There are dozens of music distribution companies out there.
Some can help you place your music on Spotify playlists, sign a record deal and find sync licensing opportunities.
Some will keep it simple and focus on music distribution only.
Understand what music distribution companies do and don’t do.
Pick the one that’s the right fit for you.
That’s what this post is all about.
— Table of Content —
Click on any link below to jump ahead.
What Is Music Distribution?
Music distribution is the act of getting your music out there in physical and online stores.
Digital music distribution is the process of getting your music out there in online stores like Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play and TIDAL.
Since physical distribution opportunities vary a lot depending on your situation and location, we’ll focus on digital distribution, which is accessible to everyone, everywhere.
However, if you do need physical distribution, I’ll show you which digital music distributors offer that service below.
Where Do Music Distribution Companies Fit In the Current Music Industry?
MUSIC PUBLISHERS were in the business of licensing COMPOSITIONS, i.e. written words and music.
RECORD LABELS were in the business of selling SOUND RECORDINGS, i.e. the recording of those words and music.
Then, RECORD LABEL Columbia Records sold a bunch of Jeff Buckley’s sound recordings in the form of CDs, streams and digital downloads.
MUSIC PUBLISHER Sony/ATV and Leonard Cohen made money from licensing the song.
RECORD LABEL Columbia Records and Jeff Buckley made money from selling the recording.
It’s common for indie artists to self-release their albums and handle licensing opportunities themselves.
What does that mean for you?
It means that you can take your music career into your own hands.
You can decide to license and sell your music independently, without the help (and pressures) of a publishing or record deal.
We talked about the pros and cons of self-publishing your music in a previous post.
Now let’s talk about self-releasing your sound recordings.
What you need now is a music distributor to get it on all the right platforms.
You’ll also need to be really good at promoting your work and putting it in front of the right people but that’s a subject for another post.
What Does a Music Distributor Do?
A music distributor will….
- Make your music available in stores,
- Monitor and collect streaming and sales revenues related to your sound recordings, and
- Pay you those royalties and sales.
What Does a Music Distributor NOT Do?
A music distributor will NOT….
- Monitor, collect and pay royalties for your compositions,
- Promote your songs,
- Get your songs into Spotify playlists, or
- Find sync placements and licensing opportunities for you.
— Additional Services —
There are a number of digital music distribution companies that offer services in addition to their standard distribution deal.
Examples of additional services include…
- Admin publishing – e.g. CD Baby, Symphonic, Tunecore
- Access to sync licensing opportunities – e.g. CD Baby, Tunecore, AWAL, Reverbnation
- Playlist plugging possibilities – e.g. AWAL, Horus Music, OneRPM, RouteOne
- Promotion and marketing – e.g. Amuse
- Song reviews – e.g. FreshTunes
- Mechanical licenses to distribute cover songs – e.g. Soundrop
- Physical distribution – e.g. AWAL, CD Baby
This can be a little bit confusing because it almost feels like you’re signing with a publisher or label.
To keep things simple, remember that….
The primary job of music distribution companies is to make your music available in stores. Everything else is a side gig.
There’s nothing wrong with testing these additional services and seeing if they make sense for you.
Just remember that there are a lot of big promises out there but no one is as motivated as you are to promote your music and make it work.
Make sure you’re not signing anything that takes too much power away from you.
How Does Digital Music Distribution Work?
It’s as easy as opening an account with them, paying their fees and uploading your audio files, lyric sheets and album artwork.
Each digital music distributor has their own pricing structure.
For example, CD Baby charges per song or per album whereas Distrokid charges an annual subscription fee.
The subscription model is especially interesting if you’re very prolific and in the habit of releasing singles.
There are also companies like AWAL and Routenote that DON’T charge any upfront fee. Instead, they take a commission on the royalties you earn.
This can be a great option if you’re just starting out and don’t expect a lot of royalties.
