For Musicians: Digital Distribution

For Musicians: Digital Distribution
Getting Sold On iTunes

By Joe Shambro,

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As an independent artist, you’ll probably be very familiar with the fact that digital downloading is huge — and you’re probably wondering how to get your cut of the action! And it’s not just illegal downloading taking a huge bite out of traditional sales — legal downloading services such as iTunes, eMusic, Napster, and Rhapsody have created a huge opportunity for major and independent labels alike: the ability to sell your music to a large, diverse market, with little to no overhead costs.

At around $1 per song, $10 per album, these services represent a great way to get your music distributed to the masses. However, as an independent artist, getting your music digitally distributed on the big services may seem like an impossible task — until now!

Digital or Traditional?
While it may be tempting to go the all-digital route and avoid the printing costs of a CD, it’s also important to understand that the market is still there for CD sales, especially independent musicians. Despite the numbers looking great, there’s only an estimated 10% of the music-buying public taking advantage of paid digital downloads.

You’ll still want to consider retaining the option to sell CDs — especially at your shows! Most artists see CD sales at their merch tables, even if they’re not doing so great in local CD stores. Before making a decision on which way to go exclusively, consider the benefits of doing both, especially if you have a budget to do so.

Getting Your Release Ready – Mastering & Artwork
As an independent artist, you’ll need to make sure your release is up to commercial standards before releasing it digitally. By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the process of mastering — evening out the dynamics and maximizing the volume of your recording. Make sure that, whether you’re doing the mastering yourself or hiring an engineer to do it for you, that your final product sounds it’s best. Remember, you’ll be on an even playing field (well, almost) to the big, major-label acts when you’re being digitally distributed, so make your release stand out as best you can.

You’ll also need to make sure you have complete artwork to submit, along with the complete track credits. The major players won’t post your music without artwork — it doesn’t have to be the best, but something catchy certainly helps!

Obtain a UPC Code
In order to sell your music in any online store, not just iTunes, you’ll need a UPC code assigned to your release. There’s a few options, and they’re all about the same price if you know where to look (and contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to pay the $750 fee that’s standard if you’re getting your own UPC, unless you want to register a UPC as your own company). One option is going through your CD duplication company. For a small fee (between $20 and $50), you’ll be assigned a unique UPC code for your product, which you can use on both your regular CD and your digitally distributed version. Just ask them, if they haven’t offered it already. Another option is the great service CD Baby. They’re an online store that’s a major player in the digital distribution market, as well (more about that later). They’ll assign you a unique UPC for $20. You can also do a Google search for “UPC Code”, and you’ll get some great results — don’t pay more than $50, though!

Find a Distributor
Unless your independent label (or you) are a major player, then you won’t be able to deal directly with Apple. Unfortunately, but understandably due to the volume of interest, iTunes requires that you as an artist partner with an established distributor. This works to your benefit when you compare the selling and bargaining power you as one of the many independent artists would have! This offers them the ability to work only with high-volume sellers, who’ll be committed to the level of content quality they strive for. Of course, the downside here is that is that it’ll cost you a little more in sales revenue, due to the fact you’ll have to help pay a minimal overhead for the other companies involved.

The number one thing to look out for in a digital distributing partner is a non-exclusive licensing agreement. Make sure that you will continue to own all rights to your own music. Don’t sign anything — and if in doubt, take it up with an experienced entertainment lawyer — if you feel you may sign your rights away to your material, which goes without saying. You’ll also want to make sure that the pay cut is fair — the average payout is around 60 cents per song download, and most digital distribution services will take a 9-10% cut of that. Still, when compared to the overhead of printing and distributing an actual CD copy, you’re coming out ahead!

One of the best distributors, as mentioned above, is CD Baby. They’ve partnered with not only iTunes, but many of the other major players in the digital market. They’ll set up to sell your CD — digital only, or, if you have real copies, on their online store, as well — for $35 per album. There’s some setup work, but it’s all easily done. They handle the digital encoding of your material for you, to make sure that your music stays in the proper format at the highest quality.

Another great option is a company called TuneCore. TuneCore offers similar features to CD Baby, although they only deal in digital distribution, not traditional sales as well. Their pricing model is quite different, and allows you to choose which services you’d like to distribute to. For every release, they charge a 99 cent fee per store you choose to release to, including iTunes Japan, eMusic, and many others, aside from traditional United States iTunes distribution. They also charge a yearly maintenance fee of $19.98 per album, and 99 cents per song. For a 12-song album, that means roughly $25 in fees to distribute to the major players. They also don’t make any claim to your material, just distribute it. They offer free UPC code generation, and can hook you up with a good artwork person if you don’t have cover art already made.

And remember, promote your digital downloads!


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