Independent music distribution, 2019 edition

As an independent musician who has been distributing music online since the late 90s (and selling it online since 2000), I am always keeping track of the current landscape for selling music, both online and physically, with a focus on small fanbases and narrow-scale distribution.

As of January February 2019, here are what I believe to be the best practices for selling music online.

Note: Many of the links in this article have referral codes. Please consider using them to support my efforts. (Or you could also consider backing me on Patreon.)

Direct downloads

For direct downloads, the best deal by far is Bandcamp. They provide a very competent storefront, where you can also do fulfillment of physical goods (merch, CDs, vinyl, etc.), they take a minimal cut of your sales (15% for low-volume artists, 10% for high-volume), there is no per-album listing or maintenance fee, and they provide the best dang listener experience I’ve ever seen, for listeners who prefer to buy their music.

They also provide a download code service which is extremely cheap ($3 for 100 codes) and is essentially an at-cost service for them. This is very useful for people who want to run preorders through Kickstarter or sell download cards at their shows or send review copies to people.

Mainstream downloads/streaming

February 2019 update: I have recently learned of amuse, which claims to provide the same thing as DistroKid except with no annual fee. Their claim is that they make their money by using independent uploads' statistics as a form of algorithmic A&R, where they’ll sign the better-performing acts to their labels. I’m skeptical that this model can work out in the long run but it’s certainly worth looking into, and I’ll probably be trying them out as my next digital distribution release partner. Watch this space.

For getting listed on the major services (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, etc.) the best approach is DistroKid. They charge a flat annual listing fee with no per-album costs (aside from various licensing add-ons which I’ll get to later) and they list you basically everywhere. They don’t take any additional cut on top of what those services take, either.

Another great thing is that when you list with them you get a UPC for free, and this UPC can (and should!) be used with whatever physical CD you produce.

Their listing fee is pretty cheap; it’s $20/band/year for the most basic service, $36/year for two bands and expanded service (custom distributor/label names, backdated release dates, more fine-grained control over pricing, better Spotify integration, etc.). If you run a label (5 or more bands) and want even more features they also have an $80/year plan although that’s probably not something you, the reader of this article, needs. Oh, and if you use my referral link you get a 7% discount.

If you’re using samples or doing a cover of other bands' music then they also charge a per-track royalty collection clearinghouse thing. Unless you’re doing a cover of a major-label release there isn’t much point in using this; it’s better to get into a direct agreement with the original artist yourself.

They also provide an added ContentID service (automatic YouTube sync licensing) for an additional per-album price, but I don’t recommend that; instead…

ContentID/Content Match/automatic sync licensing

For content match licensing on YouTube et al, I use AdRev. They don’t charge anything up front; instead they take a cut from the license fees.

The secret that none of the clearinghouse services want you to know is that most of them use AdRev too. AdRev is still taking their cut in those cases, and the other services are charging an annual fee on top of it for doing literally nothing (aside from doing the initial upload for you, which isn’t that big a deal). The middleman services just aren’t worth it.

CD manufacturing

I rarely bother with physical CDs, unless I want copies to sell at a show or to give as gifts to people. Getting proper CD replication is still expensive and requires a huge commitment up front – and a lot of space to store the thousand or so copies you get pressed. Chances are you won’t be selling that many copies.

So I use short-run manufacturing; my current least-bad option is Amazon Media on Demand (formerly known as Createspace). They provide a pretty decent standard package for CDs, and will also list them on amazon.com. Their quality is phenomenal and their pricing is very competitive.

Amazon will also do on-demand manufacturing of DVDs and Blu-Rays, if you want to sell e.g. videos of your live performances or whatever.

They don’t make it easy to figure out how much you’ll get per-sale, though; basically at $9 you make nothing, and for every additional $1 on your sale price you make another 55¢. (For example, a CD with a list price of $12 nets you $1.65 per sale.)

This isn’t great, but at least for low-volume CD sales this is, unfortunately, the best deal in town. (And even if you do mass-manufacture of your discs you still don’t make a whole lot per sale after all of the fulfillment expenses. Retail is expensive.)

Anyway, I mostly use this for producing batches of copies to sell at shows or whatever, usually 25 copies at a time. I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a copy on Amazon itself, which isn’t surprising considering nobody really buys physical CDs anymore.

In any case, if you do go this route, use the UPC and ISRC you got from DistroKid, so that your physical and digital sales line up (this is for Historical Reasons™).

Vinyl manufacturing

You probably don’t want to do vinyl, unless you can guarantee that you have a bunch of people lined up to buy it. Vinyl’s expensive and niche. Nobody does on-demand manufacturing of it, because vinyl tooling requires a lot of setup. Which is also why it’s expensive as heck.

Keep in mind that vinyl also has some extra fun constraints on it, and it takes a lot of work to make an album vinyl-ready.

All that said, I recommend Qrates, which has the best per-unit pricing I’ve seen. They mostly outsource their manufacturing to other manufacturers (meaning they’re doing all the legwork of getting all the tooling and manufacturing done for you!) and they also provide fulfillment services as well as crowdfunding-style preorders. So if you really do want to chase down the rabbit hole of short-run vinyl, they seem like the least-bad option.

Even if you decide to do your own crowdfunding or preorders (via Kickstarter or Indiegogo or whatever) Qrates seems like it’s the least-bad way to go.

Physical fulfillment/distribution

Unless you’re doing a lot of physical sales, I’d just recommend self-listing your physical goods on Bandcamp and shipping it yourself. If this gets burdensome there are some third-party fulfillment providers who will work with Bandcamp (although I will not make any recommendations as I haven’t had a need to look into this).

If you want to sell your non-CD stuff on Amazon, you can use Amazon Seller Central, and self-fulfill; if that gets overwhelming you can use their fulfillment services, although I haven’t had a good experience with them (for books, anyway; apparently they’re much better for non-book things).

A note on CDBaby

So, CDBaby has a lot of great marketing behind them. They are very well-established and have been in the game for a long time. A lot of people just end up going with CDBaby and calling it a day. I do not recommend that approach:

  • Their fulfillment services are a holdover from a bygone era where people were buying stuff from their site directly
  • They charge you extra for basic features like UPC codes (which they require!)
  • Their manufacturing really isn’t that good at all
  • Most of their services are just white-label rebranding of other peoples' stuff and they’re charging a gigantic fee or taking a cut for doing literally nothing
  • They also advertise a lot of features in the most confusing way possible and when you look into it, it turns out they’re not really providing anything at all

For example, their Amazon CD listings are literally just Amazon Media on Demand (they haven’t even updated their information and still call it CreateSpace!) and literally all they do is format your data for them (which you can do yourself!) and then charge an additional 9% overhead on every sale you make.

CDBaby served a useful function back in 2000, but times have changed and they’ve struggled to keep up. The only thing they have going for them is being a one-stop shop for everything, but the amount they charge for that “everything” is way more than it’s worth, and you still end up having to do most of the work anyway. They are really not worth it.

tl;dr summary

  • Sell your music and merch on Bandcamp
  • Do your streaming through amuse or DistroKid, but don’t use their content matching/sync licensing
    • If you do a cover of major-label music, do use their royalty services
    • If you’re covering other indie bands, make your own royalty arrangements with the band
  • Use AdRev for content match/sync licensing
  • Use Amazon Manufacturing to make your CDs (and don’t make a lot of them up-front)
  • Don’t do vinyl, but if you do, use Qrates
  • Avoid CDBaby

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