Music Distribution Explained

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A guide to the different types of distribution companies, and how to select the right partner for your music distribution needs.

Did you know that the artist-direct portion of the market is growing faster than the rest of it? And that a ¼ of streams on Spotify are from independent artists? Knowing this, the emergence of music distribution as a service is becoming an increasingly relevant topic.

Music distribution has undergone significant changes over the years, particularly with the rise of digital service providers and streaming platforms. Back in the day, music distribution was predominantly done through physical media such as CDs, cassettes, and vinyl. However, with the rise of the internet, distribution has moved primarily to digital platforms.

This guide provides an in-depth explanation of music distribution, its evolution, the different types of distribution companies, and how to select the right partner for your music distribution needs.

What is Music Distribution?

The purpose of music distribution is to get your music in the places where people can get to it. Whether that be a streaming platform, a brick-and-mortar shop, or a social media app, distribution makes your music available to the end-user.

Music distribution vs publishing

The simplest way to make this distinction is to remind ourselves of some core music business principles. As someone who writes and records music, you are the rightsholder of two distinct kinds of intellectual property. Namely the song that you wrote, and the recording of that song.

Music publishing is simply the business of songs, aka compositions or musical works.

Music distribution is more concerned with the recording side, as the recording is the tangible property we are distributing. But at the same time, the recording that’s being distributed is of a song. The latter property is managed by the world of publishing.

Let's say you distribute a single. Then people start streaming that single on various platforms. Those streams are generating royalties on both the recording side (collected by your label or distributor) but it’s also generating royalties on the publishing side. But how do music royalties work? It depends.

Let’s break down publishing royalties for a second.

Royalties on this side of the pie include the following:

  • Performance royalties
  • Mechanical royalties
  • Print royalties
  • Sync royalties/fees

Performance royalties are collected with a Performance Rights Organisation in your territory.

Here in the UK we have PRS, and in the states there are a handful including BMI, SESAC, Global Music Rights, etc.

Their job is to sell licences to businesses in your territory, and distribute royalties to their members for the usage of their music.

Mechanical royalties are generated on the reproduction of a musical work, such as when it has been printed to CD, or streamed on a music app.

Those are collected by various organisations across the world. In the UK they are collected by MCPS, which is part of PRS for Music.

But if you’re looking for a service to help you simplify and manage all of your publishing under one roof, then you will likely look into the services of a publishing administration company.

These include:

  • Songtrust
  • Sentric
  • CDBaby Publishing
  • Tunecore Publishing

With a publishing admin, you simply pay them to make sure all your works are covered and collect the royalties you’re owed from around the world.

So going back to music distribution, if you just push your recordings out there, and are not signed up with a pub admin and/or PRO, you are quite possibly leaving money on the table.

How music distribution evolved

Music distribution has evolved in response to the ways that people consume music.

In the past decades the primary way that people listen to music has moved from physical media such as CD, tape, and Vinyl, to digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music.

How much does digital distribution cost?

The pricing model of self-serve music distribution services varies quite substantially. Some offer a one-time payment per release, but many are going in the direction of annual subscriptions for artists who frequently release.

How does music distribution work?

From choosing a distribution service at the beginning, to collecting your royalties at the end. Here is a step-by-step guide to how distribution works:

Choosing a distribution service

Choosing the right distribution company for you begins at understanding and defining what your particular requirements are. For example, if you fit a busy release schedule through the year, you might opt for an annual subscription to control the budget.

However, if you are releasing an album once every two years, but not much in between, it might make more sense for you to pay per release.

Making your music searchable using metadata

Music comes with metadata, which simply means the data about the music.

Examples of metadata include:

  • Primary artist
  • Song name
  • Writers
  • Producers
  • ISRC
  • ISWC
  • Album title
  • Track #

To name a few!

Every piece of metadata is an opportunity for the song to be discovered. Which is why it’s important to carefully catalogue your music and keep all that data up to date. You can do this using a spreadsheet or database at home.

Select your distribution channels

Beyond the primary streaming platforms, there is actually a vast array of channels your music can be distributed to. These include:

  • YouTube Content ID
  • Pandora
  • TikTok
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Shazam
  • iHeartRadio
  • Peloton

We have listed these examples because they’re not necessarily streaming platforms, but they are apps within which your music has the fertile ground within which to be discovered. Learning how to promote music on TikTok for example, could have an explosive impact on your visibility. So make sure your chosen distro ticks these boxes before you go with them.

Distribution strategy and promotion

Having a distribution and promotion strategy behind your music begins at preparation.

It’s essential you give yourself the time to prepare all of your marketing collateral and music assets so that you have the time and energy to creatively promote your upcoming release.

Technology gets really useful here.

Here we provide you with a handful of apps and services that can help you get it all together:

  • Trello
  • Google Drive
  • Notion
  • Slack
  • Canva
  • Linktree

Apps like Trello and Google Drive are invaluable in helping you get organised and keep on top of your promotional activities.

Technology comes in useful for the promotion process too!

Here are a handful of platforms designed to help you get your music heard:

  • Submithub
  • Musosoup
  • MySphera

Test the water with these platforms well ahead of your releases so that you can get familiar but also build up that necessary traction before the big day.

