Ensuring your fans are able to listen to your music is the primary concern of any recording artist. It would be impossible for you to send your music individually to every one of the hundreds of streaming and download services around the world - let alone, collect all the revenue you’re owed for every stream in every country. And most streaming platforms don’t work directly with independent artists.
If you are signed to a record label, they will take care of distribution - often via their own distributor relationship and/or direct sales to physical retailers and digital stores. But if you don’t have a record label handling this, you’ll need a distributor to get your music out there - they work with digital, download, and physical retailers around the world to ensure your music is available anywhere and everywhere your fans want to listen.
What is a distributor and why do you need one?
In order to make your music available on streaming services, download stores, and possibly to physical retail stores, you will need to work with a distributor who has relationships with all of these individual entities.
Digital music distributors, sometimes called “aggregators,” work with artists, record labels, or even boutique distribution companies, to make their music available on streaming and download services worldwide. Digital distributors that are accessible directly to artists, like CD Baby and Distrokid, generally charge an upfront or annual fee, plus may also charge commission on the royalties their clients earn.
Other distributors will handle digital distribution, but will also distribute physical copies of their clients’ music to brick-and-mortar stores around the world. Because physical distribution requires a lot more expense and overhead cost (like warehousing and a lot of staff), these distributors are generally more selective, and focus on record labels as clients, though they may work with high-profile artists who are self-releasing their music. Examples include Secretly Distribution, ADA, and The Orchard.
What type of royalties are generated and collected by a distributor?
Remember that there are “two halves” of a song, which may have different owners - the master and the composition. A distributor collects master recording royalties on behalf of their clients who are master owners - whether they are self-released musicians or record labels who have agreements with artists that give them control over their master recordings.
Important information to keep in mind when choosing a distributor
- Select a distributor that distributes globally. To retain the full benefits of a distributor, be sure to select one that targets all markets both in the U.S. and abroad. Note that it is also important to confirm that a distributor has access to all of the major streaming platforms, and social media apps like, Tik Tok and Instagram.
- Select a distributor that fits your budget. A distributor’s fees vary depending on the company, and some charge by the song, album, or a flat rate annually for unlimited services. For example, CDBaby’s fees are charged by the single or album release, while Distrokid’s fees allow unlimited uploads for an annual fee. You can see how you might benefit from the unlimited flat-rate option if you are releasing a single every week for a year, and the per-release model if you only plan on releasing one album every year or two. Make sure you understand the terms and all fees before you sign up.
- Select a distributor that provides release guidelines. All digital stores have specific formatting requirements for their platforms, and if you don’t meet these requirements, your release may be delayed or taken down after release by one or more digital services, which can upend your marketing and release plans.
- Select a distributor that will provide the level of support you need. For example, distributors should provide artists with easily understood data that shows exactly how and where their music is being streamed. Some distributors make available additional optional services for promotion and marketing, like CD Baby’s affiliates, Show Co, and Hear Now. And depending on how knowledgeable you are about music distribution and the various players involved, you may want to make sure your distribution partner has educational resources and freely available live customer support.
Check out Music Distribution Guru’s extensive comparison chart for an aggregate look at dozens of digital music distributors.
How distributors and music publishers work together
As previously mentioned, music publishers and music distributors work in tandem so that artists can ensure that all royalties generated by their music are collected. Our Royalty Checklist shows you how to ensure you’re totally covered by registering with all key partners, including a distributor and a publishing administrator like Songtrust.
A distribution agreement gives a distributor the right to “sell” your music on streaming platforms in exchange for a fee and/or a commission. Before signing a distribution agreement - like any legal contract - it’s crucial that an artist reviews and understands all its terms.
One of the most important steps in a successful music career is building your business team. Having a trustworthy and reputable music distributor as part of your team will allow you to focus more on creating music and less on how to get it to your fans.