Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
I’ve held off for years, but today I’m jumping in on the weighty topic of how to choose the right digital distributor for your music. Actually, there’s quite a bit to unpack here, so I will be doing this in three parts.
In this first post, I want to address two things that just about every distributor lists as being important and that many artists think is important — or at least consider a factor when choosing a digital distributor — that actually don’t matter at all.
There are a lot of options
Digital distribution is a crowded space. There are dozens of companies trying to convince artists to use them to distribute their music to streaming sites. There are the three giants of course — Distrokid, CD Baby, and Tunecore — and then there’s a whole range of companies, large and small, vying for your attention and your music.
I am not going to advise you to “choose Tunecore or CD Baby or Distrokid.” Plenty of people do that already. Instead, I’m going to tell you what features to look for that matter the most and what questions to ask so that you can accurately decide who offers the services that make the most sense for you and your music.
The commoditization of digital distribution
An interesting thing has happened over the past year or two. It used to be the big three distributors all had pricing levels and models that were pretty different. CD Baby charged a one-time upfront fee of around $50 for an album and $10 per single, plus a nine percent commission on streaming royalties. Distrokid charged $19 a year for unlimited uploads and took no commissions, but would find lots of little ways to charge you a few extra bucks a month here and there. Tunecore charged $50 a year per album but took no commission on royalties.
Then, as the market became more competitive, and as Distrokid started gobbling up market share, prices everywhere dropped and became way more similar. There was a huge commoditization of distribution services.
Today, Distrokid charges $23 for unlimited uploads. CD Baby charges $10 per single or per album, plus their nine percent commission. And Tunecore now has a somewhat confusing range of pricing plans starting at $15 a year for unlimited releases.
Fallacy #1: Cost matters
So here is the first fallacy I want to address. Artists talk to me all the time about the cost of CD Baby versus Distrokid versus Tunecore as if it matters. Indeed, in the past, it did. Today, it’s become so cheap to distribute your music globally that price should not be much of a factor in your decision-making — the differences aren’t all that huge among the three big distributors.
Of course, by the time you read this or watch the video, pricing may have changed, but I doubt that the three giants of independent distribution, who watch each other very closely, will let pricing drift significantly apart again. So, price is not a significant factor.
Fallacy #2: The number of streaming partners you’ll reach matters
I’ve seen many distributors brag about how many streaming platforms they distribute to. 90, 100, or more. Does that actually matter? The simple answer is, no. I’m going to show you some numbers that will explain exactly why.
Check it out. I just went to the CD Baby account for my music from back in the day and tallied up the past three years, from March 2020 through March 2023, and how many partners it took to get to a payout of 99 percent of my royalties.
For me, there were 60 partners who paid out something in the past three years. Here you see a report of the top 45 platforms that pay me.
The first column represents the platform, e.g., Spotify, Apple Music, etc. The second column represents the percent of total streams. Spotify represented 48.7 percent, or almost half of my royalties. And the third column represents the cumulative percentage of royalties paid out as we go down the list.
Breaking down the numbers
The list goes up to 60, but you can see that by the time we get to number 36, we’re pretty well 100 percent paid out. The remaining sites paid out fractions of pennies. So, how many sites did it take to get to a 99 percent royalty payout? Not even two dozen. It took just 19 streaming platforms to cover 99 percent of the royalties I got paid in the past three years.
It took another 41 streaming sites to add up the remaining one percent of my royalties. And here’s the kicker. Those 19 platforms included nine Apple accounts (including Apple Music US, Europe, UK, and iTunes) and five for Amazon (including Music, Premium, Europe, and get this, Amazon disc-on-demand). In fact, of the 60 platforms that paid me something, there were 21 Apple sites (yellow), 17 Amazon sites (blue), two Googles (not including YouTube), and two Pandoras.
20 will get you covered
When you consolidate all those Apple, Amazon, Google, and Pandora accounts into one each, there’s only a total of 20 streaming companies that paid or reported anything at all. And how many platforms did it take to get to 99 percent of sound recording royalties? Just six.
Now, for you, the partner payouts and percentages will be different from mine depending on a number of factors like your genre and where you’re located. But the point is, every distributor delivers to at least these top 20 platforms that collect a hundred percent of your sound recording royalties.
To recap, when choosing a digital distributor for your music:
- Price doesn’t matter. All the various pricing schemes of the big distributors are so close that they’re not materially differentiated.
- The number of streaming sites they distribute to doesn’t matter. Everyone covers those two dozen or so platforms that drive just about all the revenue.
Download my “Digital Distribution Checklist”
I’ve made a list of 59 questions and options for products and services offered by the digital distributors in the market. It tells you where your content is delivered, how and how fast they pay you, how easy they are to work with, and it lists the creator tools and promo/marketing services they offer.
Really, this is everything you want to ask a distributor in a clean, organized list. And I’ve set this up so you can easily check off which of these items are important to you. It makes finding the right distributor for your music a total no-brainer. Click here to download the PDF.
I hope you found this helpful. There is a lot more ahead! Next, I’ll discuss the many royalty collection opportunities and channels that different distributors offer.
Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.
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