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.