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How To Get Your Music Distributed on iTunes (And Keep Most Of The Money)

Back in the 90s when I self released my first twelve inch single the main problem I had was trying to physically distribute the product. I remember trailing around London’s (then thriving) network of vinyl stores with a box of white labels trying to drum up a buzz with retailers. Around London it was physically possible to leave ten copies of a single at each individual retailer. Problem was you then had to go back and chase up money from each and every one (if they actually sold any).

 

The easier alternative was to get your product on the vans of one of the many (at the time) vinyl distributors. If you had a track with a club buzz on it this was pretty easy, you’d drop off your boxes of vinyl at the warehouse and wait for the orders to flood in. Well in practice, at least. What happened to me (three times) was that I’d commit to a distribution deal with a company and then they’d go bust right before I’d ever get paid or get my product back. Great.

Nowadays of course everything has changed to the extent where there doesn’t actually have to be a physical product to distribute (no inventory to lose) and your customer/the consumer actually takes care of any physical manufacturing (CD burner).

So, where to start? Like it or not Apple’s iTunes is the biggest music retailer on the planet so if you want to sell downloads it pays to have your product in the biggest shop window. That is not to say that its the only shop window you should concentrate on but you have to go where the shoppers are looking. Much the same as I’d want my 12inch single in the hip little record store in London’s Soho, I also wanted it on sale in the Virgin and HMV megastores on Oxford Street.

 

A newer breed of distributor has flourished in the current music industry climate, a digital music aggregator, where the artist or label submits/uploads the content and the aggragator queues it up for placement with the main online retailers, which in mainstream terms means iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, eMusic (for DRM free indie music) and more recently AmazonMP3.

So. There’s a number of aggregators around now and they seem to be multiplying weekly so its important, nay, essential to choose a company with a nice ‘shiny’ reputation. That means a company that is reachable, reputable and accountable and of course, a company with some solid music industry background. I use Tunecore for digital distribution, though you can see a useful comparison of services here via Moses Avalon.

Tunecore digital music distribution

The biggest pull for me that made me choose Tunecore over CD Baby DD was simply one of percentages and control. CD Baby has a much wider list of stores it sends your music too, but you cant discern which ones you want your music on specifically. With Tunecore you can. CD Baby also take 9% of any money from each download. Tunecore take nothing. After iTunes (to give a specific example) takes its own cut I see 70c per download which goes straight into my Paypal account (if I choose that payment method). Bypassing any distributor cut or record label share.

Consider back in the 90s I had no concrete way of keeping track of what my distributor was up too. Now I can have data tracking each individual sale on a monthly basis.

Do remember though, that despite all the hype about download stores, they still only account for around 10% of music sales so having music available on iTunes is an ‘as well as’ rather than an ‘instead of’. People are still buying CDs, even vinyl.

The sign up at Tunecore (or CD Baby if you choose) couldn’t be simpler. There’s a sign up fee of around $25 for Tunecore, with an annual maintenance fee of roughly $20. Sign up at CD Baby is $35 with no annual fee. You’ll need a finished mastered copy of your release, which you can either upload or physically post in to the distributor. You’ll need CD artwork too, even if its only a digital release. Either diy, get a mate who’s a whizz on Illustrator or pay someone else (or here).

iTunes Digital Download store

Your album, EP or single also needs a unique UPC (barcode number) and each track needs a tracking number for sales called an ISRC, (“International Standard Recording Code”). Tunecore take care of both these services free of charge at the moment, CD Baby charges $20 for the UPC barcode.

And a one (or two) final points to remember, the number one thing to look out for in a digital distributing partner is a non-exclusive licensing agreement. Make sure that you will continue to own all rights to your own music and also, don’t forget to promote your digital downloads!

For even more options you can get your own download store to paste on your website or MySpace page via companies like 7 Digital (in the UK) or Snocap (in the USA). Though take into account these services are separate options.

And yet another option if you’re without a physical release (CD or vinyl) is actually selling downloads at gigs using a download card service like Dropcards or Disc Revolt.

Related Links

Tunecore vs. CD Baby For Digital Distribution (CNet Blogs)
Digital Distributors-Choose The Right One For You (MosesAvalon.com)
Why Most Digital Distribution Start Ups Will Fail (CNet Blogs)
Tools For The Stay At Home Musician (Coolfer)
iTunes Store (Wikipedia)
Drive-By Truckers Founder Seeks Vinyl Glory (Boston Herald)
Apple Accused of Stifling Rivals with iTunes (Guardian UK)
iTunes No. 2 Music Retailer in the US (Business Week)
So, One Week Later is the Album Dead Yet? (The Seminal)
MP3 Cover Design (Simon Idol)
The Rise and Fall of Snocap – What Did We Learn? (Penny Distribution)

Other Distribution Services

If you want to add more services besides the already mentioned mainstream download stores.

