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How Music Distribution Works: An Artist’s Guide

How Music Distribution Works: An Artist’s Guide

Music distribution refers to getting songs to users, in whichever available format. That means that a music distribution company is a conduit that allows music to get to stores and music enthusiasts through one of the two main formats out there: physical media and streaming. 

Both of these main categories have several subtypes, including various types of physical media, like compact discs, vinyl, or cassettes. Digital distribution can include streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify, but also other types of online monetization, like Youtube or direct downloads. Fun fact: back in the day, with recorded music non-existent, music distribution would wholly consist of printing the sheet music, then distributing that to enthusiasts. 

Depending on whether you’re a baby boomer, Gen X or Millennial/Gen Z, you may have a very different idea of what music distribution is. Or you might have a skewed or only partial image of what it entails. It’s not about just the latest limited vinyl drop or a Spotify link that makes the next popstar. It’s a combination of everything a label and artist can leverage to get the latest jam out there. It’s safe to say that music distribution companies have needed to adapt to several paradigm shifts. 

What does a music distributor do?

A music distributor’s job is to ensure that it can release music to as many people as possible. That’s why the music industry is at the moment going through its “streaming era,” as the advent of digital distribution has popularized music distribution even further, making more music available than ever at a single click or touch.

However, distributors of physical media have kept at it, making buying actual records more of an experience, and ushering in cohorts of purists that crave the tactile experience that only a vinyl disc can provide. 

Music distributors need to make sure that their product reaches users seamlessly and provides the expected experience, because it feels like there are more platforms out there than ever before. They need to stay on top of the latest streaming platforms and stores, to ensure that the digital distribution of music is as efficient as can be. These distributors also need to be aware of how royalties are being paid out and oversee that process.

Let’s go through some of these key elements in further detail!

Online platform releases

At first glance, up-and-coming artists nowadays have more independence and can more easily get their music out there, with free uploads to platforms like Youtube and SoundCloud asking for nothing in return for platforming music. 

However, major online platforms like Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal and others require a music distributor to get the product out there and available for users. This is mostly to ensure that there’s a vetting process to the music that makes it to the very largest platforms and that there’s no redundancy that could make paying royalties more difficult. As a result, music distributors are also focused on the technology that goes into these streaming services, to ensure that they’re on top of any changes and developments. 

Music royalties

Once the music is posted on one of these royalty-offering streaming services, it has to be pretty much smooth sailing, right? Not quite. 

Because repeated plays generate royalties, music distributors need to be middle men for these generated funds. Given the large number of available outlets that offer royalties, artists benefit from having a music distributor because it gives them a single point of contact for income. 

Support & promote your release

Just uploading music and waiting for a payday won’t get you too far. Although word of mouth is powerful in the process of going viral, you need to get noticed first. A music distributor will handle a series of promotional materials and strategies that ensures that there will be open ears once your music is released. 

Strategies like adding your music to popular playlists, promotional materials, and events all contribute to gaining an awareness and reaching new audiences, not just the die-hard fans. These days, things like reaching popular social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram can make a song blow up. But you need to be there for it. 

A prepared music distributor will handle the processes that get your music to the best platforms, handle your payout for you and increase your fan potential. 

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Types of music distributors

As we outlined above, music distribution can still take several forms, although streaming seems like it’s the go-to approach in today’s music business

Major distributors

A major distributor can provide most of the key aspects we’ve already looked at. Major labels benefit from their in-house distributors that can leverage their relationships with music publications and streaming services to get content promoted and highlighted in all the right spots. That means quick exposure on Apple Music and Spotify’s most popular playlists, as well as reviews and write-ups for what’s being released. 

These distributors have a big advantage due to the sheer scope of their catalogs, which means that there is exponentially more bargaining power when adding music to streamers. Think major distributors like The Orchard or INgrooves. 

