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CD Baby, Tunecore, DistroKid, AWAL, UnitedMasters…Who is the Best Digital Distribution Company for Music

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CD Baby, Tunecore, DistroKid, AWAL, UnitedMasters…Who is the Best Digital Distribution Company for Music

This is the most comprehensive and accurate digital distribution review comparison piece on the web. By far. I checked. Who is the best digital distributor? Read on…Amuse vs. AWAL vs. CD Baby vs. DistroKid vs. Ditto Music vs. Fresh Tunes vs. Horus Music vs. Landr vs. Octiive v...

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Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

This is the most comprehensive and accurate digital distribution review comparison for your music on the web.

By far. I checked. Who is the best digital distributor for your music? 

How do you get your music on Spotify? How do you get your music on Apple Music? On Amazon music, you know for “Hey Alexa play my band”? 

How do you get your music on TikTok? On Instagram stories? 

Read on…

I’m keeping this review updated and any time a company lets me know their changes or I hear from you that something has changed at one of these companies, I update the report.

So for the past few months we at Ari’s Take have been learning everything we could about these 19 companies. Well, 18 now. Literally in the past 4 months from when we started the update to when we posted it, SoundCloud got out of distribution and migrated everything over to Repost Network

Amuse vs. AWAL vs. CD Baby vs. DistroKid vs. Ditto Music vs. FreshTunes vs. Horus Music vs. LANDR vs. OneRPM vs. RouteNote vs. Songtradr vs. Soundrop vs. Stem vs. Symphonic Distribution vs. TuneCore vs. UnitedMasters

It’s worth noting, that this comparison is for standalone distributors that primarily cater to independent musicians – not labels. INgrooves, The Orchard and Believe are all distributors in the space that primarily work with labels. Some work directly with artists and they take around a 20% commission for it. The Orchard is owned by Sony and INgrooves is owned by Universal. And Believe, a French company, owns TuneCore. 

Moving on.

Digital distribution companies are evolving into one-stop royalty collection shops for DIY musicians.

Eventually, you will be able to distribute your music with one of these services and they will collect 100% of all your sound recording and composition royalties from around the world and you won’t need to worry about registering or collecting all your money elsewhere. Some of these companies are closer than others to this reality, but no one is completely there yet.

For clarity, you need a distributor to get your music into Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, TikTok, Instagram Stories, Deezer, Tidal, etc. These distribution companies do this for you.

You can use multiple distributors for multiple releases HOWEVER you can only use 1 distributor for each release, of course.

You can’t ask Symphonic and DistroKid to distribute the same song to all the stores, then that same song would be listed in Spotify, Apple Music and everywhere else TWICE. Make sense? You have to pick one for each release.

You can, however, SWITCH distributors if you need to. And I explain how to do that here. 

+How To Switch Distributors Without Losing Stream Counts or Playlists

I also want to make SUPER clear that none of these companies OWN any of your rights, copyrights or music.

These are not record labels. These are not label deals. Even though some of them offer “label services” they don’t own anything. These companies are just providing services. You retain 100% of your rights no matter who you use. Even if they take a commission, it’s just from your revenue. No ownership. None. Capiche?

I spoke to reps at every company 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 30 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 Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon, Pandora, Deezer, etc and NOT about stand alone, digital download, self-managed stores, like Bandcamp.

Full disclosure, I have used CD Baby, DistroKid, TuneCore, AWAL, Stem and Loudr (now Soundrop) to distribute releases with my own project (and we tested a release with Amuse under a fake name).

Also, AWAL, Bandzoogle (CD Baby powered distribution),  CD Baby, DistroKid, Songtradr,and Symphonic have advertised, currently advertise or have agreed to advertise in the future with Ari’s Take. I have spoken at CD Baby’s DIY Musician conference and during AWAL’s sponsored sessions at Amplify in London. And I went to a party at the LANDR House in the Hollywood Hills.

+Bandzoogle vs. Squarespace vs. WordPress vs. Wix vs Weebly

HOWEVER, I made super clear to these companies that their advertising does not influence my review AND I only allow companies I trust and support to advertise on Ari’s Take. I turn away more advertisers than I accept.

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.

I included on the chart the categories that I deemed most important. All the companies have extra services and I included some of their services in their review if I thought they were great and left out some of their services if I didn’t care about them. This is a distribution comparison, not a full review of these companies.

