I sat down with reps at 9 different digital distribution companies, CD Baby, DistroKid, Ditto Music, Loudr, Mondotunes, ReverbNation, Symphonic, Tunecore and Zimbalam for this review, to get a full in-depth look at each company and for the reps to explain to me their company's best features (that I may have missed scanning their FAQ). Being a musician, I asked them questions I deemed most important for independent musicians. I have distributed 8 releases to date using a few of these services.
This review is just taking a look at companies that will get your music into digital stores and streaming services, like iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, etc and NOT about stand alone, digital download, self-managed stores, like BandCamp.
Full disclosure, I should say, I have used CD Baby, Tunecore, DistroKid and Loudr to release my music in the past. I just released my latest album and this piece honestly helped me decide who the best company for this release was.
There is no "winner" necessarily because each company has unique features that may be super important to some artists and not at all to others. Every artist's situation is different.
If you have any questions or have used any of these companies please let me know in the comments below!
On To The Comparison!(in alphabetical order)
CD Baby Review:
I spoke with Kevin Bruener, Director of Marketing and a musician himself. He has been at the company for 8 years and worked alongside founder (and music biz icon) Derek Sivers for many years. This is one of the biggest (and the first) independent digital distributors in the world. They have over 330,000 artists signed up to their service.
* Because they have been around for so long, they are proven and aren't going out of business anytime soon (your releases (and reports) are safe).
* They offer physical CD and Vinyl distribution as part of the digital signup price (they will also fulfill (mail out) CD/Vinyl orders for a fee of $4 a pop). They have partnered with Alliance Entertainment, Super D and Amazon to get your CD/record in record stores around the world. You must apply for this feature.
* No yearly fees. Once you signup an album you never pay again for any service (other than publishing).
* iTunes weekly Trend Reports. Still don't get paid for a couple months, but you can see how the new release is doing.
* They also offer their publishing service CD Baby Pro that will link up. I did a full report on that here.
* They take 9% commission.
* Unlimited songs. You heard right. Whether you release 1 song or 1000 songs, it's still $19.99 a year.
* Their website is SUPER clean and simple and you can get started with no headache.
* They do not take commission.
* Email every step of the way. Every step that you complete you will receive an email - including when it's live on the store (only company that does this).
* They charge for their "Store Maximizer" feature which automatically adds all your releases to any new store that comes out. Worth noting, you can manually add your releases to new stores (for free), but who is going to keep checking back to see if any new stores are added? Adding releases to new stores should be built in for free. **Update 5-4-15
Ditto Music Review:
I spoke with Lee Parsons, the co-CEO and co-founder of Ditto Music (his brother is the other co-CEO/founder). He is a musician from the UK (now living in Nashville and heading up the US operations). Because Ditto started in the UK its main focus (and angle) is for UK artists. Anyone in the world can signup, but there is a clear UK focus on the website (just like there is a clear US focus on the other sites). They have about 60,000 total artists (now nearly split evenly US/UK and many coming in from Sweden and Australia). Not the biggest, but definitely large!
* Will distribute up to 10 songs to (just) iTunes for free
* They do not take commission
* Lots of expensive extra services (which are free with other companies).
* Ditto threatened to sue me for asking a question. They are hiding something. I've heard reports from readers that they cannot get their albums removed from stores and aren't getting paid. STAY AWAY **Update 10/8/14
* After this report came out I've received countless emails from musicians and labels saying how horrible Ditto has been to them. Unpaid royalties. Customer service email turnaround very fast only UNTIL you pay, then you never hear from them again. Missed deadlines. On and on and on. If you care about your music career, DON'T WORK WITH THEM!
**Update: 3-4-16: Loudr has handed its distribution services over to CD Baby. As of now you can still signup with Loudr distribution through their site, but in the future they will be completely transitioning over to CD Baby's services. Read what I wrote about this transition here (Digital Music News).