Distribution partners

Lacking the weight of the major distributors, distribution partners focus heavily on developing an artist’s image in order to more closely cater a strategy to them. Think of a music distributor like Octiive

You can sort of think of them as dedicated distributors, working some of the largest independent artists to work out strategies and push available resources to get the best results. These services come at a cost that’s normally expressed through a percentage of the revenue generated by the music. 

Open distributors

One of the more hands off distribution models, open distribution is exactly as it sounds: open. The companies provide platforms that artists gain access to via either subscription, a flat fee, percentage splits or anything in between. 

The equation is simple: get access to the distribution platform and get your music out there. As these services slowly add to their featuresets, the divide between distribution partners and open distribution is slowly being bridged. Think of this as the most democratized type of music distribution. If you believe in your first song and want to get it out there, one of these open distributors will likely be the way it sees the light of day. An example of one such distributor is CDbaby.

Why do you need music distribution?

As you’ve probably noticed, despite the emergence of streaming services, there is still copious gatekeeping in the industry. As a result, an artist of any size requires a conduit between the music and the audience. 

The good news is that, like the variety of genres and artists out there, there are several options. From the legacy labels and companies that own bulky, valuable music catalogs as a bargaining chip, to dedicated distributors that counsel and develop artists, to platforms that essentially just offer the basic tools to the artist, there’s something out there for everyone. 

Music distribution is the process of getting music to users, regardless of format. Changing paradigms and a shift from physical to the dominance of the cloud have only changed the channel, not the drive or idea of it. The objective is getting music in the hands—well, ears—of the public, and making sure you’re setting yourself up for success. So, take a close look at your resources and objectives, get educated on the matter, and choose which path is best for you!

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does music distribution work?

Music distribution involves the process of making music available to the public through various platforms and channels. Artists or record labels typically partner with music distributors who act as intermediaries between the content creators and streaming services, download stores, or physical retailers. Once the music is produced and mastered, it is submitted to these distributors, who then deliver it to platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and others. Distributors handle the logistics of encoding, storing, and delivering the music to ensure it reaches a global audience. In return, artists or labels receive royalties based on the usage and sales of their music. Independent artists often use digital distributors, while major labels may have their own distribution networks. The evolving landscape of music distribution has seen a shift towards digital platforms, reducing reliance on physical formats like CDs and vinyl.

Who needs a music distributor?

Musicians, independent artists, and record labels typically rely on music distributors to make their music accessible to a wider audience. Distributors play a crucial role in bridging the gap between content creators and various music platforms such as streaming services, download stores, and even physical retailers. While major record labels may have their own distribution networks, independent artists often turn to digital distributors to reach a global audience without the need for extensive resources or industry connections. These services handle tasks like encoding, storing, and delivering music, allowing artists to focus on their creative work while ensuring their music is available on a broad range of platforms, ultimately facilitating exposure and potential revenue generation.

What are the benefits of working with a music distribution company?

Working with a music distribution company offers several benefits for artists and record labels. Firstly, it provides access to a broad range of digital platforms, such as streaming services and online stores, allowing music to reach a global audience. Distribution companies also handle the technical aspects of music delivery, including encoding, storage, and the management of metadata, relieving artists of these logistical challenges. 

Additionally, these companies often have established relationships with key industry players, which can lead to featured placements and increased visibility for the music. Moreover, distribution companies play a crucial role in royalty collection and payment processing, ensuring that artists receive their fair share of earnings from music sales and streams. Overall, partnering with a music distribution company simplifies the distribution process, expands an artist's reach, and provides essential support for navigating the complexities of the digital music landscape.

Join Xposure Music and gain access to some of the best music industry professionals in the U.S. Top experts from Sony, Columbia, Def Jam, or Universal have already joined our platform, and they’re ready to give invaluable, on-point feedback on your work, which can help you land that dream record deal or publishing deal you’ve been working towards. Sign up now and reap the rewards.

If you’re looking to kickstart your music career but have limited resources, we can help you get funding for your next project while staying in control of your own work and career trajectory. You keep 100% ownership of your masters and get an advance ranging from $1,000 to $3 million to get your career off the ground. Get an estimate now and start turning your dream into reality.

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Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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