to these locations to grow your brand gradually subsided. As a result, distribution companies specializing in the physical realm had to either evolve in the ever-changing music culture or fade into oblivion. Today, only a few of the companies who stayed the course remain (CD Baby, Distrokid, etc.), and nearly all of them have added digital music marketplaces and streaming services to their distribution repertoire. These companies are also owned by some of the largest record labels in the music industry (Sony, Capitol, Universal Music Group and Warner). That doesn’t mean there isn’t any revenue in physical distribution, however, as CDs remain the preferred listening format in many countries around the world. If you desire to take your brand global, physical distribution remains a beneficial investment.

Physical Music Marketplaces

Traditional physical distribution, although the classic way to sell your music, may not be the most viable option in this era, especially for independent artists who don’t have the necessary resources or reach to make it cost-effective. You have the option to take matters into your own hands, however, buying physical copies wholesale from manufacturers like Super D and bringing them to local stores, selling them on online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay and Discogs and even your own website. Distributors like CD Baby offer 15,000 CD units for a quote of around $5,000.

Here are some physical music marketplaces perfect for a do-it-yourself approach:

1. Online Retailers / eTailers

Global e-retail has been steadily growing every single year since 2014. In 2019, retail e-commerce sales worldwide amounted to $3.53 trillion, with projections totaling up to $6.54 trillion by 2022, according to Statista. These stores give independent artists the chance to put their CDs and vinyl on a platform where they can be viewed and purchased by any music fan with Internet access. This method applies the novelty of selling physical copies of your album without the hassle of shipping and placing them in a physical store.

Examples

  • Amazon
  • eBay
  • Your Website

2. Music Stores

Music stores are a little tougher to find and require some work to get to compared to the luxuries afforded by online retailers but are a goldmine if you are seeking exposure to hardcore and loyal music fans. This audience remains active and is likely more willing to become repeat listeners, spending additional money on tours and other merchandise you offer. If you choose music stores to sell your physical albums, you could attract the dedicated attention that becomes the nucleus of your fanbase.

Examples:

  • Record Stores
  • Instrument Specialty Shops
  • Big Box Retailers (ex. Wal-Mart, Target)
Making sure your music reaches a broader audience is one of the most important aspects of artist growth. Learn about music distribution and how it affects you.
Making sure your music reaches a broader audience is one of the most important aspects of artist growth. Learn about music distribution and how it affects you.

3. Pop-Up Shops

Pop-up shops are short-term sales spaces that only last a limited amount of time. Once you have an established audience of listeners, these become a beneficial way to further promote your music and brand. Independent artists use these events as unique experiences to gain additional publicity, engage with fans and drive up physical album sales. Pursue this strategy immediately following a project drop and set up shop in a high-traffic area that can intrigue the most potential customers for maximum results.

Examples:

  • Music Festivals
  • Local Neighborhood
  • Flea Markets

How-To Distribute Music Physically As An Independent Artist

1. Make an account on a music distribution company website that also specializes in physical sales. CD Baby and Distrokid are a few examples of distributors that can guide you along when planning a physical release. Pick a package that caters to your budget and distribution needs. Many companies offer a cheaper package that makes sure your CDs and vinyls are shipped out to retailers worldwide but upgrading your package can harbor additional benefits, such as song registration with global collection agencies and a worldwide publishing royalty collection.

2. Upload your music and artist information to the company’s website. Make sure that this material is accurate, as even a single mistake could mess up the royalty checks you are supposed to receive. Reference your “one sheet” (detailed below) for additional assistance on the information needed to complete this step. This process will ensure your music is identified and distributed to areas that are more likely to attract listeners with specified musical genre interests.

3. Set the selling price for your project. Typically, these companies allow the artists to set their albums to any price they desire. Be careful, because placing a price point too high will detract potential buyers and fans from your product while setting it too low will be detrimental to your revenue. Remember, the music distribution company you sign up for takes a specific portion from any copy of the album sold in stores.