We are moving into an era of transparency.

What these stand-alone distributors offer that major labels and publishers do not is transparency and intelligible reports.

Well, most of them do.

And many are starting to offer payment splitting (where they will pay your collaborators directly so you don’t have to deal with that headache).

Also, the next decade will be heavily focused around Asia. For the first time in history, people in China are PAYING for music (via streaming services). This market is about to explode. That’s why I added it to the comparison chart.

NetEase is the most important DSP in China. If a distributor does not distribute to NetEase it’s as if they do not distribute to China (so we marked that below)

And, some distributors are moving into “label services” territory. Where, if there is some traction on your songs, they’ll notice and, as many of them put it, “throw gasoline on the fire,” where they can put some marketing money behind it, plug it at playlists, push synch opportunities and other ways to help jumpstart your career.

If you have any questions or have experience (good or bad) with these companies, please let me know in the comments below!

QUESTION: What does DSP stand for in music?

ANSWER: Digital Service Provider, which is the generic term for streaming and download platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play, Amazon Music, et al.

OK ONTO THE COMPARISON –
(The Chart is at the bottom)

(in alphabetical order)

Amuse

Amuse Review:

Amuse started as an app-only distributor with no fees and no commission. Their long-term play was to swoop up the artists that start to catch and sign them to a 50/50 label deal by simply analyzing data. No real A&R, just data analysts. One of the founders used to study data analytics at Universal Music Group (Sweden), another came from Warner Music Group (Sweden), and their head of design used to work at Spotify. Oh, and will.i.am is a co-founder. So there’s that. 

They have since evolved and now offer a “Pro” version which costs $60/yr with many more features and now also have a desktop version of the service. But they are still app-first.

They also offer advances based on previous streaming royalties. It’s completely data driven and artists have received $250 – $300,000 in advances from this program. There is a commission tacked on when an advance is offered.

This Best/Worst comparison is based on their “Pro” version, not the free version.

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties.
  • Open to all
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Credits distribution 

WORST:

  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • Does not distribute to China
  • No lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

AWAL

AWAL Review:

“It’s about upward mobility. If we see something happening, we can give you funding the next day. You want to put gasoline on the fire, we can do that for you.” – Lonny Olinick, AWAL CEO

AWAL is under the Kobalt umbrella. Kobalt is a very forward thinking (and powerful) publishing company. As a company built on a tech-first (digital) philosophy, Kobalt boasts that it pays twice as fast (and finds more money – sometimes 30% more) than the major publishing companies. It has better transparency than any of the major publishing companies.

AND Kobalt doesn’t own any of their songwriters’ copyrights (unlike every other major publishing company).

Kobalt acquired AWAL in 2012 to be able to integrate their tech-first, transparent reporting, disruption philosophy in the distribution space. And to offer not just distribution, but ‘label services’ for their top-line artists. To clarify, Kobalt is a publishing company collecting publishing (songwriter) royalties for songwriters. AWAL is a digital distributor collecting master (sound recording) royalties for artists. If you need more clarification on how royalties are broken down, read Chapter 13 of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

I’m coming back to this review after initially including AWAL with a lot more hands on experience and personal anecdotes. I have since distributed 3 songs with AWAL to test them out and see under the hood. For transparency, everyone I have worked with at AWAL has been awesome. Clearly music lovers. They were super excited about the project (throwback 70s funk/soul). They offered guidance on how to get it going and even listened to the record before we released it. Now, I know this is not typical. They do not give hands-on attention like this to the majority of their artists. By the sheer number of releases they distribute it is virtually impossible.

This all being said, I have been somewhat underwhelmed by the results.

AWAL claims to offer Spotify playlist plugging support. Of course nothing is guaranteed, but I made a list of 20 official Spotify playlists that our songs would fit well on like All Funked Up, Bedroom Jams, Disco Forever, Easy on Sunday, Feel Good Dinner – smaller niche playlists of under 1M followers – and sent it over. I had no illusions about our songs getting on any pop playlists or even New Music Friday. Our music is not pop. Our songs got included on exactly zero official Spotify playlists. The most Spotify love we got was from inclusion on various user generated playlists.

Worth noting that through our own efforts our music has nearly 1 million streams. 

