What is Music Distribution? – Understand How Music Industry and Record Distributors Work

Through the ages, there has always been a way of taking music to the masses.

From the operas and the amphitheaters of the pre-20th century entertainment scene to the powerful record labels of the 20th century and the music streaming portals of the 21st century, distribution is how a finished creative product reaches the thousands and millions of eager fans.

The 20th century came to be dominated by the record labels and they grew music into a trillion-dollar industry, enabling musicians to rake in tens of millions of dollars from their work.

Music distribution is indispensable to the music industry.

It is the bridge that connects the artists to their fans and the channel that enables artists and producers to earn and make a living from their work.

Music distribution has evolved over time. It has evolved in form and technologically.

In the past, music distribution was via brick and mortar stores through media such as vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs.

In the 21st century, with the advent of cloud computing and with the launch of new hardware technologies, music distribution is now more digital and less cumbersome.

We are even staring at a future of immersive music distribution where music fans will be able to experience musical performances within an immersive environment where they will have the leeway to interact with the musical medium in a way that was unimaginable for much of the past century.

Artists will be leveraging new media such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and holograms to perform digital tours across the globe and deliver electrifying performances to virtual audiences hooked to head-mounted devices.

Music distribution is evolving with the times and technologies but the precepts remain the same.

At the end of the day, the creative product must be delivered to the fans without infringing on the intellectual property rights of the artist.

If you are an artist, you will have to rely on music distribution to link to your fans and earn from your work.

There is no skirting about this.

It is the most crucial process in music promotion and is the process and infrastructure that puts your music in the hands and ears of your listeners.

It is through music distribution that you are able to increase and monetize your visibility.

In this article, we take you through the world of music distribution.

  • How does it work?
  • What does it entail?
  • How can you do music distribution right in order to make money from your music?
  • Which are the top music distribution companies?

How Does Music Distribution Work?

How Does digital Music Distribution Work

For much of the 20th century and early 21st century, music distribution was largely based on records and the brick and mortar record stores and other retail outlets.

The traditional music distribution has been largely physical with the middlemen taking a percentage of the record sales and the record labels doing much of the music promotion.

To some extent, this traditional music promotion business model based around record labels and physical stores (alongside mail-order record sales) continues to exist.

In fact, in some quarters, it is seeing something of a revival amidst the digital onslaught.  

Technology has, however, caught up with the old record label business and they had to adapt their business model dramatically in order to stay relevant and profitable.

Technology, particularly the internet and new portals such as YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, and Bandcamp among others are revolutionizing how we consume music.

Instead of visiting the record stores or ordering music records via mail order, fans are now consuming music online and spending less on physical music copies.

The traditional music distribution model that served the industry for more than a century has changed for good.

In spite of its productivity, efficiency, and profitability, the traditional music distribution model had its limitations.

For example, in a bid to maximize their profits and resources, the physical music distributors such as record stores would put their emphasis only on the top-selling records.

That left a vast segment of artists and bands underserved or totally uncovered and many have sunk into oblivion simply because their music was simply not good enough for record store owners.

Smaller music bands also run the risk of being trapped through exclusive agreements which end up limiting their potential.

The “Uberization” of Music Distribution

The digital revolution seen over the past three decades has had the same disruptive impact that has been seen in the hotel, taxi hire, accommodation, eatery, and other conventional businesses.

That is, the entry of the low-cost “digital middleman” has undercut the traditional middleman and significantly lowered the cost of doing business.

In the music distribution business, this has been in the form of digital music distribution.

It is now the smart, most efficient, and most profitable way to get your music out there while still retaining the ability to enforce full rights to your music.

The Traditional Music Distribution Model

Like other distribution models, the traditional music distribution links the singers and the songwriters with the fans of their music.

This has entailed distributors signing distribution agreements with the record labels in order to sell their music in their stores.

The Advent of Digital Music Distribution

digital vs physical music distribution services

Modern music distribution is built around digital music distribution.

The emergence of digital music distribution has undercut this middleman role, enabling artists to now sell their music directly to the music stores.

The digital music revolution is best characterized by the emergence of platforms such as Spotify, Google Play, Bandcamp and iTunes along with other music streaming channels and digital music stores and their centrality in the music distribution business.

For artists, including singers and songwriters, digital music distribution now allows them to keep up to 100% of their music royalties.

