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Music distribution used to be an incredibly complex and convoluted part of the music industry that simply wasn’t available to many.

In fact, there’s no telling how many artists and groups were stopped from achieving great things or reaching the masses with their music because they couldn’t get the approval of someone at a record label or they never grabbed the attention of anyone working at a distributor.

Now, things have changed for the better, and there’s no reason not to have your work distributed to hundreds of streaming and sales platforms all around the world. There are more options than anyone could need, and instead of fending off bands and Singers, as they simply can’t take on more work, music distribution companies are now fighting for your business. They’ve made it simple to sign up and partner with them, and as long as you follow their rules, take your time to get all the information right and pay whatever they ask, that new EP, album, or single that may launch you into superstardom could be everywhere in a relatively short period of time.

Let’s dive into everything you need to know about music distribution as well as several of the best options out there right now.

What Is Music Distribution?

The basic answer to this question sounds the same no matter when it’s asked, but what it actually entails looks very different depending on the year in which someone puts forth the query. Back in the day, music distribution was a difficult, expensive, and drawn-out process that involved dozens of people and a lot of organization, whether it was in regard to the biggest acts on the planet or an upstart new band.

Years ago, music distribution was the process by which CDs, vinyl, and even cassette tapes made it from a manufacturer to stores. For decades, people could only hear the tunes they loved by requesting them on their local radio station or buying them at a record store, so sales of physical formats ruled.

This meant that every title, whether it be a brand new release from a globe-touring rock band, a repressing of a popular album by a Pop Singer from years back, or maybe even the LP that might make a local act famous, they all had to be in stores across the country and around the world. To skimp on distribution meant to lose out on potential sales and on forging relationships with listeners in many territories.

Now, music distribution is much, much, much easier. Sure, there are still CD stores and the major record labels still have networks and companies they work with to ensure the bestselling titles can be picked up at places like Target, Walmart, and the few remaining independent music locations, but the focus these days is on streaming and digital purchases.

Music distribution in 2021 involves a streamlined process that a number of competitors (which will be detailed later on) have mastered. The entire endeavor still takes time, but it’s now much faster for tunes to make their way to streaming giants and online storefronts, and there are no longer any gatekeepers stopping anyone from putting their work in front of the entire world. Any release can be distributed, no matter how great or terrible, how popular or unknown the name behind it may be.

For years now, the music industry has been moving toward a more democratic way of doing things, with music distribution helping ensure everyone has at least a shot at becoming the next great star.

What Do Music Distribution Companies Do?

There are certain services that any band or Singer can expect when they partner with a distributor, but then there are other products or offerings that one company may include in their packages, while others keep things simple. These extras and add-ons differentiate one option from another, and we’ll get into that later on.

First and foremost, music distribution services will, well, distribute your music. They will take it from you and deliver it to the biggest and most highly-trafficked streaming and sales platforms. These days, it’s rare for any of the major players in this space to not distribute your latest single or album to listening and buying options all around the world, though, in the early days, segregating market by market, country by country wasn’t strange, especially when it was all about physical product.

Music distribution companies will ensure your song is featured on streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and beyond. There are perhaps hundreds of options in as many countries, and most distributors will send your tunes to several dozen outlets, and you probably don’t have to worry about those that are missed.

The same can be said for platforms that encourage users to buy songs instead of stream (or some do both), such as iTunes, Amazon, and many others…though the number of options is dwindling as the world veers further and further away from purchasing and deeper and deeper into streaming territory. Almost always, music distributors won’t make their clients choose one or the other, and typically signing up and agreeing to work with a company means you’re totally covered.

In addition to actually putting your music out there where millions (billions, really) of people can access the songs you worked so hard on, many distributors offer services beyond just putting singles and EPs out into the world, and musicians should make sure to find out what their chosen company may supply.

Some offer help with marketing, insights into data that shows where people are buying or listening, royalty collection, publishing or licensing help, and so on. Some distributors only deliver the cuts and move on, while others appear to be more like full-service record labels.

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How Much Does It Cost to Distribute Music?

As with anything in the open market, the cost of music distribution changes from one company to the next. The options out there make money by either charging a flat fee or by taking some percentage of royalties, or perhaps some mix of the two.

If they’re looking for an upfront fee, you may be able to expect to pay less for one song than for a full project, and the prices aren’t too steep. Singles will typically run you between $10 and $20, while EPs and albums may rise toward $40 or a little more.

Others take a portion of all money made when fans stream or purchase songs or complete projects. These percentages are usually around 15%, though that’s not always the case.

It’s also worth mentioning that some music distribution companies also ask for certain fees to keep your music on services around the world. Depending on the option and the length of the release, you may be forced to pay another sum of between $10 and $50 every year to ensure people can continue to listen to and buy your work.

Do You Need a Distributor For Your Music?

Yes. There’s no way around this. In today’s world, you absolutely need to have your music on streaming platforms, YouTube, and digital storefronts. You may want to see your latest CD in brick-and-mortar locations as well, but that’s usually reserved for those who have hit a certain level of success (not saying you won’t be there one day).

There are some outlets that will work with musicians or their teams directly, but the vast majority of platforms either prefer to stick with professionals with whom a process has been worked out and fine-tuned, or they will simply refuse to deal with artists individually. This isn’t a sign that they’ve become snarky or difficult, it’s just a reality of the situation.

There are now thousands, if not tens of thousands of songs posted to these sites daily, so it would take an army to email or speak on the phone to each band whenever they have a new release on the way and it’s just not feasible.

If you don’t sign up with a music distributor, your art simply won’t be playable on many top-tier platforms, and it will be restricted to just a few sites, and thus you’ll miss out on sharing your work with millions. It’s just not possible to become a successful artist in today’s music economy without music distribution.

The Best Music Distributors

CDBaby

CDBaby stands out as a company that has been distributing music for indie acts longer than almost any other competitor in the business, and it has always been on the side of those just getting started. In fact, it was instrumental in helping countless bands and Singers put their CDs (yes, actual CDs) in stores, and now it’s doing the same for even more acts online.

While it may be the most seasoned of the bunch, CDBaby is also one of the most expensive options out there. The company charges $13 for single releases and $49 for albums, and then it also takes 9% of all royalties you make from sales and streams. If you decide to opt-in for publishing, the firm grabs 15% of that source of income as well.

TuneCore

One of the most respected and popular music distribution companies in the industry, TuneCore is easy to work with and it has the process down to a science, one which you can easily understand. The firm works on a flat fee model, though you need to watch out, as the first year is cheaper than each 12-month period after that. For singles, it’ll cost you just $10 upfront, while longer sets run at $30, but those prices are only for the first year. After that, it appears to be $50 per year, in perpetuity.

TuneCore also offers publishing, taking 10% of royalties, while for sync licensing activities (which can put some real cash in your wallet), it will detract 20% of whatever the company gets you.

LANDR

In some respects, LANDR is ahead of the competition, while in other fields, the company is really missing out. The firm distributes to far-flung markets like China and it can help get your music on TikTok, which now creates more hits than YouTube, but the pricing is a little confusing, and it may be more than you need.

You can release a single for as little as $9 (not including the 15% royalties it will take), or you can go for an unlimited subscription if you have a lot coming (or if you run some kind of label), which does cost $89 a year, but which allows you to distribute as much music as you want and comes with no royalty extraction.

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