To give you an idea of what you can expect in terms of royalties, consider that Spotify is the market leader in the field of music streaming and they pay you around $4 for 1,000 streams….
Or you can bet on a fairly new, up-and-coming music distribution company like Amuse that is 100% free: no upfront fee, no commission.
How is a music distributor different from a record label?
A music distributor doesn’t own your sound recordings.
A music distributor is simply a third-party you hire to make your sound recordings available to the public so that you don’t have to get in touch with each and every store on the planet and ask them to carry your product.
An online music distributor will also track, collect and pay you the royalties related to the streams and downloads of your sound recordings.
On the other hand, record labels usually OWN your sound recordings, also called “masters”.
When a record label signs an artist, their role is to provide the artist with everything they need to create a great sound recording that will be commercially successful.
So the label, in theory, pours in money to make the recording process high-quality and then to promote and distribute the sound recording.
In exchange for that upfront investment, the label retains ownership of the masters and takes a share of revenues generated by that sound recording.
These revenues may include album sales, mechanical royalties, merchandising, touring, etc.
How is a music distributor different from a music publisher?
A music distributor doesn’t own any of the copyrights related to your composition.
It simply makes your sound recordings – and the underlying compositions – available to the public for personal consumption.
On the other hand, music publishers OWN the publishing rights to their songwriters’ compositions.
They make your compositions available for licensing by recording artists and through synchronization to audiovisual projects.
In fact, a good publisher will actively promote your compositions to licensing opportunities.
Publishers pay themselves by taking the publisher’s share of performance royalties related to the composition and a share of any commission or synchronization fee they negotiate for you.
What about CD Baby Pro Publishing? Can’t a music distributor do the job of a publisher as well?
But outsourcing your music publishing administration is NOT the same thing as working with a music publisher.
A music publisher will ACTIVELY promote your songs, seek placement and synchronization opportunities for your work and handle all the legal side of things.
An admin publishing company will register your songs with a PRO and collect publishing royalties for you, taking a 15-20% commission along the way.
In CD Baby’s own words: “CD Baby is not like a traditional publisher; we’re closer to what folks in the biz call an ‘administrator.’ In our role of a publishing administrator, we register songs with Performing Rights Organizations and collect publishing royalties on your behalf. This is different from a traditional publisher that would provide a full suite of creative and legal services (e.g. sync licensing, copyright).”
What about CD Baby’s sync licensing program and Symphonic’s sync representation?
That definitely sounds like the work of a traditional music publisher….
Music distributors have certainly blurred the line between what they do and what a traditional music publisher does.
Again, this is an OPTION that you can add to your music distribution deal but you don’t have to.
If you want to give it a try, why not?!
Just make sure you read the contract and understand what you’re getting into.
For example, will you still be 100% free to work with whoever you want or will you be giving away part of your publishing?
As with every contract, I like to ask myself…. IF this company NEVER delivered on their promise, would you be cool with that?
As an indie artist, you might want to keep things simple and do everything through a single company.
Or you might want to stay super independent and research each service separately to make sure you find the right partners for every aspect of your career.
Depending on your situation, your needs and focus will be different…
Maybe Symphonic’s in-house playlist pluggers are a must for you.
Or maybe you want to do that yourself.
Maybe AWAL’s in-house sync services are attractive to you.
Or maybe you want to keep that under your control.
Maybe CD Baby’s physical distribution option is appealing to you.
Or maybe you’d rather keep things separate and work with a company like CopyCats Media that’s dedicated to physical music distribution.
If I’m focused on licensing, do I really need to release my sound recordings? Can it hurt my prospects with music supervisors?
If you’re focused on licensing your compositions to recording artists….
….then you don’t need to record your own version of the song if you don’t want to.
Because your work is songwriting, not performing.
Recording artists, labels and publishers may want to listen to a demo to get an idea of the song but that’s it really. You don’t have to present a polished sound recording for a composition that someone else is going to record.