SongCast Music (USA)
KJER (Scandinavia)
Artists Without A Label (AWAL) (UK)
Consolidated Independent (UK)
Wild Palms Music (France)

Adrian Fusiarski

Music industry News Content Curator and Social Media/Wordpress Enthusiast. AKA 99th Floor Elevators, Tweets @Buzzsonic and @Bzzzsocial

Comments

  1. cjs351 says:

    The experience you described trying to self-distribute your material in the 90s is exactly how record labels established themselves as the “gate keepers” of the music industry for almost a century: They had the money and the connections to record your music, market and promote it, get it on the radio, and most importantly get it into stores. With any physical store, shelf space is limited, and unless you have the money and connections to back you up, most places won’t you a second look if you ask them to distribute your product (it actually sounds like you fared a lot better than most people going the independent route).

    The Internet changed everything – artists can now market and promote themselves for little or no money (with tools like Free FM, MySpace and other social networks), blogs have made everyone with an opinion a member of the press, and with improvements in digital recording, professional albums can now be done at home in a laptop. As for distribution, iTunes (like it or not) turned the industry on its head when it popularized a new model – a store with unlimited shelf space where people pay for the right to replicate files on demand.

    I work at TuneCore (so I admit my bias toward our company), and I’m happy that we are your preferred method of digital distribution. Just like a postman delivers a package, we deliver digital files to whichever online store you choose, and just like a postman, we don’t take any music from what you sell. Why should someone take money from your sales when it’s you who recorded it, marketed it, and toured behind it?

    Obviously, you should always look before you buy. Be wary of hidden fees (do they charge for a UPC code? Do you have to physically mail one or more copies of your CD and artwork?), and make sure that the model works for you. Keep in mind that TuneCore is non-exclusive, takes none of your rights and passes 100% of your royalties on to you.

    Thanks again for the mention, let me know if I can be of any help!
    -Jake
    jake@tunecore.com

  2. Adrian Fusiarski says:

    Thanks for taking time out to comment Jake. I have nothing but good words to say about Tunecore right now and I never ever thought I’d say anything nice about a distributor. I’ve been putting stuff out independently since 1994 and I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever got any money out of a distributor!

    The big difference for me now of course, is that there is no inventory so its a win win situation if you’re dealing with an experienced and organized team like the set-up you have there. Certainly the other thing that swung it for me was that I could choose distribution by territory (I have a deal in Europe so it was important to have the option of leaving out certain territories) and also that your team had a good background in the actual music industry (as opposed to being just another web 2.0 start-up). Jeff Price’s background at Spin Art was a major plus point and also his involvement with ‘the American Association of Independent Music’ too. It all points to a solid background.

    Keep up the good work you guys
    - Adrian
    editor@musicbizhacks.com

    PS. What I would like to see is Tunecore’s stores list expand a little to cover specialist stores like Beatport and Trackitdown.net and other key dance music outlets.

  3. [...] short of amazing that today, theoretically you can have your music on sale, worldwide in one of the biggest music retailers stores on the planet. Without a tour, without a manager and even without a record deal. You can be [...]

  4. drron says:

    For artists to be successful in the continually emerging new music industry, they need to create and maintain their brand on their own website, and in addition sell everywhere through distributors like Tunecore. An artist or preferably, those working for the artist, must create and build a unique brand for the artist. The recent success of the electronic music DJ Deadmou5 is not just his talent, but his unique branding which us unforgettable and easily recognized. When I saw him appear at the IDMA (International Dance Music Awards) during WMC (Winter Music Conference, March 2009, Miami), there was no doubt who he was in the crowd of almost 1,000 people. He was the guy with a giant mouse head and big ears covering his head.

    I've heard artists proudly say that they are now in iTunes, the same way that in the past someone might have proudly told others that they got signed with a Label. Well, just getting into iTunes is no guarantee of any sort of results. I run Loud Feed, which offers artists the ability to sell from your own branded web site and virally distribute widgets for your fans to promote and sell your music, tickets and merchandise on social networks and blogs. In 2007, the staff at Loud Feed were hired by Tunecore to write the software at the core of Tunecore's distribution engine, which delivers music into iTunes, Amazon MP3, Emusic, Rhapsody and many more online retailers. Today Loud Feed offers artists the ability to sell from their own branded artist site or widgets and make 100%. Our business model as an engineering company that offers a white label technology solution for artists, labels and distributors is to simply put a margin on bandwidth usage, while taking 0% of your music sales. That makes us more like a utility company, where you're only paying more if you're using more electricity.

  5. A small correction: You actually can decide which stores your music gets sent to with CD Baby. We’ve always had that feature.

    Tunecore now charges a 49 dollar a year fee. CD Baby does not charge yearly fees.

    We also just added a free music store feature so you can sell music on Facebook as well as your own website.

    (Any artists thinking of switching to CD Baby can get half-off their submission fees here:
    http://cdbabylovesyoumore.com)

    You can learn more about what we offer here:

    Sell on iTunes, Amazon, Facebook and many more with CD Baby

    Chris B

    1. This piece is from 2008 so long due an update! But thanks for the prod Chris, am actually updating my roundup of every digital distributor on the planet as we speak! Hopefully up by the end of the week. Cheers mate
      Adrian