In an era of shrinking record revenues and more DIY options than ever, most independent artists are distributing their music through one of the major “aggregators,” companies like CDBaby or Tunecore.
Those companies provide an important service, connecting beginning artists with a fairly easy, cheap way of getting their music listed on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc. Once you’ve done that, technically you’ve released and distributed a record! CONGRATULATIONS!!!
Except…what has that process really done for you?
In this day and age, even artists who put a substantial amount of money and time into their releases don’t make a living selling their records online. Sure, maybe some of those sales (and streams) might help a little. You might recoup a portion of your recording costs over the course of the next couple of years through a series of fairly small checks coming in, but what did your release actually do for your wider career?
The artists I work with here in Texas that are able to make music their full-time careers have all done so based primarily on touring revenues. As a result, we make records with the express design to help artists launch and develop their touring careers. That means building fans and profile and attracting deals and partnerships with key industry personnel sufficient to advance the artist’s cause in the market.
One way these types of gains get realized is by having the power of a serious distribution company at your back. So, what are the key differences between an aggregator (like CDBaby) and a major distributor (like RED Music, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment)?
This is the big one. iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play, and other Digital Sales Platforms (DSP) will all take music from CDBaby or Tunecore and make it available on their platform alongside music from major music distributors working on behalf of labels and serious independent artists.
However, all of these digital platforms generate revenue by placing the music that will get the most engagement in the most prominent locations within their platform so that their customers spend more time and money engaging the content they are providing.
So everything from auto-form fills to possibilities for front-page placement within genre front pages to the inclusion on official and corporate-curated playlists are all important commodities that the DSPs must make decisions on which albums they allocate resources toward. How do they make those decisions? They sit with the distributors and talk about the new product they have coming through their systems.
You know who has a prominent seat at that table and speaks to those DSPs on a regular basis? The “Big Three” of Sony, Warner, and Universal. They have a seat because they act as a powerful and important filter for the DSPs. When iTunes sits with the sales team from Sony, Warner, or Universal, the DSPs know they’re going to be pitched quality products by artists that have the capacity to generate buzz, sales, and streams.
You know who doesn’t have a seat at that table? CDBaby and whatever artists bought their way onto the platforms through their aggregation process that takes anybody with WAV files and enough money to pay their fees.
As a result, being represented by one of the Big Three provides tremendous value to the artist!
As an example, you can look at a record I produced for one of my clients, which went out via Sony on RED Music. Through the exposure the sales team generated, RED successfully placed a song off National Park Radio’s album The Great Divide onto the Starbucks Coffeehouse playlist on Spotify! That playlist is used throughout Starbucks’ 24,000 physical locations worldwide, and has an independent user following of over 38,000 subscribers! It produced tremendous, widespread exposure for the band that has resulted in an expanded fanbase and also generates several hundred dollars every month in streaming!
This is but one example of the phenomenal power of real, major distribution over cattle call aggregation through a CDBaby or Tunecore.
Also, with a company like CDBaby, there is no physical sales component whatsoever. As an artist, you might be thinking, “eh, that’s no big deal…nobody buys CD’s anymore anyway.”
And sure, CD sales are shrinking year over year as digital downloads and especially streaming have taken its place. But what’s driving that more than anything is that casual music fans are streaming Beyoncé or maybe downloading instead of buying a Beyoncé CD. But if you’re reading this article, chances are your audience is not made up of mostly casual music fans who stream whatever happens to be on pop radio at the moment.
For a case in point, you can take another example from my client National Park Radio. They had just the kind of release that CD naysayers point to as proof that the industry is in decline. They sold about 250 copies of their CD to physical stores. So net of distribution costs, that might only be something like $1500 to the artist, and less than that to the distributor, and the industry might call that a failure. But that’s $1500 of revenue that would never have happened without a sales team pushing that product into stores. To giant companies, it’s a blip on the radar. But to you and me, $1500 is far from an insignificant amount of money!
And let’s remember: Your business model is not selling records anyway (it’s touring, remember?). So, at the end of the day, when you have major distribution, you’re not using the power of a physical sales team to drive record sales to fill your cup. You’re using the power of a physical sales team to drive new fan discovery of your music!
If you don’t have a massive marketing budget behind you, you’re probably not going to get on the shelves of Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy, no matter what.
But if you’re in the niche of music where my clients operate (roots rock, Southern rock, country, Americana, singer-songwriter, soul), a distribution deal through Sony may very well find you on the shelves of a very cool, taste-making record store like Cactus Music in Houston or Waterloo in Austin or Bill’s Records in Dallas! And if you are active in those music scenes, you know how many of the most active music consumers find their way to those types of stores. If you’re in another city, you probably have the name of a different record store in your head, but with the same underlying principle that visibility in places like that has the power to help launch fan engagement in that market!
So how does that widespread physical placement happen for some artists but (so far) not for you?
It happens because someone out there sold that record to the store proprietor or buyer. And that someone doesn’t work for CDBaby, where there is no physical store sales component. They work for RED Music (or another serious major distributor), where you have to qualify in some way to receive distribution services!
So How Do I Get Major Distribution?
This is the tricky part. To qualify directly for major distribution, you need a record deal or to have distinguished yourself to the industry in some way. I know that probably means many of you are saying to yourselves, “well, that’s what I’m trying to do with my record, so how do I obtain the distribution necessary to do the things that I need to have already done to obtain distribution?”
That’s where a well-positioned music production company can come into play.
Some music production firms have gone out and made their own connections with the distributor(s) of their choice to help position their clients’ records for industry success.
My company, Edgewater Music Group, has inked agreements for major distribution with Sony/RED (geared toward nationwide releases that want the brand strength of Sony behind them) and also Smith Music Group (a regionally-focused distributor that makes a large impact on Texas and surrounding states). Both of those distributors are options afforded to our record production clients because both companies have confidence that the quality of music we produce is going to meet their standards for a professional commercial release worthy of their time and attention.
You may also find other high-quality music production firms with similar agreements within the industry as well.
The point is, if you can grab a hold of a path to major distribution, it is well worth it and will pay dividends as you grow your career! Now go forth and make the world better with your music!
Derek Hames is a record producer based in Texas, specializing in roots rock, Southern rock, Americana, country, soul, and blues. He’s a member of The Recording Academy and a voting member for The Grammy Awards. His music production company, Edgewater Music Group, has exclusive distribution contracts with RED Music, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, for nationally targeted releases, as well as Smith Music Group for regionally targeted releases in Texas. Derek’s records have charted singles and albums on the Texas Regional Radio Report, College Music Journal, CDX Traction Texas, and Americana radio charts, and his clients have gone on to achieve incredible press coverage and meaningful deals with major national booking agencies. You can contact Derek directly here.