Picture this: a college dorm room covered in plants, posters, and production equipment. I did it all myself.
That meant heading out to an office supply store, gathering the materials to create my own CDs, and heading back to campus to record, sometimes in my room, and other times in one of the sweltering practice rooms up the long, winding stairway.
Recording consisted of commercially available laptops (not many had them), a microphone, and an external CD drive, which wrote to CDs faster than the laptop could.
Burning CDs was real time: for an hour of music, it’d take about an hour to burn. I’d lay everything down on just one track (vocals and guitar, usually) and then burn away. But that wasn’t the end of it.
We had another resource in the early 00’s known as MP3.com. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds was on there making a considerably larger chunk of royalties by distributing music that way.
It felt revolutionary, as once the music was recorded and posted, the work was mainly done and the royalties rolled in.
Even as an unknown, my indie folk music was something that people actually paid to hear. Had the minor in music paid off, or was it a fad?
Making up around 10 percent of the music industry currently, independent artists can generate more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
This is serious business, evidenced by Downtown’s buyout of CD Baby’s parent company, considering companies like CD Baby are lifelines for artists wanting to distribute their own music.
Publishing your recorded music online has changed a lot in the past few decades. Once upload and download speeds became feasible, people began finding solutions for distributing their music independently and through other sources.
Then and now, artists have found many pros and cons to self-distribution of their own music–even more imperative now that almost all music sales are digital.
Let’s explore the basics of digital music distribution, why some people choose aggregators, and why and how you should avoid them.
What is Digital Music Distribution?
Digital music distribution is the art of getting your music up on platforms like iTunes/Apple Music and Spotify.
More technically, it involves managing your rights to your music, and ensuring those rights follow your music wherever it is distributed digitally. After all, we need to get paid, right?
Consumers access your music in two ways: they can download or stream it.
When they download, they purchase the music and then get the rights to download the file onto their computer, tablet, etc. and then play it back with an audio streaming program.
When they stream it, they’re playing it live, or so they think. What’s actually happening is they are accessing a copy of the file, but they can only listen to it on the platform.
If you use an aggregator to make sure your product is streamed, you’re paying the aggregator to host your files and do not have to take on the burden of that cost yourself.
Digital music distribution is revolutionary because it allows artists to potentially reap 100% of the royalties.
Why People Use Music Aggregators
In short: they want to end up on Spotify or iTunes. Those channels are gatekept by aggregators such as CD Baby, DistroKid, Novecore, or Tune Core, which allow you to distribute your music to those online venues and apps.
When you sign up for them, they’ll ask you to upload your music, accept some end user license agreement (EULA) documentation pertaining to your music and your rights (you should be able to retain full ownership), and then they will ask you for a bunch of info.
Aggregators encode this information into metadata for iTunes and Spotify, which you can think of more as broadcasters.
If someone’s playing your music on the radio, then they need to know what details to give about the artist, right? This kind of works the same way.
If you remember searches on platforms like Napster back in the day, you’ll understand why metadata is so important.
Without a means of filtration, it can be hard to find what you’re looking for; scammers will pose as other artists to sneak ads in, and overall, it devalues the entire platform.
The Dark Side of Music Aggregators and Distributors
The problem with aggregators is the fee: You typically have to pay for the privilege of having your music on there.
Some aggregators like CD Baby will just charge one flat fee; others will charge a yearly flat fee, which can really add up. That means for 30 years, you’re paying nearly $1,500 just to host your album.
Unless you’re super sure you’re going to be a success, this is a real money drain that can turn a side job, profession, or hobby into hell when it comes to your return on investment (ROI).
Additionally, if you happen to make classical music, you’re in trouble.
Aggreggators find it so difficult to meet iTunes’ metadata requirements for classical that some of them don’t even accept submissions in this genre. Because of that, I recommend distributing your own music.
Forget Aggregators: Why Can’t I Distribute My Own Music to Mainstream Platforms like Spotify or Apple Music?
The old days are gone; the long-defunct MP3.com is no more. Sites like that, where artists would function as their own aggregators, are kaput.
That’s because there’s not much money for those platforms. While you do get paid when your music is downloaded or streamed from a platform, their primary customer is actually the listener, not the artist.
They need to do what is best for that main market, as evidenced by Spotify’s short-lived adventure with users being able to upload their music directly.
Other Online Distribution Options: Go Old School
Go old school. You can distribute your music live, both by playing live online and by capturing your live recording and selling it directly via your website or social media page.