+How This Artist Grew to 500,000 Monthly Spotify Listeners With No Playlists

So, they may claim they offer Spotify playlist pitching, but if they couldn’t secure it for my project (with all the love and support they were offering me from the get go) I struggle to believe they can for anyone.

I was also excited about the potential to work with them on sync licensing opportunities as they claim their sync department is strong, however they decided that their sync team would not have success with our project so they didn’t take it on.

This all is not a huge deal as most of the other distributors don’t offer any kind of hands on service. But giving up 15% to AWAL when the only guaranteed benefits over the other distributors is their backend analytics is a hard sell. Now, their backend analytics are ok. And their app is actually beautiful, intuitive and a very nice overview of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube real-time stats. But their (non-app) browser analytics are not that much better than TuneCore, Stem or CD Baby’s backend analytics. 

I’m struggling to understand where the 15% is beneficial when they aren’t able to deliver real results over the other distributors.

They claim to be great at “throwing gasoline on the fire.” AWAL doesn’t offer much in terms of personal support from the get-go, BUT if you start to catch, they can offer you marketing support (money for PR, radio plugging, etc) and pitch you to playlists. And potentially upstream you (if you’re a songwriter) to Kobalt and their in-house sync services (TV, ads, film, video game placements).

It’s worth noting that they do have some pretty huge artists, namely Lauv who they helped get a top 40 hit. But again, this was because he was buzzing and they jumped on it.

+Lauv’s 4 Billion Streams, Top 40 Hit, Without a Label

BEST:

  • No upfront fees
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyric distribution
  • Credits distribution

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Must be accepted to use
  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

CD Baby

CD Baby Review:

CD Baby has been around the longest. They were the first non-label company to offer ‘open to all’ distribution to iTunes back in the day. CD Baby was founded by musician, best-selling author, guru, author of the introduction to my book (!!) and all around brilliant dude, Derek Sivers. He sold the company in 2008 to Disc Makers, but many of the original employees still remain.

I’ve used CD Baby in the past (but don’t anymore for new releases) and still dig some of the people who work there. 

In 2019, CD Baby (well, their parent company AVL Digital – including Soundrop, Show.co, AdRev, DashGo), got acquired by Downtown Music (which runs Songtrust and Downtown Publishing). It’s becoming one big conglomerate – Disc Makers is still thrown in the mix there somewhere, but I don’t understand their corporate structure. It has gotten much more corporate, that’s for sure. 

In the most recent update of this article (10/15/2020), I revealed that CD Baby’s analytics and payment reports were inaccurate. I had been tipped off by a couple Ari’s Take Academy students (thank you!) that their streaming numbers looked a bit peculiar for the past year. I looked at my reports, and sure enough, mine looked the same. 

CD Baby’s customer support and marketing director had been cagey about what was going on and no one could get a straight answer. So, I published the update. 

Then Joel Andrew SVP Business and Legal Affairs, who has been at the company 17 years, sat down with me to explain. 

Long story short, the rate that Spotify paid CD Baby per stream, was not the rate that CD Baby paid out to their artists. 

If Spotify indicated that a song earned $.007 for a stream in the US from a premium subscriber, and $.0008 for a stream in India from an ad-supported account, CD Baby, didn’t pay these rates out to their artists. Instead, they combined them into their own ‘bundled’ rates and paid $.003 for both. 

See, Spotify has about 800 different rates per stream. There isn’t just one ‘streaming rate.’ It’s not iTunes. 

A Spotify stream from a user in the US, paying a $9.99 subscription, will earn more than a stream from a user in the US on a family plan or using the free, ad-supported version. A Spotify stream from a user in India also pays way less than a stream from a user in the US. You can see why there are around 800 different rates per stream. 

CD Baby thought it would be helpful to simplify this and just bundle all of this together – averaging out a lot of the various rates. So instead of nearly 800 rates, CD Baby decided to pay about 40 rates. And yes, for most of 2019 – 2020, CD Baby paid artists the same amount for a US stream as an India stream – no matter the listeners plan level. 

Was this good or bad? Well, it’s great if your listeners are in India because you’re getting paid much more from CD Baby than what Spotify has indicated to CD Baby those streams are worth. 

But if all your listeners are in the US or New Zealand, it’s not great for you because you were getting paid way LESS from CD Baby than what Spotify indicated to CD Baby those streams are worth. 

