So you’ve made a record / album / single / EP / LP. It’s time to release that bad boy to the rest of the world so people can fall in love with your music. While you will come up with some physical way to sell your music at live shows (CDs, vinyl, tape, etc.), you need to get your music in front of the largest audience possible. That means it’s time for some digital distribution. For those unfamiliar, digital distribution is how to get your music on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, and all the other major streaming services. There are also services which would allow your music to be downloaded directly in mp3 format for your customers. What is great for independent bands and musicians is that there are tons of options available to get your music out there. The problem is that there are tons of options, and they all have slightly different approaches.
What I have compiled below is an incomplete list of a bunch of the options that musicians have available to themselves to release their music online. I hope that this at least gives you a brief primer on each one and how they differ from other services. I’ve also provided links to some artists I have produced who are using these various online platforms so you can see what those pages build for bands on their own platform.
Fees: $49 (Standard Distribution) or $89 (Pro Distribution) per Album
Should consider if: You are doing large discrete album releases (EP / Full-length) and/or want an all-in-one solution for royalties / publishing. Also good if you want to combine digital distribution with physical manufacturing (CDs, vinyl, download cards, etc.).
Avoid this if: You like to release one song at a time continuously over a long period of time.
CDBaby has been around for a long time, and was one of the original companies to provide a way for independent musicians to sell their music online (by having CDs in stock to ship). The advantage with their system is that they don’t charge an annual fee for your music to be produced, so it’s a one-time charge to get on all the major streaming platforms, as well as having a store on their own website to download the music. Their Pro Distribution package is excellent for those unfamiliar with ways to collect mechanical and publishing royalties from their music (as opposed to just performance royalties). This can add up to a sizable amount of money over time if you get a lot of streaming. Your music can also be provided for sync licensing if you approve of that option. If you are planning to print physical products, those can be added on to your release so that everything resides in one place.
The downside is that many artists are going to what I call a “content model” where the band is regularly releasing music over time to keep something new and fresh in front of their audience. In this situation it can become costly to keep shelling out $10 for each single to be released. Also, it’s important to note that CDBaby does take a 15% commission on the royalties that they collect, distributing 85% to the artist.
One final thing to note is the prices listed above are the normal pricing. CDBaby often does deals / discounts for their digital distribution, so keep an eye out for a great deal in the future (it can be as much as 40-50%).
Artist using this: Whitnie Means
Fees: $49 (Standard Distribution) or $89 (Pro Distribution)
Should consider if: You are focused on getting a physical product and the digital distribution is an add-on for you. Also if you go through an affiliate studio you might get a cool framed album to hang on your wall.
Avoid this if: Digital distribution is a priority for your music release strategy.
So many years ago (it feels like yesterday for me, but I’m old) Discmakers purchased CDBaby. So, in essence the pricing structure and benefits are exactly the same as before. But Discmakers made its way as a CD manufacturer for independent artists and has a ton of options available for physical products. So if this is where you are focused it might be worth considering. But if you are mainly interested in digital distribution and the physical manufacturing is just a bonus, then I would start with CDBaby or another service. It just depends on what your needs are. One nice thing about Discmakers is if you go through a recording studio that is an affiliate you can get a sweet framed album for free to commemorate your release.
Fees: $19.99 (come on, can’t we just call it $20) per Year, unlimited songs
Should consider if: You are a prolific band / musician with lots of music to regularly release and get out into the world. They also have a great option for legally releasing cover songs.
Avoid this if: You have large gaps in between music releases (1 year or more) or if you need help getting all your mechanical / publishing royalties.
Distrokid has skyrocketed in popularity due to the way music is consumed these days. Instead of albums being released, many artists choose to put their songs out as singles on a monthly (or weekly) basis to keep sending fresh music to their audience and keep them engaged. This has the benefit of constantly working to grow your audience base (but can lead to some discontinuity in the music recorded). With a single annual fee you can upload as much music as you can produce, and Distrokid provides you with 100% of streaming royalties (but they keep 20% of YouTube royalties). This is a fantastic way to get your initial music career off the ground if you are just starting.
