Your album is recorded and you’re ready to get it into the hands of your fans. How does your music get put into stores and online to be shared with the world? This week’s buzzword is distribution. A distribution company has traditionally acted as a middleman between record labels and retail outlets. It’s now becoming more common for artists to independently strike a deal with a distribution company. 

Here’s how it works in many cases: the record label will sign your group to a recording contract and help manage your growth through recording sessions, marketing, promotion and selling the ready-to-market products. Distributors are then given the right to sell the label’s products, and take a cut of the income made from each unit sold. The remaining balance is then paid to the label.

Another option some distributors provide are manufacturing and distribution (M&D) deals, where the distributor pays for the manufacturing costs of an album up front and keeps all the income from album sales until the initial investment is paid off.


History of Physical Distribution

Distribution companies in the early 20th century were the only links between record labels and retail stores, which eventually included huge outlets like Walmart and Barnes & Noble. Contracts were often signed between the three parties (record label, distributor, and retail store) in order to sell albums. Sometimes, distributors would buy albums directly from record labels or put these distributed albums on consignment.

Traditional distributors store the yet-to-be-shipped CDs in warehouses, keep track of the money by invoicing stores, record the payments, utilize a sales staff to sell merchandise to retail stores, and collect the returns (leftover product the stores were unable to sell). Distributors take a cut of album sales, which gives them a reason to get the record stores to stock copies of the album and actively promote it through special store placement, sales, or in-store plays.


Digital Distribution

When digital, downloadable music first became available, hard copy sales of music drastically fell because music pirating services like Napster made music quickly available free. Now, consumers can choose to pirate music or purchase it legally from outlets such as iTunes and Amazon, or stream it via companies such as Pandora and Spotify. There are a few pros and cons to consider before going through with digital distribution:


  • Pros:

    • Costs are low. With an online album release, you don’t need to worry about the cost of pressing or artwork printing. Instead, all you need is a website that is able to handle the download demands for your album.

    • You get to keep more money. That is, when you sell your album online, you don’t have to share the profits with a physical distributor and a store. You will most likely have to share a small percentage of your profit with an online music distributor.

    • You control the prices. Because you don’t have to share so much of the earnings and don’t have to consult with a distributor or store to set the prices, you can make your album price buyer–friendly.

    • It’s fast and easy. The focus of releasing an online album is to release the tracks as easily as possible. You don’t need to deal with printers, distributors, or manufacturers.


  • Cons:

    • Promotion is difficult. Online releases are difficult to get publicity for, especially for newer artists.

    • Competition is thick. There are a lot of options available online. Even if you have the best songs in the world, you still have to get people to find you among the thousands of websites hosted by people whose html is better than their songwriting.

    • There are less people working on selling your music. When you have a physical distribution deal, you have people actively working to sell your music to record stores, who are also selling your music to customers. Online, that is fully your responsibility.

Distribution companies are there to help grow your music career by focusing time and resources into placing your product where customers can best access it. Although the creation of digital downloads and streaming services have greatly changed the dynamic of the music industry, it’s still important to create high–quality products for your fans across multiple outlets in order to reach more people.