The digital music distribution portals function almost like digital record shops.

Once your music gets into these platforms, a whole new world of opportunities opens up where fans and listeners can stream, buy, and download the music.

The singer/songwriter earns royalty from this digital music depending on how and where their music is streamed.

The digital music stores which are now so central to the music distribution business get their music from the digital distribution companies.

Rather than ship the physical music such boxes of vinyl, they deliver the music to the leading digital music stores which make them accessible via streams and downloads.

In the olden days, it took weeks or even months for the physical music record to be manufactured and shipped to the buyer, a process that involved a lot of upfront costs.

With digital music distribution, “shipping” music to the end-user is now just a matter of a few clicks.

In this new digital music distribution model, the digital and streaming platforms represent the new record shops.

On the music streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Google Play, and Spotify, the artists earn royalties every time someone streams, downloads, or buys their music.

The digital music distribution platforms enable you to quickly send new tracks for release.

Whenever the music is sold or streamed, you will get in many cases 100% of the sales revenues.

Independent Artists and Digital Music Distribution

Independent Artists and Digital Music Distribution - how to find the best digital music distribution service

If you are an independent artist and are looking to leverage the digital music distribution platforms to take your music to the masses, you will not be able to directly upload your music onto the digital music platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play.

Instead, you will need to publish your music on the digital portals via an aggregator or a music distribution service.

The music aggregators are generally more well-versed with the music submission guidelines for the various digital platforms be they Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, or Google Play.

They can tap into their experience and automated processes to quickly get your music onto the right platforms.

The drawback is that music aggregators will generally charge you a percentage of the royalties which cuts into your margins.

Some music aggregators can offer you extra frills and services to help you sell your music quickly.

These extras can include synching and licensing opportunities, PR packages, tech support, and playlist plugging among others.

Benefits of Using Digital Music Distribution Systems

pros and cons of Using Digital Music Distribution Systems

Digital music distribution is highly advantageous thanks to the ease of use of the audios.

Unlike the physical music formats such as vinyl records and CDs, digital files don’t require manufacturing and they don’t take too much storage space.

A simple hard-drive is sufficient to store your digital music collection.

With compressed formats such as MP3, you can pack in hundreds or thousands of songs within a small portable device.

If storage space is a problem, it is even easier to simply stream the music and save on the digital real estate.

For streaming, the listeners or fans must create an account with the streaming service of choice in order to gain access to the music collection.

This usually comes with a monthly subscription.

Once users have access to the platform via their respective membership plans, they can access unlimited music collection.

Here is a look at some of the additional benefits that you can derive from a digital music distribution service:

  • As an artist, you are able to rapidly launch your music onto the market.
  • Get a wider reach for your music.
  • Improve your profile with potential music fans throughout the world.
  • Adding your music to the digital music distribution platforms gives you some credibility as your music is listed alongside those from superstars such as Ariana Grande Zayn.
  • You can still keep and enforce your music copyright.
  • You get to keep most of the royalty from your music.
  • Digital music distribution platforms are measurable so it is easy to gauge the reach of your business and gain additional useful insights about your fans.

 Top Best Music Distribution 
Services and Companies of 2020

Top Best Music Distribution Services and Companies - digital and physical

The market for digital music distribution is vast and highly diversified with lots of players that you can work with.

When shopping for a music distribution service, it is important to factor in the amount of royalty that you will keep for each of the services.

The best-case scenario is of course where the distribution service allows you to keep up to 100% of the royalties generated by your music.

When doing a comparison, look at the reputation of the music distribution service.

  • How well-regarded are they in the industry?
  • Do they have high professional standards?
  • Are there any hidden fees that you may have to grapple with down the line?

Do comprehensive research and determine the distribution service that is most likely to satisfy your needs.

Here is a look at some of the top music distribution services and companies:

  • CD Baby
  • Reverbnation
  • Bandcamp
  • TuneCore
  • Record Union
  • MondoTunes
  • Symphonic
  • iMusician
  • Ditto Music
  • Loudr
  • The Orchard
  • GYOROstream
  • Landr

Below is a brief overview of some of the top music distribution services:

CD Baby

CD Baby provides both physical (vinyl and CD) and digital music distribution worldwide.

You can use this service to distribute both your singles and albums.

CD Baby also enables you to acquire sync licensing for film, games, and TV.

