Selling your music online may at first glance seem like an easy idea. Step 1: put your music on iTunes, Spotify or Bandcamp. Step 2: somebody hits buy. Step 3: profit. Or at the other end of the spectrum it can seem like an impossible wasteland where you upload a song to SoundCloud, nobody listens to your song and you never make any money. It won’t be the first option and it doesn’t have to be the second option. Making money from selling your music online (you going to hustle tapes out of the trunk of your car?) doesn’t have to be impossible. There is no one foolproof method to making a living from selling your music online, but having an understanding of who the players, how they work together and a few pointers on how you can approach them. Now you can go ahead and sign to a label and have them handle all of this, but we are making the assumption you went out recorded and are releasing these songs on your own or are on a very small label and still need to handle a lot of this business on your own.
Though labels can handle a lot of the release process, it is good to know what can do for you to put your music online. The vast majority will have relationships with distributors to get your music in online stores, but depending on your deal, you may still have to go further on your own. If you want to distribute to certain foreign countries, you may have to arrange to release on another label or help set up distribution through a service that operates abroad. As always, know who you are working with, go over the details of your deal and make sure it is something that is adaptable to your growing career.
Distributors are the middlemen that are the conduit between your music and a digital download store or streaming service. Apple and Spotify aren’t just sifting through random singles from a submission inbox for random bands to put it on their server. They have trusted distributors around the world that they work with who help filter music and make their job easier to get music onto their platform. This also creates a middleman you have to go through to get your music onto a digital download store or streaming service.
The distributors generally do the same thing, though some offer more services like publishing or better analytics and access to more stores in markets abroad, but you are going to pay for what you get. The smaller the price, the slimmer the services. They charge generally in three different ways. The first is is a flat fee, meaning they will charge you a fee to distribute your music, say $100 per year no matter how much music you have. The second will charge a percentage of your royalties to distribute. Then will charge per upload you have on the service. Some may charge a combination of the three just at lower rates of each. Knowing how to approach depends on your output, total catalog and your budget. If you can’t afford to pay an upfront cost for distribution and won’t be putting out a lot of music right away, someone like Distrokid will only charge $20 per year to upload unlimited albums or songs to the service. Others like TuneCore charge per upload to the service but they don't take any of the proceeds from what you make on it.
Beyond just distribution, some like INgrooves are offering services beyond the traditional distribution like marketing, playlist placement and publishing. Obviously this comes at a cost as well.
You need a distributor to get on a streaming service or digital download store, so obviously it is a vital component to making any money on your music. Choose the right one carefully.
Publishers, at their core, are companies that collect, administer and exploit the royalties from a songwriter or producer. They represent the your works as a writer. Some will represent just certain songs, or compositions, and others will sign artists for their entire catalogs. This is common for artists with expansive catalogs or prolific songwriters.
Having a publisher is vital as a songwriter not just to make sure your licenses are taken care of, the paperwork for dealing with labels, collection agencies and other artists. Always be mindful that your paperwork is being done correctly, because any mishap can be costly, be time consuming to fix, delay releases and at its worse cause you to miss out on other opportunities with syncs or work with other songwriters.
Publishers come in all shapes and sizes. There can be niche agencies that specialize in certain genres, ranging from country to pop to hop-hop like Big Yellow Dog Publishing in Nashville that works with a lot of country artists. There are larger publishing companies such as Downtown that handle larger catalogs from a wide variety of artists and you will likely find your superstars with those agencies.
Licensing and publishing is one of the more complex parts of the industry. It is where many artists have been taken advantage of over the years. They signed away their music for pennies on the dollar and didn’t reap the full benefits of what they should have made. And it is also where some artists make their living as prolific songwriters and producers.
Have a publisher who is willing to fight for you in negotiations with labels, potential sync opportunities and other deals using your copyrighted material so you are being paid fairly for your work.
Publishing deals can work in a variety of ways. You can work out the amount of time you want to sign away a portion of your song composition, generally 50% to the company so they can administer, exploit and collect on your behalf. At the end of it, you can renew, move on or renegotiate. Take these deals very seriously because with streaming, publishing is a crucial component of your payment puzzle. Also with the complexity of songs written with multiple songwriters across various collections agencies, publishers can help figure out the collection process and paperwork for that.