Why is this a problem? Well, artists need to know where to spend their marketing dollars.

It’s not just about ‘where am I going to tour.’ Sure, that’s a factor. But if I know I can spend $500 in Facebook ads targeting listeners in India and get $1,000 back from streaming revenue, you better believe I’m going to do that. With every other distributor, this wouldn’t work because India pays so little (from Spotify), but paid so much from CD Baby. 

+How This Artist Grew To 500,000 Monthly Spotify Listeners Without Playlists

I’m using the past tense because Joel told me that CD Baby switched back to the 800 (or so) rate system so what CD Baby artists get paid now is much more accurate to what Spotify indicates they should be getting paid. 

The September 2020 reports in artists’ CD Baby account will reflect the fluctuating rate.

To be clear, CD Baby wasn’t keeping any extra money than their standard 9% commission. CD Baby was paying out 91% of the money – it just wasn’t paying it out to the correct artists based on what Spotify indicated those artists actually earned. 

Another thing, in 2020, CD Baby saw a massive spike in releases. 

With the live music industry shut down, it seems most artists decided to release more music. CD Baby could not handle the volume and their customer support got WAY backed up. 

I had received more complaints about CD Baby’s customer support in the past 7 months than I had in the past 7 years. 

Joel assured me that they are working on this. But time will tell if they’re able to catch back up and offer the same level of customer support they were once famous for. 

2020 has been rough for CD Baby (from the artist’s point of view). But as a company, they have grown massively this year and went on a hiring spree because of all the new releases. 

BEST:

  • Open to all
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting
  • No lyrics distribution
  • No (producer) credits distribution

+CD Baby Pro Publishing vs. TuneCore Publishing

DistroKid

DistroKid Review:

When I wrote my first digital distribution comparison just about 7 years ago, DistroKid was the new kid (pun intended) on the block. They (well, at the time it was just 1 dude, Philip Kaplan) had just launched and had already received praise from Derek Sivers (founder of CD Baby) and Jeff Price (founder of TuneCore and Audiam). Neither of these founders still work at their companies – obviously they wouldn’t be heartily praising a competitor.

DistroKid was the first distributor to offer unlimited distribution for one annual fee and DK has been continuing to push innovation and challenge the industry ever since. DistroKid has since become one of the top 10 distributors worldwide for total units sold/streamed.

And in October 2018, Spotify acquired a minority stake in DistroKid.

This just means that Spotify has a financial interest in seeing DistroKid succeed and that their partnership is a bit deeper now. DistroKid is still a totally independent company.

DistroKid was built and is run by Philip Kaplan. Philip (known as @pud by the Silicon Valley community) was once on the cover of Inc. and Fast Company magazines for his early 2000s blog F*cked Company. And he’s a kickass drummer.

DistroKid is very data focused with no bells and whistles. It’s sleek and simple. Just one page to distribute your song or album. Very, very simple.

I’ve gotten to know Philip well over the past few years and he’s a great dude. There’s a lot to be said about the people and culture at a company. If your leaders are petty, thin-skinned, vindictive pricks (I’m not naming names here…) that ethos seeps into every aspect of the company and royally f*cks everything (and everyone) up. If your company is led by good, honest, people, then your employees (and customers) will feel that.

Philip is one of the good guys.

DistroKid was also one of the first to offer automatic payment splitting.

There is a lot that can be improved upon with their payment splitting (like the ability for the main artist account to cover the fees for everyone else and payments being split ONLY after one party has recouped all the expenses of the album. Like, I paid $20K for my new album. I owe my producer 20%, but ONLY after I recoup the $20K.).

It’s a great start, and hopefully the kinks will be worked out soon. However, if you want to split remix revenue with your producer or pay your featured artists or collaborators of any kind, they register an account and you can setup the payment splitting together. 

I love that DistroKid gives you the ability to set your timestamp for TikTok – huge if you’re trying to go viral on there! It’s also great that they give you the ability to download your songs. So if your hard drive crashes, your wavs are stored in their cloud (and you can download them and get them back). 

Worth noting that things that are possible on other distributors, DistroKid makes impossible. 

DistroKid’s customer support will say you can’t do certain things. But that just means with them. For instance, if you want to distribute a remix titled a certain way with the remix artist as a collaborator (sharing Artist credit), DistroKid will block it because it doesn’t meet their style format. Now, DistroKid will say it’s the DSP’s style format and that they will block it, but that’s not true. I’ve tested this. 