Distrokid also has a path to releasing cover songs, so that is something to keep an eye on if you like to throw in the occasional cover to your fans. It’s a modern system focused specifically towards online streaming. If you are wanting to release physical products that could present an additional hassle of having to use a separate service for that, but as an online distributor there is a lot to like. The only other significant drawback I notice is that there is not a path to collecting publishing royalties through Distrokid. This would also mean trying to find another service to get that done.
Fees: $29.99 per Album per Year; $9.99 per Single per year
Should consider if: Your royalty check is quite large on a regular basis and you want to collect 100% of that money (and just pay regularly for the distribution).
Avoid this if: You are just starting out and are unlikely to have a large audience right away or if you want to do both physical and digital distribution.
Tunecore is another option to get all your digital distribution handled on an annual basis, but they charge for each album/single separately. That puts the up-front cost at a higher level than Distrokid and not perpetual for an album like CDBaby. However, they give you 100% of the streaming royalties (like Distrokid); and for a one-time fee can collect your publishing/sync royalties for a 15-20% commission (like CDBaby). So it kind of sits in a middle-ground between what those two services offer. The issue is I feel like this is a little bit of no-man’s land as far as service goes. The nice part is how you can pick out only which services you really want (and there are a lot of options), but unless you already start with a large audience the fees can seem to rack up quickly without as much streaming revenue coming in.
Artist using this: Afro Jim
Fees: $1 per month for 10 songs / $2 per month for 30 songs (paid annually)
Should consider if: You are looking for digital mastering services with a new upstart in digital distribution that has different tools for statistics and marketing.
Avoid this if: You hate those automated mastering platforms and want to work with more established players in digital distribution. Also not recommended
Landr is mainly known for their online mastering tool. Personally, as an audio professional I’m not a fan of that portion of the business, but their entry into the digital distribution world comes with some intriguing options. They are with all the major players (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc.) and provide what appears to be some intuitive statistics and marketing tools for creators. They also have a collaboration workflow where you can share masters with friends and family to get feedback before releasing. As consumers move more and more into digital domains, this is somewhat interesting as a concept because you have better information to focus your marketing with. They also advertise the artist keeping 100% of the streaming royalties, but don’t have an option for getting publishing royalties. If this looks interesting to you, they are currently offering the ability to release two songs on their platform absolutely free. This is pretty cool if you are bold and want to try something different.
Fees: 15% of sales (drops to 10% after $5000 in annual sales)
Should consider if: You want complete control of your music and releases and don’t mind not being on major streaming platforms. Also if you want to be able to sell merch right alongside your music.
Avoid this if: You are hoping to go viral on Spotify or Apple Music. Or all your fans are used to finding you on those platforms already.
Bandcamp may not seem like a place where most artists go, due to not distributing music to other streaming platforms, but they give artists complete control over their product. There are no up-front costs to set up a band page and release your music there, as they just take a cut of the annual sales. Also, the artists have complete control over the music and pricing. Set it at a standard dollar amount; make it free or with a minimal amount and leave the option for paying more (which 50% of users do); use weird pricing tiers. It’s all configurable. They also have web players that can be embedded on all the sites you use, and have the ability to generate pre-order campaigns. You can even sell physical products (CDs, vinyl, t-shirts) right alongside your digital distribution. They also allow you to upload your music in a lossless format (WAV or FLAC) so the audiphiles don’t have to deal with the compression of other streaming / download platforms if they want to avoid it (hey, some of us can hear a difference).
Artist using this: Abandon Kansas
Fees: 20% of tips
Should consider if: You want to focus on direct engagement and contact with fans / labels as you get started. And money is not a driver for you.
Avoid this if: You are already established with a large audience and are expecting income.
Noisetrade is an interesting place to discover music. They are completely free for both the artist and fan, no strings attached. Go upload as many songs / albums as you want and make them available. Fans are able to download music absolutely free and are given the option to tip the artist some amount (of which Noisetrade takes a 20% commission). What’s interesting is that you can collect data on the people who download and listen to your music, which can be good for building a new following or tribe of fans. You can build your e-mail list, identify places where touring could be lucrative, etc. So if your focus is on trying to build “superfans” then Noisetrade might be the best place to start. It could also be a good place to put a couple of key singles out for free in an effort to get some of that data. However, it’s not going to be a good place to monitize your music or get royalties, so once you have the audience / fanbase it’s probably time to look at one of the other services.
Artist using this: The Clearing