If you’re 100% focused on sync licensing….
…don’t tour at all and are not planning on building a fan base of any kind, then you need to make the sound recordings available online in some shape or form BUT you don’t have to distribute them on platforms like Spotify, Google Play, etc.
Because if you’re a complete unknown trying to get into sync licensing, you’ve got a couple of options:
(1) Putting your sound recordings in music libraries.
(2) Pitching your songs to and making custom audio for indie filmmakers, ad agencies, music production companies, etc.
In both cases, having your music available on streaming platforms like Spotify is not necessary.
You can upload your audio files directly to music libraries and send streaming links to your prospects using a platform like Soundcloud or a tool like Box.
If sync licensing is in your plans but you’ve got other things going on….
….then releasing your sound recording can be a good thing (most of the time) or a bad thing (sometimes).
Well…. if your recordings are out there and you’re doing a bunch to promote them, there will be more people listening and, the more people listen, the more opportunities you’ll have.
Because sometimes, music supervisors are looking for work that’s never been released before.
That’s not too common though. Depending on the project and budget, their preference is usually for:
- established artists, or
- up-and-coming bands with a growing fan base, or
- pre-cleared songs from music libraries they trust and have experience working with.
In all three cases, the music is out there.
What’s the Best Digital Music Distribution Service?
Tough to say.
Amuse because it’s free. The only downside is that it’s fairly new – it launched in 2017 –and might not work out in the long run. Not that big a deal in my book.
Distrokid because they are proven and their subscription model with unlimited releases makes a lot of sense in a world of singles.
Having said that, I don’t believe there is one music distributor that’s the best out there for everyone.
Depending on the services you need, some may be better suited to you than others.
For example, I personally use Distrokid but, when I was doing research for this post, I realized switching to one of those free music distributors would make a lot of sense for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE Distrokid. Think their model is cool and have no complaints.
HOWEVER… since I’m focused on sync licensing and don’t promote my songs at all, I don’t get a lot of streams and could do without the yearly fee… especially since I’m paying the label fee for all my pseudonyms!!
On the other hand, if I were a touring musician doing a bunch of work to get plays and making a decent amount of money from streaming and sales, my focus would be different.
I’d probably be looking for a music distributor who offers playlist plugging opportunities and stay away from companies like CD Baby and AWAL that take a commission on royalties.
Here are some questions that will help you figure out which one is the right fit for you.
— Music Distributor Fitting Test —
Do you already have a decent fan base and expect a lot of people will stream your music?
If you do, favor a music distributor that doesn’t take a cut of your music royalties.
At the time of writing, that means staying clear of CD Baby, AWAL, Record Union, Soundrop, Stem, Symphonic and ONErpm.
Are you looking for a music distributor that will almost act as a record label?
Are you going to be releasing a lot of music on a regular basis?
Then you should avoid music distributors like CD Baby or Reverbnation where you have to pay a fee every time you release a single or an album.
Instead, favor a free music distributor like Amuse or FreshTunes. Or a music distributor that operates on a subscription basis and allows unlimited releases, like Distrokid and Horus Music.
Would you like your music distributor to offer a bunch of additional services?
If yes, then choosing a digital music distributor like CD Baby or Tunecore might make sense.
If not, make sure you work with a distributor that gives you all the freedom you need to do your own promotion to Spotify playlists and sync opportunities.
Do you need your digital music distributor to handle physical distribution as well?
Ok, that was an epic post.
Let’s agree on some next steps so you can stay on track and move forward.
1- Access, print or download your Music Distribution Cheat Sheet.
2- Decide if you need to have your music available for sale and streaming on popular platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.
4- Use the Music Distributor Fitting Test to figure out which one’s right for you.
5- Signup and upload your songs.
* Those three companies are my personal favorites of the three business models out there (100% free, commission based, and subscription based) but feel free to look at others. The roundup review of music distributors by Ari’s Take is a great resource for that.