DistroKid also refused to re-distribute a song that was distributed (incorrectly) by an artist who accidentally listed the artists incorrectly (put their collaborator as “feat.” without listing them as a fellow artist – which would link to their profile on Spotify and would show up on both artists’ profiles). They said it just wasn’t possible. But in the end this artist was able to get the song distributed how they wanted it with Landr

Philip has setup DistroKid to be as automated as possible. Which can really streamline the company’s workflow, but can be a major headache for when artists need hands-on (non-robotic) attention – like the use cases from above. 

+How This Artist Grew To 500,000 Monthly Spotify Listeners Without Playlists

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties.
  • Open to all
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Credits distribution

WORST:

  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

Ditto Music

Ditto Music Review:

Ok, deep breath. A lot has changed since I posted my first digital distribution comparison article 7 years ago. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits (twice), companies have ‘pivoted’ and gotten out of the distribution business. Companies have been acquired (Believe bought TuneCore, Downtown bought CD Baby) and others have gone under.

Ditto Music is one of the companies that threatened to sue me. Well, the co-CEO Lee Parsons did, for asking a question about royalty collection.

Ditto Music is run by co-founders, co-CEOs, co-brothers, Lee and Matt Parsons. It started in the UK and was who Ed Sheeran first used to distribute his self-released music back before his record deal. Remember what I said about the culture and ethos of a company? Well, I’m sorry to say that Lee and Matt have some of the worst reputations in the space. They consistently berate their customers (publicly on message boards) and get into Twitter battles. They have very thin skin and cannot take criticism well. This is all personal, yes, but this attitude seeps into every aspect of their company – including customer service.

I have gotten more complaints from readers about Ditto than any other company on the list. 

By far. Complaints about missed payments. Complaints that the customer service is great ONLY UNTIL you pay them money, then customer service is non-existent. Metadata errors and mislabeling/misordering of songs on the album with it taking months to get it fixed. Removals taking months. If at all. 

And worst of all, complaints that Ditto rips down releases and doesn’t pay their artists. This is a class action lawsuit waiting to happen. 

All in all, even though Ditto has a great marketing department (for the company – not their artists) and even though they have rapidly expanded to two countries with multiple offices and even though there are very good people who work at Ditto, I cannot recommend their service.

Needless to say, this is the only company that I am confidently putting into the ‘do not work with them’ category.

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties
  • Open to all
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting
  • No songwriter / producer credits distribution

FreshTunes

FreshTunes Review:

This company is based in Moscow, Dubai and London. The headquarters are in Dubai even though most of the employees work in Moscow. I spoke with Andrew Rudetskih and Alexandra (Sasha) Aleksandrova out of Moscow to get a better handle on their service back in 2018.

So, this is the only other company that does not take a commission OR a fee (like Amuse). They are funded by investors and the company makes money with upsells like LANDR mastering, artwork design and marketing (Facebook ads).

Similar to Stem and Amuse, I’m slightly wary of any investor-funded company because if they lose their investor(s) the company goes under. They don’t seem to have a sustainable business model.

Since this review was originally posted, I have received many customer complaints that FreshTunes has delayed payment and that their reporting isn’t very transparent. Beware!

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties
  • Open to all
  • Distributes to China
  • No upfront fees

WORST:

  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting
  • Does not distribute to China
  • No lyrics distribution
  • No songwriter / producer credits distribution
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

Horus Music

Horus Music Review:

Like how OneRPM has cornered the Latin American market, UK based Horus is starting to corner the Asian market. They have seen success in India and Korea and are expanding into China. They have a lot of mechanisms in place to help with marketing and promotion (for a fee). Even though they are technically open to all, they do listen to every release that comes through to make sure it is of some quality. They want to keep their reputation high with the DSPs.

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties. 
  • Open to all
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Credits distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees

LANDR

LANDR Distribution Review:

So, if you’ve heard of LANDR you probably know them as an automated mastering service. They have struck partnerships with seemingly every company in the music industry with their one-click mastering service. They have also since launched a samples library and a marketplace to hire recording professionals called Network.

They entered the distribution game in June of 2017. Quietly. Without telling any of their partners. And word on the street is, it royally pissed off some of their distribution partners – which severed some of those relationships.