4. Double-check “one sheet” and order physical copies to ship. Choose the amount of CDs or vinyl you wish to be made and the packaging (jackets, jewel cases or eco-wallets) Decide how many copies you want for yourself to sell locally (as well as on tour) and how many you want to be distributed to retailers. These music distribution websites are typically partnered with distributors such as Alliance Entertainment and Super D to make sure your album reaches over 15,000 record stores worldwide.

5. Congratulations, your album is ready to be sold in stores worldwide!

One Sheet

A “one sheet,” also known as a sales sheet, is a page overview given to record labels and music distribution companies that represent an artist or band before the release of a project. The document is sort of like a resume that convinces the recipient how sellable your brand and album will be. The information must be neat, organized and include most, if not all, of these components:

  • Band or Artist Name
  • Short Bio
  • Publicity Photo
  • Selling Points
  • Upcoming Project Title
  • Price, Label and Catalog Number
  • Release Date
  • Tour Details
  • Contact Information

Crafting an effective “one sheet” is important because it is used by record labels and distributors to drum up media interest and convince potential retailers to stock the album in their stores. If you’re planning on distributing your music physically, building a “one-sheet” should be one of the focal points of your to-do list.

How Do Artists Get Paid

Payment for your physical product after using a music distribution company to ship your album to different stores depends on the service. For example, CD Baby keeps $4 for every CD sold, while you receive the rest of the revenue through direct deposit, checks or PayPal. Try to partner with businesses that allow you the freedom of creative control and give out the highest chunk of royalties as possible. A portion of the earnings will inevitably end up with them for their help but doing your research when selecting a distributor could reap more rewards and money in your pocket.

Digital Distribution

Digital distribution is the fashion in which a consumer downloads music over the Internet and into their possession using a digital music marketplace or streaming service. The practice has emerged as the prominent method of getting music into the hands of fans, with $2.8 billion in revenue generated by digital music in 2017 alone. That’s over half of all revenue made by the music industry during that timespan. Brick-and-mortar music distributors have become a thing of the past, as streaming platforms like YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal are the new go-to marketplace for listeners. These services provide a simple way for people to access any artist, album or song they want, straight from their computer or mobile device.

The shift in the music landscape from physical to digital has also been accompanied by a boost in earned revenue and a smoother release process. These days, an artist has the option to leave the costs of making a physical copy of an album off the budget entirely, allowing more flexible spending and a better allocation of resources. Recently, more established musicians have also been able to cut out the “middleman”, or a third-party aggregator, by forming distribution deals directly with the streaming platforms themselves. That’s one more slice of the revenue pie, normally designated for the distribution company or record label, going straight into the artist’s bank accounts. The result has been a collapse of hundreds of distribution companies as the music industry attempts to adjust to the radical changes of the digital age. Nevertheless, some of these companies have survived, with many of them remaining a vital resource for independent artists looking to get their content to a broader audience.

Making sure your music reaches a broader audience is one of the most important aspects of artist growth. Learn about music distribution and how it affects you.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Digital Music Marketplaces

1. Streaming

As the Internet became an unstoppable force in people’s everyday lives, the process of music distribution and consumption became easier and much more accessible. As a result, within the last decade, streaming platforms have surged in popularity amongst casual listeners and hardcore music fans alike, offering unlimited access to any album or single they desire for one inexpensive monthly price. According to Nielson’s 2018 Year-End Music Report, Americans streamed more than 611 billion on-demand songs in that one year alone.

Examples:

  • Apple Music
  • Spotify
  • Deezer
  • Tidal

2. Internet Radio

Internet radio, or digital stations you can customize without the physical limitations of terrestrial radio, remains one of the top ways music fans discover new music. Overwhelmed by the abundance of different songs and albums that streaming platforms provide, listeners typically turn on internet radio when they want something playing in the background while doing other activities. Prioritizing internet radio when choosing which platforms to distribute to could pay dividends in attracting new fans.