I spoke with the founder, Chris Crawford. The service was created by 8 musicians. This is the 2nd newest service (by 16 days) and launched October 1st, 2013. Chris had a previous distribution company primarily used for A Cappella groups. Loudr's digital distribution service is mainly for cover artists to easily get their music on iTunes. Loudr goes directly to the publishers and gets licenses directly for their artists (instead of the artist having to hunt these down). Chris used to work at iTunes so has "an in" there still and understands it a bit better than most new distribution companies. They have a stand alone download store, similar to BandCamp, which is their main focus, but I felt it was worth to include their digital distribution feature as it's innovative and unique.
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* No signup fee. You heard right. This is the only company on my list that is free to get unlimited music on Spotify, iTunes, etc. Whether you're releasing a single or 10 simultaneous albums, it's free.
* Obtains mechanical licenses for your cover songs
* Revenue splitting. If you have multiple artists creating a song together (like collaborations) and all artists are owed revenue from the downloads, they can all sign up for Loudr accounts and Loudr will pay out the respective percentages to each artist. This is especially great for "YouTubers" who constantly collaborate on cover song videos. This feature, however, is not automated (you have to write in to request it).
* They take 15% commission. (If you want them to work out the mechanical license for US downloads they take 30% commission)
* Most of their features like iTunes pre-order setup and digital booklet creation you cannot do on the site, you have to work with a support member.
* They only distribute to 6 outlets - the fewest of any company
I spoke with the co-founder Steve Norris, a self proclaimed "serial entrepreneur" and a musician. They do not have direct partnerships with their outlets, but rather work through INgrooves distribution.
* They distribute to the most outlets by far. Other distributors built up direct relationships with retailers over the years, while MondoTunes just teamed up with INgrooves Fontana distribution who had these relationships already.
* They distribute to most Asian countries
* They threatened to sue me for calling out the fake, very pro-MondoTunes (and anti-others) comments on this report. Steve sent me a loooong 8 paragraph email trashing the other services (before I posted this review). The fact that they have to go out of their way to trash others and are so defensive makes me think they are hiding something serious.
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* (Up to) 30 days to get on iTunes. Because they're working through another distributor it takes them much longer to get releases out. They have set their release date (by default) to 30 days. Sometimes it's quicker. Sometimes it's longer. If you'd like to have it expedited (1-14 days guaranteed, it costs $25).
* They DO NOT pay 100% of net income (like they claim on their FAQ - awfully misleading). Their distribution partner, INgrooves, takes 10% commission of net income from retailer. They have since updated their FAQ to mention this (only after my initial report came out and made mention of this clear, misleading omission).
I spoke with reps from ReverbNation twice. First with Ferol Vernon, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Artist Services, when I initially worked on this report (11/2013), and most recently (for the current update 5/2014) I spoke with the CEO, Mike Doernberg.
* Packages. For $19.95 a month they offer a mailing list service (up to 10,000 subscribers), free song downloads, the ability to submit to opportunities such as TV placements and festival slots, and distribution of 2 releases per year.
* Tons of Data. Because they have so many bands who have registered so many shows, they have a touring database built up (similar to indieonthemove.com) that can help bands find venues of similar size in multiple cities.
* They don't take a commission
* Everything a band sets up with ReverbNation is branded heavily with ReverbNation. It's hard to operate independently from them in any respect.
* They are built for the beginning bands and don't offer "professional" services for bands that outgrow the beginning model.
The newest company to this comparison, however, not the newest company on the list. I added Symphonic because I'd been getting many questions from readers and felt I should check them out. Right off the bat, I'm impressed. I sat down with the founder and president, Jorge Brea. They are another boutique operation (like DistroKid and Loudr) and only have 15 employees. Symphonic is one of the few distribution companies out there that caters more to EDM artists, DJs and Producers (but distributes artists of every genre). Symphonic was started in 2006 by Brea and now has a roster of over 15,000 artists and 3,500 labels.
* Have a deal with the global not-for-profit independent digital rights agency, Merlin, which allows them special preference and benefits like Pandora/Beatport acceptance and higher royalty rates. Merlin bargains on behalf of their 20,000+ members (labels/distributors)
* They don't distribute cover songs (automatically). Their FAQ actually states they don't. Period. But Jorge mentioned that they will if you write in and send the paper work. This is a lot of work, whereas other companies either do this for you or have a check box.