I reviewed their mastering service a bit in my book.

They have a successful distribution arm of their company now and I’ve heard great things. 

BEST:

  • Open to all
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting
  • No lyrics distribution
  • No songwriter / producer credits distribution

OneRPM

OneRPM Review:

Even though OneRPM is based in Nashville (with 6 other offices in NYC, Miami, Mexico City, Bogotà, Rio De Jinero and Sao Paulo). OneRPM has the Latin American market (and specifically the Brazilian market) on lock. 70% of their clients are from Latin America, about 20% are from the US and 10% from the rest of the world. The founder and CEO, Emmanuel Zunz, told me that Brazil is 2nd to the US in worldwide audio consumption (I’m assuming he is excluding the entire Asian markets – since OneRPM don’t distribute there).

OneRPM is moving away from a DIY focused business and is focusing more on label/distribution deals ‘signing’ artists. 95% of their business is from artists they sign or labels they represent.

Much of their focus is on Latin America (and Brazil), which leaves serious blind spots when it comes to how the rest of the world operates. But, I would guess that no one understands the Brazilian market better than OnePRM. Emmanuel told me a story on how they were able to collect YouTube mechanical royalties for a Brazilian artist retroactive for 4 years.

BEST:

  • No upfront fees
  • No hidden fees
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Credits distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Must be accepted to use
  • Takes commission

RouteNote

RouteNote Review:

RouteNote has been around since 2008 and has held steady even though it hasn’t made the giant waves of the CD Babys, TuneCores and DistroKids of the space. It has a solid team of 70 in the office (most are actually in working bands) with 60 developers in India. The founder/CEO Steven Finch is originally from Australia and moved to London to run a recording studio.

RouteNote was one of the first distributors to partner with SoundCloud. They have a small record label and management services. RouteNote moderates the data and if they see songs that are starting to catch they will target tastemakers and playlist editors. “Artists don’t typically know that they are being pushed,” Steve told me.

RouteNote is one of the first distributors to reach all of the Chinese outlets in addition to India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia (with 193 total countries). They boast that they cover “95% of the world’s music market” and are “constantly partnering with extra stores.” Steve predicted that in “5-10 years (the Asian market) is going to be crazy.” They have gotten in on the front end of it all.

He said currently some artists are currently earning a living from the revenue just based from China and that the younger generation is very strong in China. 

Steve told me that “mobile phones changed everything” in India and China. It’s driving the youth who might be in very rural areas who before would not have the opportunity to find, consume (and pay for) music.             

BEST:

  • Open to all
  • No hidden fees
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible
  • No credits distribution

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Some upfront fees
  • No lyrics distribution

Songtradr

Songtradr Distribution Review:

Songtradr is one the newest additions to this review and the music distribution game. They launched their distribution arm in June 2018. Songtradr was started by Paul and Victoria Wiltshire (they’re married). They are both musicians with a lot of experience in the sync space. Songtradr started as a sync licensing service.

It’s kind of like a sync licensing company meets a music library. 

They have in house sync agents and a robust music library searching system. They have been growing rapidly and regularly get syncs for their artists. 

Songtradr uses a 3rd party distributor out of Europe for the actual distribution. Because of this, they have to deal with currency conversion. I got a look at some royalty distribution reports from August of 2019 and their Spotify payments were nearly half what other distributors receive. They have said they have remedied this (only after I pointed this out). That’s the issue with companies who get into distribution after the fact – pretty steep learning curve. I’ve seen updated royalty reports and it seems they have worked out this issue for now. 

And to support artists during the nightmare that is 2020, they are offering free distribution with 0% commission through the end of 2020.

BEST: 

  • Open to all
  • No hidden fees
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Some upfront fees
  • No credits distribution

Soundrop

Soundrop Review:

First off, go check out their Twitter account. It’s hilarious. The best in the biz. Beyond goofy. It’s completely unprofessional and I f*cking love it for that.

It’s run by the head of Soundrop, Pony. Soundrop was created when CD Baby took over Loudr’s distribution service back in 2017 when Loudr got out of distribution (and then was acquired by Spotify).