Examples:

  • iHeartRadio
  • 8Tracks

3. Online Digital Retailers

Online digital retailers act in the same fashion as the online retailers mentioned above, except the product is an audio file of the music instead of a physical copy. Purchasing and downloading music is a way in which listeners can support the artist directly, without having their money go through on-demand streaming platforms first. Placing your album on these services will increase earnings from your core fanbase and make your project appear in a variety of different music libraries.

Examples:

  • Amazon Music
  • Google Play

4. Digital Apps

There are hundreds of different digital music applications, each providing a particular role in the consumer’s listening experience. From music detection apps specializing in recognizing tracks to personalized radio services, digital apps are the lifeblood of online artist discovery. Spreading your content to as many popular applications as possible will connect you to multiple audiences and make it easier for these listeners to uncover your music.

Examples:

  • Shazam
  • Pandora

How-To Distribute Music Digitally As An Independent Artist

1. Create an account with the digital music distribution company you wish to partner with. There are a plethora of digital distributors to select from, each with its own benefits, drawbacks and costs. Your job is to sift through these options and land on the perfect company able to assist you in your mission to achieve the goals you set for distribution. Remember, in this day and age, you have all of the power in choosing when, where and how your music ends up on digital platforms so choose wisely.

2. Pick the distribution package that aligns with your budget and vision. Packages and plans vary greatly depending on the company providing the service. With digital distribution, payments are usually paid out per single or album posted. Additional perks, such as high-quality mastering of the audio files, social analytics and detailed fan reviews can also be included in more expensive packages.

3. Upload your music and metadata to the company’s website. Add your project or single to the website’s databases. Be sure the information; including your name, genre, album title and artwork are accurate as this could significantly impact how your music is identified and which audiences are exposed on the digital platforms. More accurate metadata means more revenue generated. (See below for more information on metadata).

4. Select the digital stores and streaming platforms you wish to sell your music on. Digital music distributors like Tunecore give you the option and flexibility to choose which online marketplaces and streaming hubs you want your music to be posted on out of over 150 stores. Know where your audience and other potential listeners are the most active and pick accordingly.

5. Congratulations, your album is ready to be streamed and playlisted worldwide!

Metadata

Metadata is the information embedded in audio files used to identify, label and present audio content. This vital data includes the artist name, genre, song titles, label, album name and track numbers and is considered to be the future of music distribution. Metadata is utilized and required on all major online music services such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube to help figure out where music belongs in their databases and which specific audiences will be exposed to these tracks and be more inclined to listen. Filling out accurate metadata should be one of the main focal points of any independent musician’s music distribution strategy because it allows their content to be more easily discovered by potential fans, leading to more streams and more revenue.

Listeners are usually comfortable in the specific music realm they typically reside in, making it tough for an up-and-coming artist to find their way into different libraries unless they are sought out. Metadata bridges this gap by placing the music in areas where this listener can stumble upon it and give it a try. Provide consistent information and formatting into your metadata to ensure that your music is properly identifiable and distributed onto streaming platforms and digital marketplaces.

How Do Artists Get Paid

Most digital music distribution companies offer independent artists 100 percent of streaming royalties, allowing musicians the opportunity to pocket the entirety of sales revenue generated. (CD Baby is an example of one of the exceptions, charging a 15 percent commission from sales). In return, many of these websites require that the musician pay monthly and yearly fees in order for these songs and albums to be distributed to different digital and streaming platforms. Typically, these packages start off inexpensive if an artist strictly desires distribution, but increases as more benefits and perks are added to the plan, like marketing tools and social reports.

Digital Distributors and Publishing Rights Management

Some digital distributors also manage the publishing for their artists — handling royalty collection as well as disbursement. These companies have direct memberships with rights collection agencies that can find your original music wherever it is being played so that you can receive royalties for your content. The additional royalties include mechanicals from record sales and streaming and direct licensing from YouTube videos. See Music Licensing.

Conclusion

The evolution of music distribution has broadened the horizons for independent artists looking for different ways to present music to their audiences. Whether you prefer selling physical CDs in record stores, offering albums on streaming services, or anything in-between, there’s a distributor that’s perfect for you and your needs. Mastering this method can work wonders on your audience growth and set your music career up for a future of success.

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