Lots of famous and to-be-discovered musicians use online platforms like YouTube Live, Facebook Live, and Twitch to give live concerts and distribute their music.
Sometimes their “buy” links lead fans and other people watching to buy directly from their website; other times, it drives traffic to an aggregator or platform.
Additionally, indie artists and signed artists alike are expected to handle their own growth to a degree by being personalities on social media. Have a presence, get noticed, get paid.
The Rebels: SoundCloud and Bandcamp
SoundCloud and Bandcamp aren’t exactly new, but they are known for being more supportive of indie artists (including podcasters).
On these platforms, you can upload your music directly and get paid for downloads or listens, kind of like MP3.com was, but a lot prettier and more organized.
In particular, Bandcamp is all about outreach to indie artists and serving as a haven for artists big in the local scene who wish to distribute their own music.
If you think you have your own following and can bring those fans with you, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are the way to go. Other famous DIY platforms include Audius or Mixcloud.
Why Distribute Your Music Independently?
Despite what popular aggregators want you to believe, you don’t need them to distribute your music independently. You can go the DIY route. Here’s what it nets you:
- It’s on your own terms. You write, record, answer the demands of listeners, and perform at your pace. You don’t have to do what a label or aggregator asks of you. This also increases possibilities for collaborations with other artists (genre-related, and/or locally), which can significantly boost downloads, sales, and gigs for both of you. If you weren’t DIY, you’d have a label and/or an aggregator posing terms on you about who you can record with and how it should be meta tagged.
- Keep the cash. Aside from the taxes you’ll have to hold aside from your sales, you get to keep the cash. In traditional music marketing, including using a distributor, you’re the last to get paid. With DIY distribution, it comes straight to you.
- No confusion over rights. Let’s be real, any kind of document you sign online is a sea of paperwork. Especially if you decide to go with an up-and-coming aggregator, you might be missing something, and hiring an entertainment lawyer to look through that kind of distribution contract can cost you big bucks. Besides, most entertainment lawyers will tell you that if you have or can acquire a large audience without a distributor, it makes the most financial sense to go in that direction–and there’s less paperwork.
What Work is Involved With Independent Digital Music Distribution?
When you work with a music aggregator, they’ll do some of the work for you. At the very least, they’ll likely get you on Spotify and iTunes, which you may not be able to do on your own.
However, depending on the genre of music you play, your audience might not even listen to Spotify and iTunes. If you’re indie, garage, etc., you’ll want to be on Bandcamp anyway.
If you choose to go it alone, you’ll either incur out-of-pocket expenses because you’ll have to hire some help, or you have to learn how to do it all yourself.
One thing is clear, though: you’re not paying a ridiculously high fee to keep your music pumping through the aggregator.
In addition to the services you normally need for any music distribution or listing (cover art, final recordings in the correct format, etc.), you’ll especially need the following:
- Technical expertise. Whether you decide to host on your own site, use SoundCloud or Bandcamp, or stream live on Twitch, you will need a certain amount of technical expertise beyond your simple recording setup. Welcome to the world of streaming overlays, if you go the Twitch route–and that can be tough to manage solo if you’re also performing.
- Marketing know-how. Inbound search, or search engine optimization (SEO) is an important marketing skill to have. If you’re an indie goth band in Boston, do you know how to rank on search engine results? Learn some SEO and you’ll be able to do it. There’s also the matter of paid advertising and website hosting/building. Ultimately, if you’re on the right social media platforms and stay engaged with your fans, you can learn what you need to know.
- Networking and relationship skills. Collaborations, gig getting, and meeting the right person so you can open for your favorite band: these things happen due to your networking and relationship skills. Learn how to talk to people and direct them to your own distribution page, and learn how to get them from your distribution page to your inbox with the correct marketing language. Learning about a call to action (CTA) can be especially valuable if you’re trying to get people to listen to your music or contact you online.
- Community management abilities. With every Twitch stream comes a Discord server. With every viral TikTok comes the comment management, and so on. Not only do you have to stay on top of every social media platform, but you need to manage your community. This includes another thing that sounds a little old school, but still works: build an email list. This is how you keep your community informed about your latest releases and shows if they happen to miss your message on socials (which they will, especially on Facebook, if you’re not paying to be seen).
As you can see, distributing your music yourself isn’t as isolationist as it sounds: you’ll cultivate your own community and meet some more experienced community members that can help you with all of the above and more.
Pick your platform, commit to what works, and keep your cash with independent music distribution.