What is digital distribution?
What is digital distribution?
Digital distribution has become a crucial aspect of the music industry for all its stakeholders, from artists to labels and fans.
However, it's important to recognize that digital distribution, while now integral, is still relatively recent compared to traditional methods like physical CD and vinyl sales. It wasn't until 2015 that global digital distribution sales surpassed physical sales.
Put on your headphones as we explore the realm of digital distribution, delving into its brief history, core principles, and how you can leverage it to your advantage.
The Transition to the Digital Era
The phrase "the digital wave that decimated the music industry between the 1990s and 2000s" is a common reference. It alludes to a pivotal moment in music history marked by the advent and widespread adoption of MP3. This audio compression format revolutionized music consumption. MP3's impressive quality-to-size ratio allowed music enthusiasts to access their favorite tracks from the comfort of their homes, obviating the need for physical record shops. The impact was seismic, with physical sales revenues plummeting by half between 1999 and 2009.
The Rise of Digital Platforms
In 1999, Napster emerged as a game-changer. This online library offered downloadable MP3 files founded on peer-to-peer sharing of audio files, including some rare tracks. At its zenith, Napster boasted 80 million users. However, legal challenges from intellectual property lawyers representing prominent artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica led to its shutdown in 2001 due to copyright infringement.
In the same period, entities like CD Baby (founded in 1998) entered the scene, enabling artists to digitize and monetize their music on various streaming and downloading platforms while navigating legal boundaries. This landscape evolved with the introduction of iTunes in 2001 (now Apple Music), which marked the first legal and paying streaming and downloading store that respected copyrights. Major record labels joined iTunes as its initial partners, and it subsequently became the largest music seller in the United States by 2008. Indie-focused platforms like CD Baby also extended their artists' catalogs to iTunes.
The Proliferation of Digital Distribution
In the ensuing years, platforms rivaling iTunes began to emerge, with Deezer launching in 2007 and Spotify in 2008, among others. Concurrently, intermediary services between these platforms and artists multiplied. Companies such as Believe Digital, established in 2005, initially offered services for digitizing tapes and other rare music formats before expanding to handle digitized original recordings. Similarly, TuneCore (2005), iMusician (2007), Zimbalam (2009), and DistroKid (2013) entered the scene, all providing digital distribution services. These entities, often called digital distributors, play a pivotal role in the evolving landscape of the music industry, and we will delve into their operations in the following discussion.
Understanding How Digital Distribution Works
The digital distribution landscape involves four distinct sets of participants:
Artists: The individuals present during the recording of the music being distributed.
Producers: Entities or people responsible for funding the recording process.
Digital Service Providers (DSPs): Online platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Music, and more, which facilitate the distribution of music to listeners.
Distributors: Intermediary entities to whom artists or labels entrust their recordings. These distributors subsequently deliver these recordings to DSPs. Examples of distributors include DistroKid, TuneCore, CD Baby, Amuse, and others.
Role of Digital Distributors
Digital distributors serve a critical role in the music industry by helping artists and labels digitize and distribute their music online, a departure from the traditional distribution methods involving CDs or vinyl records. These services have become indispensable for artists looking to reach a broad audience on streaming platforms like Spotify, Deezer, and Apple Music.
Here are four key reasons why artists and labels engage the services of a digital distributor:
Quality Standards: Distributors assist in meeting the quality standards mandated by streaming platforms. This includes ensuring accurate metadata, broadcasting high-quality audio files, and having appropriately sized album cover artwork. They also provide essential ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) and UPC (Universal Product Code) codes, which serve as unique identifiers for your recordings.
Data Centralization: Distributors offer dashboards that centralize valuable information such as income generated from track streaming and listener statistics across different DSPs. They often provide online marketing tips to help artists make informed decisions.
Streamlining Distribution: Distributors deliver your content to multiple DSPs simultaneously, managing numerous profiles on your behalf. They also serve as a repository for your royalties, simplifying financial management.
Adapting to Trends: Distributors continually improve their distribution offerings based on industry trends. For instance, many digital distributors now enable artists to legally share their music on platforms like TikTok, staying up-to-date with the latest industry developments.
How to choose your digital distributor?
When choosing the right digital distributor, the decision can be influenced by various factors, including your career stage, available resources, and specific needs. While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, consider the following advice to guide your decision:
Start by recognizing whether a distributor caters to self-produced artists or primarily works with labels. This initial assessment can help streamline your search.
Evaluate your available time and financial resources. Digital distributors may have different pricing structures, such as annual fees or costs per audio product. In return for these fees, they typically handle tasks like sending your music to DSPs (Digital Service Providers) and collecting your master rights.
Consider whether distributors impose a commission on your master rights or income. Some offer artists the option to retain 100% of their royalties, which can be appealing.
Focus on services that align with your needs, such as detailed analytics on streaming performance across DSPs, locations, dates, and revenue generated. Remember that distributors with a broad range of DSP partnerships may save you time but could also come at a higher cost. Avoid being swayed solely by the number of DSPs involved, as more isn't always better; choose services that align with your content's needs and overall goals.
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19 September 2023