* Their slogan is "Become Major" which is misleading as every musician equates "major" with "major label."
I initially spoke with Chris Mooney, Senior Director of Artist Promotions and Strategic Relationships. That's a mouthful. They are one of the biggest distributors and he mentioned that 1 in 3 artists playing SXSW this year was a Tunecore artist.
* They do not take a commission
* They've been around a long time and are proven. Like CD Baby, they're not going anywhere anytime soon. Your releases (and reports) are safe!
* They have a publishing service linked up that you can read more about here.
+CD Baby Pro vs. Tunecore Publishing (The Full Report)
* Yearly fees
* Additional store costs. Every store they add after you initially sign up costs $2 to send your existing release to them. Or you can signup for their "Store Automator" for $10 per release to distribute to all future stores at no extra cost. Imagine my horror that releases I had with Tunecore from a few years ago were NOT sent out to a bunch of popular (newer) stores and now I owe over $150 to get it to them?! That's great they continue to add stores. It's super shitty they charge for each store. Ouch. No other company does this.
* High fees for most extra features
Zimbalam's parent company, Believe Digital, just bought TuneCore and is shutting down Zimbalam. So, uh, don't use them. Duh.
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Number of Outlets:
It's very tough to get an accurate number from anyone. I got a (somewhat) complete list from Ditto, ReverbNation and Mondotunes, but they claimed they hit more stores than their list stated. All distributors said numbers fluctuate so much because many outlets are sub distributors (like Medianet and 24-7) who send your music to stores they are partnered with. The outlets listed on each distributors' site are just the biggest. Mondotunes has by far the most (they hit most of Asia. Symphonic hits China and Korea). While Ditto seems to be a close second claiming they hit "all stores." It seems CD Baby, Tunecore, Reverbnation and DistroKid send it to about the same places, while Loudr are very clear they only support the ones listed. At some point this numbers game got way too absurd.
More, though, isn't necessarily better. All distributors hit iTunes and Spotify worldwide.
AND REMEMBER, just because you're in more stores doesn't mean you'll make more sales. You have to be able to promote to people who buy from those stores.
How much the company takes of the net amount. Meaning, after iTunes takes their cut of 30%, these stores will take 0-30% of the remaining amount.
This is the fee the distributor charges to get your album distributed and covers the first year of distribution.
This is the fee the distributor charges after the 1st year signup fee. CD Baby, Mondotunes, Symphonic and Loudr don't have this, the others do.
All of the distributors are constantly bringing on more stores and outlets based on those that rise and fall in popularity (some shut down like turntable.fm and others pop up and take over the industry like Spotify). Only Tunecore charges per store they bring on. DistroKid has a Store Maximizer option to automatically add stores for a fee, or you can login and manually add each new store for free.
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Every distributor sends it to iTunes in 100+ countries. It's important for someone in Venezuela who falls in love with your YouTube video to be able to download it from iTunes.
Speed to iTunes:
Chris at Loudr used to work at iTunes and explained that "there's no guarantee with Apple." However, CD Baby and Zimbalam have proven to Apple that their content is up to Apple standards and they no longer get flagged for review. Apple randomly flags releases for review from all the other retailers and if your album gets flagged it can add an extra 16 days to get to iTunes, HOWEVER, any distributor can ask iTunes to expedite it by simply clicking a button on their end.
The cost to remove your album from all digital retailers. Distributors used to charge for this, but thanks to this report, none do anymore. Boom! The power of transparency!
You know how you can buy some artists' albums on iTunes for about a month before the release date and then get it at 12:01AM the day it's released? That's pre-order. Some companies offer "instant gratification" song(s) that customers can get the moment they pre-order the album. Some also are able to set the pre-order price different than the sale date price (like $7.99 pre-order vs. $9.99 day of).