When you use CD Baby as your music distribution partner, you can get your music to other shopfronts including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, and YouTube Music among others.


MondoTunes is the biggest online music distribution portal globally.

This channel will connect you to hundreds of online retail outlets as well as streaming services spanning more than 140 countries.

Using this music distribution service will get your music on platforms such as Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, Tidal, Apple Music, and many more.

With MondoTunes, you can enjoy unlimited music uploads with the biggest digital music distribution channel globally.  


If you are an indie singer, then Bandcamp is the perfect place to self-release and sell your music.

This is a standalone online music store that will not put your music on other streaming services, unlike the other music distribution platforms that leverage other online music stores and streaming services to take your music to the masses.

You can self-release your music CDs or your physical music merchandise on this platform.

Although it doesn’t feed your music to the other online stores, Bandcamp allows you to add its “Buy” link to Soundcloud to help you ramp up your music sales.

Record Union

Sign up with Record Union and gain access to a global music distribution platform.

This portal allows you to add your music to the leading online music platforms such as Beatport, Tidal, and Juno Download.

Record Union has also partnered with Sony Music to provide artists with a platform where their views can be heard.

It also features an upgraded Discovery Tool that enables artists to gain greater visibility.

In addition to the listed online music stores, Record Union also allows distributors to provide a distribution channel via Juno Download.


This is a digital music distribution portal that allows you to distribute your music throughout the world.

You can do all under one roof with Symphonic including marketing, licensing, and publishing your music.

The Symphonic music distribution platform provides physical as well as digital music distribution.

You can also use it to put your music on Beatport.


Use TuneCore to digitally distribute singles, albums, and ringtones across the globe.

TuneCore also provides you with a Music Publishing Administration pack which enables you to get syncs and royalties.

This music distribution service gets your music on a spectrum of platforms including Google Play, iTunes, Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon among other digital music distribution portals.  

The top benefit you get from using TuneCore is the Music Publishing Administration, a one-stop-shop where you can license your music.

It also features very advanced statistics that you can use for your analytics, enabling you to track how your song releases are performing.


iMusician is another top music distribution channel that you can use to distribute your digital music worldwide.

It is one of the top choices for independent artists and labels looking to sell and monetize their music online via downloads and streams on the music stores.

iMusician also handles Facebook and YouTube monetization via Content ID with personalized support available in multiple languages.

The platform also features an encrypted ‘music locker’ used in proving that the music actually belongs to you.  


This doubles as a digital store as well as a marketing platform for musicians.

You can sell both physical and digital music here, other merchandise, and even tickets for your musical shows.

Topspin doesn’t push your music to other online retail outlets (such as Spotify and iTunes) like Bandcamp but you can embed it either on Facebook or your website to increase your reach in the marketplace.

Topspin works pretty much like Bandcamp but has an email feature.

Choosing the Best Music Distribution Platform for Your Needs

how to choose the Best Music Distribution Platform for Your Needs

There are lots of considerations to factor in when choosing a suitable music distribution platform.

Foremost will be its reach and reputation.

A mega platform that reaches millions of users across the globe and with an established reputation will undoubtedly give you a marketing edge when taking your music to the market.

You must also consider the pricing of the individual platforms that you wish to work with.

They all have unique pricing rules which can take the following forms:

  • An annual/yearly fee
  • A set fee for a single or an album
  • A fee which is a percentage of the recorded sales. The percentage can vary from 10% to 25%.

When searching for a music distribution platform, it is advisable to plan your budget accordingly.

Ensure that you have read the pricing plans as well as the terms offered by every music distributor.

Every music distributor will go into a professional partnership with you.

Evaluate the partnerships and pick the one that will be most beneficial.

The music distribution service or company that you choose to work with must be one that fits your needs and resources and aligns with your career goals.

No matter the music distribution service that you choose, you must always ensure that your rights are fully protected and that you are getting 100% of royalties.

Take time to research the distributor fee structure for each of the music distribution services and take time to go through their terms and conditions.

You can see how they compare on the following:

  • Album fees
  • Upload fees
  • Commission
  • Barcode charges
  • Album streams
  • Chart Registration
  • New Store fees
  • Sync Opportunities
  • YouTube Monetization
  • iTunes Preorder

You should also look out for any hidden fees that might eat into your margins.

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