Soundrop is meant for cover artists. Like artists who primarily play cover songs. It’s only $9.99 to distribute a cover (cheapest of anyone out there). With streamlined cover distribution and payment splitting with no additional fees, it’s solid if you distribute covers regularly and need to split up payments. It’s meant for collaborators. Like Stem, it had payment splitting from the very start. And is focused around getting everyone paid their appropriate percentage (so you don’t have to deal with handling paying your collaborators).

Their reports, however, leave much to be desired. They basically just give you an excel sheet and say “good luck!”

Soundrop is technically located in the CD Baby building, but the services are completely separate and Pony mentioned that he doesn’t really talk to the CD Baby people very much.

Soundrop isn’t meant to compete with the other services (like their sister CD Baby). It’s meant to simplify distribution for a very specific kind of creator.

BEST:

  • Open to all
  • No upfront fees
  • No hidden fees
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Credits distribution

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • No lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

Spinnup Music Distribution

Spinnup Music Distribution Review:

Spinnup is a distributor that was started in Sweden and now has offices in London, Germany and France. It’s under the Universal Music Group (UMG) arm and is meant to discover emerging talent to potentially ‘upstream’ to UMG. Upstream means that, because UMG can see all the Spinnup data they can jump on an artist that starts to catch and sign them. Do you want to sign to UMG? Well, that’s an entirely different article. But why would you want to give up ownership of your music plus 85% of your royalties? If your music is earning you revenue and you need a fat upfront check (like an advance) there are royalty advance services out there like The Music Fund that can help you with the capital. But that’s another article for another time. 

+How To Get a Record Advance Without a Record Deal

Spinnup did tell me that over 75 artists upstreamed to UMG from Spinnup. 

So that’s definitely something impressive worth noting. 

The focus of Spinnup is very European – not UK or US. They use FUGA for distribution which means they have access to FUGA’s power and higher streaming rates..

I like that they are a community driven company and have programs where they work with disadvantaged kids, giving them studio time, teaming them up with mentors and helping them get their music distributed. 

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties
  • Open to all
  • No hidden fees
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST: 

  • Some upfront fees
  • No payment splitting
  • Does not distribute to China
  • No credits distribution

Stem

Stem Music Distribution Review:

Stem is run by CEO and co-founder Milana Rabkin. It is worth pointing out that this is one of the ONLY distributors run by a woman. 

Stem is investment backed – meaning that their business model hasn’t been profitable until recently. In 2019 when they realized that more artists did not mean better business (just more money spent with customer support and tech), they pivoted. They booted a significant number of artists who did not meet their earnings threshold and upped their commission from 5% to 10%.

With its remaining clients, Stem has a good reputation. So this was probably a good move in the end (even though it left many artists out in the cold). 

They boast a very high playlist plugging success rate and every client gets a dedicated project manager. 

Stem has the best payment splitting infrastructure built right into their reports. Stem had payment splitting from the get-go and everyone else in the space has been playing catch up. 

What’s really interesting with how Stem runs payment splitting is: all parties must approve splits before distribution. This can be a blessing and a curse. You know nothing is getting distributed until everyone agrees on splits, but at the same time, if this hasn’t been agreed upon well in advance some people could hold out demanding a higher cut. This is why you should work with split sheets from the get go!

Stem is invite-only (submission based) which allows the team to give personal attention to their clients.

BEST:

  • No upfront fees
  • Payment splitting
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible
  • Distributes to China
  • Credits distribution

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Must be accepted to use
  • Some hidden fees

Symphonic Distribution

Symphonic Distribution Review:

Originally founded in 2006 by Jorge Brea, Symphonic has grown to distribute over 50,000 artists. After receiving a major investment, they hired higher ups from the label and distribution world and have positioned themselves as a major indie player able to compete with the other power houses in the space like AWAL, Stem, the Orchard, InGrooves and Believe. Symphonic is actively courting buzzing indie artists, big time managers and indie labels. 

I sat down with the CEO and founder, Jorge Brea and their new Chief Client Officer, Nick Gordon, to get a better understanding of their new focus. Nick used to work at the Orchard as VP of Client Services. Music Business Worldwide wrote that Nick was “pivotal to the company’s client and technology growth that led to its acquisition by Sony Music.” He maintains an independent ethos and has a deep understanding of the services indie artists need to compete in a big way.

They now have offices in Brooklyn, Nashville, Tampa, Bogotá and Denver which is definitely helpful to get some facetime if you’re in the area.