Collect royalties

Reporting and royalty collection is a vital component of the music distribution service.

When your music is out there getting streamed and bought, that will at minimum be generated recording-side royalties which will be reported and collected by your chosen distro service.

Some distributors will also offer a publishing administration service to collect mechanicals and performance royalties that are generated from that activity too. Another area within which to do your homework.

What is a distribution deal and is it worth it

If you're taking your music seriously and want your release to do as well as it can, across all platforms, you probably do want a distribution deal. Below we break down what this means and how to get one:

What is the difference between a music distribution deal and a record label deal?

An easy way to make the distinction is in what’s being traded in these deals.

In the context of a record deal, generally speaking, you’re handing over some ownership of your work, in exchange for their services.

But if you go with a distribution service, you’re simply paying them to deliver your recordings to the music platforms.

How to get a distribution deal

Getting a distro deal involves a lot of homework and networking. Much like with a label deal, it’s about building relationships and probably getting through a lot of rejection before anything happens.

It’s important to remember that this is a very competitive market, with at least 10s of thousands of records getting released per day. And like any investor, they’re going to want to see some traction before that bet on you.

Types of music distribution companies

There are several types of distribution companies, including:

  1. Major distributors: Major distributors are closely tied to major record companies and almost exclusively work on their releases.
  2. Independent partners: Independent partners are smaller distributors that work with unsigned artists and independent labels. They offer bespoke services and support to artists looking to distribute their music.
  3. White label distributors: White label distributors provide distribution services under the guide of their client’s branding.
  4. Digital distribution companies: Digital distribution companies provide a range of services, including distribution, promotion, marketing, and royalty collection, but above all, specialise in digital channels.. They work with independent artists and labels, providing a cost-effective solution for music distribution.
  5. Physical distribution: Physical distribution companies specialise in the movement of physical media such as CD, vinyl, and tape. They work with both major and independent artists, providing a range of services including manufacturing and distribution.
  6. Record label distribution: Record labels rely on the services of distribution companies to deliver their releases to the appropriate channels. Many labels outsource this part of the deal to such companies.

Music aggregator vs distributor

Generally speaking, an aggregator focuses on digital platforms, where a more complete distribution service will handle physical and possibly marketing services also.

Things to consider when picking up a music distribution partner

As with all deals, it’s vital to do your homework and due diligence. Which means considering more than one option, and reading the fine print.

Remember you're trusting them with work that you worked hard over in all of those late-night recording studio sessions. So make sure that you are going with good people who will look after your music for you.

Below are 10 things to consider when choosing a music distributor:

  1. Distribution Reach: Check how wide the distribution network of the partner is. It's essential to have your music distributed across as many platforms as possible.
  2. Pricing Model: Check how much the partner charges to distribute your music. Be aware of hidden costs or fees for additional services.
  3. Revenue Share: Consider the percentage of the revenue the partner takes for distributing your music. You should look for a fair share that aligns with your interests.
  4. Royalty Payout: Determine how often and how quickly you'll receive your royalties. Choose a partner that is transparent and timely in its payments.
  5. Customer Support: A reliable and prompt customer support system is essential. Look for partners that provide excellent customer support and respond to queries quickly.
  6. Contractual Agreement: Read the contract carefully and ensure that you understand the terms and conditions. It's essential to look out for any exclusivity clauses, which may prevent you from distributing your music elsewhere. If you know any lawyers, ask them to glance over the agreement for you.
  7. Marketing and Promotion: Choose a partner that offers marketing and promotional services. Your distributor should make it easier to promote music on Spotify, social media and further afield.
  8. Analytics and Reporting: Check whether the partner offers analytics and reporting services. These services can help you track your music's performance and make informed decisions.
  9. Reputation: Look for a partner with a good reputation in the industry. You can check reviews, ratings, and testimonials from other musicians who have used the partner's services. If you have a musician friend that can recommend a distributor they've used, even better.
  10. Compatibility: Choose a partner that is compatible with your music genre, goals, and aspirations. You should feel comfortable working with the partner and confident that they can help you achieve your musical goals.

How to distribute your music for free

There are a myriad of ways to get your music out there without dropping a penny. Some platforms such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp allow you to upload directly, and then there is the primary YouTube video platform where you can upload for free too.

Many artists will upload an ‘art track’ which is a video version of the song with static artwork, where some opt for more creative ways including lyric videos and visualisers. YouTube is a very important platform due to it being the second biggest search engine second to Google, and its broad and open nature.

More music is streamed on Youtube than any other platform.

Some distributors even allow you to upload to some platforms for free. An example of this is Tunecore’s Artist Plan which allows you to promote music on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok for free, which is a great way to test the water before you do a ‘proper’ release.

What is the best way to distribute music?

At the end of the day, there is no off-the-shelf answer to this question. Which is why it’s important to think hard about your goals, outcomes, and even long term plans for releasing music.

If you’re just testing the waters, you can use platforms like SoundCloud to get that necessary feedback. But if you’re going all out and have a busy release schedule down, you’re going to need the services for fully fledged music distributors.

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