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)

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