Youtube content ID monetization program:
Will you get paid for your songs on YouTube. Be careful, though, no company should take a % of revenue generated from your videos on YOUR channel - both CD Baby and Tunecore's affiliates do. Audiam does not. However, typically you can "whitelist" your channel with most YouTube monetization companies (however you then have to signup for Google's ad service which is a headache).
And to clarify, no company REQUIRES YouTube monetization. These are all opt in add ons.
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Digital Booklet in iTunes:
The ability to offer a PDF booklet that accompanies the album when it's downloaded.
You no longer need a physical CD to submit to Pandora! Hallelujah! Read more about how to submit to Pandora digitally (anyone can) here.
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Symphonic Distribution is the only company that will submit you directly to Pandora.
Custom Label Name:
All retailers want to know who the label is. If you don't list one, the retailer will most likely default to the distributor name or the artist name. To have control over this create your own label name when distributing.
ISRC / UPC codes:
ISRC codes are identification codes encoded into the digital files (and in your CD - you should send these codes to your mastering engineer) that helps with tracking and charting. To register with Soundscan you need a UPC code. UPC bar codes are also necessary if you want to sell your CD/Vinyl in stores.
Get Codes Before Upload
Some mastering engineers like to encode the CD with the ISRC and UPC codes before sending the CD to replication. This ensures that all digital files will be encoded properly and chart accurately. Not being able to get the codes before you are able to upload the masters inhibits tracking. That being said, with sonic recognition software coming out and very few people importing CDs anymore, it's not super necessary to encode the CD with these codes anymore, so don't let this be the deciding factor on who you choose.
It's free and super simple to do. Go to http://titlereg.soundscan.com/soundscantitlereg/ to do this. All digital retailers report their sales to Soundscan for chart placement. By registering your UPC on the Soundscan website it insures that the sales are tracked to the proper release (and artist). If your physical CDs are sold in physical stores (remember those?), those stores will report their sales as well based on your UPC code. Worth noting that Ditto's "Chart Breaker Package" registers for worldwide charts (not just Soundscan).
Opt Out of Stores:
Some independent artists have territory specific record deals and cannot distribute their album independently in certain territories (like a deal with Universal UK - not US). It's important to have this flexibility. You never know what lies ahead for your career.
When payment will be in your bank account (or Paypal)
How much you have to have in your distribution account before you can withdraw the money.
iTunes and Spotify Report:
DistroKid, Tunecore, ReverbNation, Zimbalam and CD Baby are the only services that will let you know how your release is doing in iTunes and Spotify day by day (Tunecore, DistroKid) or week by week (CD Baby, Zimbalam and ReverbNation). All the others will let you know when they get paid from iTunes 6-8 weeks later. Some have added Amazon and Deezer trending reports as well.
Obtain License for Cover Songs:
If you want to releaser a cover you must obtain a license first. It's kind of a headache, but you can do this from Harry Fox Agency, Loudr or Easy Song Licensing.
+ How To Legally Release Cover Songs
Customer Support Email Turnaround:
I tested all of this
Customer Support Phone:
Sometimes it's important to get a response right away.
Clearly, there is no "best" service. MondoTunes and Ditto, though, are the worst. After MondoTunes trolled my comments board and threatened to sue me, I can comfortably put them in the "do not work with this company" category. And the Ditto CEO lashed out at me and threatened to sue me for asking a question. What is it with CEOs and a lawsuit power trip! I went into this review with absolutely no bias, but digging deep into these companies have really shown me their true colors. And Ditto and Mondo's ain't pretty. I'll leave it at that.
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It's also worth mentioning that Mondotunes and Ditto took swings at the other companies when chatting with me. Props to the others for only talking about the companies they represent. This isn't a political election!
If you have any questions, comments or experiences with any of these companies please list them in the comments. I'll try to respond to everyone.
+CD Baby Pro vs. Tunecore Publishing (The Full Report)
Like these tips? Preorder my new book How To Make It in the New Music Business and get exclusives only available until release date! Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby says "This is the single best book on the current music business. An absolute must-read for every musician."