Symphonic now has a lot more services other than just straight distribution. And with their new hires, they have direct contacts at Spotify, Apple and the other DSPs to help get features and playlist placement.

Symphonic has created a niche in the Latin music market and are actively positioning themselves as the distributor for urban, electronic and Latin artists (Nick used to specialize in hip hop and electronic music when he worked at Caroline Distribution). Not to say they won’t work with others, they are just specializing in these genres. Many of their clients make beats and Beatport is a major partner for Symphonic. Many distributors won’t touch Beatport (their reputation for payments is iffy), but Symphonic is all-in.

They now don’t offer a standard terms and conditions like the majority of the other distributors on this comparison, but negotiate every deal separately. Every artist is now vetted and they are only ‘signing’ artists they believe in. Instead of charging up front fees, they now take 15% (like AWAL) and offer additional services (like playlist plugging, PR and advances for select clients).

BEST:

  • No hidden fees
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Credits distribution

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Must be accepted to use
  • Some upfront fees
  • No payment splitting
  • Revenue reports are poor / decent

TuneCore

TuneCore Review:

So, TuneCore has been around almost as long as CD Baby. It originally set itself apart from CD Baby initially because it offered 0% commission (you receive 100% of your royalties), but makes its revenue by charging yearly fees (which can really add up). TuneCore was acquired by Believe Digital a couple years ago and has become extremely corporate because of it. Once acquired, my access to human beings got squashed and I had to go through a PR company to get answers – which took forever. It lost its human touch and now TuneCore feels cold and detached. And sources tell me that the TuneCore offices feel the same. No personality or life.

The founder (who has since left) Jeff Price (with the help of Jamie Purpora of BUG Music fame) launched TuneCore Publishing (neither are still at the company) – which is an admin publishing company created to help collect mechanical royalties for their artist/songwriters.

I can’t recommend the publishing service because they are exclusive to sync – deal breaker!

It’s hard to justify $50/album/year when DistroKid charges $20/unlimited songs/year and offers payment splitting.

Tunecore’s analytics and sales reports are some of the best in the biz.  

TuneCore offers revenue advances based on past streaming royalties

I do have to give a shoutout for their revenue advances feature which IS super innovative – where if your past releases have generated consistent revenue, TuneCore will advance you the money for future releases so you can have more of a budget up front for production and marketing.

BEST:

  • No commission. You keep 100% of your royalties
  • Open to all
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Lyrics distribution
  • Credits distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Some upfront fees
  • Some hidden fees
  • No payment splitting

UnitedMasters

UnitedMasters Distribution Review:

UnitedMasters has been making waves the past couple years. They just surpassed 500,000 artists and have become a major player in the space. UnitedMasters was founded by industry big wig Steve Stoute. Worth noting, UnitedMasters (UM) is one of the ONLY distributors with a black CEO. UM is another investment backed company – which got around $70 million from investors like Alphabet Inc and 21st Century Fox.

UM is positioning itself as a label services company to compete with Stem, AWAL, Symphonic, The Orchard, InGrooves, and Believe. They offer advances to some artists (with different revenue sharing models), brand partnerships, and a more hands-on approach (if you’re a priority artist). 

They boast that their sync licensing division is strong at that they have direct deals with NBA 2K20. UM regularly run contests for artists to submit music. Winners of these contests get flown out to NYC for various promotional opportunities. 

They have struck sync deals with Hulu, Bose, JBL, NFL as well. 

UnitedMasters has focused on hip hop from the beginning and that’s where their focus remains. Like AWAL, Symphonic and Amuse, UM will “throw gasoline on the fire” if something starts to bubble up. They have the ability (and the money) to help artists pop. But you have to get your song going first on your own. 

BEST: 

  • Open to all
  • No hidden fees
  • Distributes to China
  • Distributes to TikTok
  • Credits distribution
  • Revenue reports are clear and intelligible

WORST:

  • Takes commission
  • Some upfront fees
  • No payment splitting
  • No lyrics distribution

Conclusion:

There is no “best” or “worst” distributor. You have to look at your own, personal situation and own, personal career to figure out what is best for you. There is no one way to make it in the New Music Business. And there is no one way to look at music distribution.

If you have any questions, comments or experiences with any of these companies please list them in the comments. 

About the Author

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

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