In the not-so-distant past, there was a time when the music distribution process was so loaded with gatekeepers that thousands of artists resorted to selling music in the trunk of their cars. In the absence of the support and resources provided by the record companies, the best way for these artists to take their music to travel was to literally drive it from place to place. Over the past few years, everyone from JAY-Z to DJ Screw has embraced this model, painstakingly building their fan base, one rookie at a time.
Of course, for every DJ Screw who built an empire from the trunk of their car, there were thousands of other performers who never found enough ears to survive. For every JAY-Z that rose to international stardom, there were a million more bands that retreated into obscurity after spending decades peddling their CDs at local shows.
Fortunately, we have come a long way since that time. In the late ’90s and early’ 90s, the internet democratized music distribution, giving every artist the chance to find a fan base that supported them. Today, every artist on the planet is seconds away from being discovered by a longtime fan, eliminating the need for traditional gatekeepers.
The downside to this accessibility is that the competition for the attention of these fans has never been greater. If the artists of the past were trapped in a labyrinth of giant hedges, playing Marco Polo with blindfolded listeners, the artists of today are crammed into a circular room, simultaneously shouting “Marco”, while the listeners who watch from above strive to discern the source of every call. Even though their music is easily accessible, artists still need a way to stand out.
Enter distribution partners, like Tunecore, AWAL, United Masters, EMPIRE, Distrokid and Opposition, whose job it is to ensure that an artist’s work is delivered and visible on all platforms that audiences frequent. In its most basic form, this means providing artists with a hassle-free way to download their output to DSPs, like Spotify, TIDAL, and Audiomack, with the click of a button. But distribution services can — and depending on their customers requirements-provide so much more.
“Distribution is a dozen dollar service these days,” says Brenden Hewko, who manages Toronto rapper DillanPonders, and partners with Opposition to distribute his music. “Any platform can distribute your content. Ultimately, the main differentiator is the infrastructure and internal resources that are provided alongside the distribution itself. “
If you are an artist, determining the “infrastructure and internal resources” you need from a distribution partner is the most important step in determining which one is best for you. It forces you to take stock of your creative journey, examine the success of your current marketing efforts, and determine where the gaps lie. If you’re a young artist still experimenting with your sound, for example, a hands-off service like DistroKid might be all you’re looking for. In exchange for a small subscription (or fee per download), DistroKid offers a self-service platform that allows anyone to download their music for automated distribution to DSPs.
On the other hand, if you are a dynamic artist, who has accumulated enough influence to sign a mutually beneficial recording contract, you can go the traditional route and sign with a label, like EMPIRE, which also handles the distribution. Typically, this means ceding some of your income (and creative control) to the label in exchange for access to its vast infrastructure. This distribution strategy is then combined with a broader rollout plan that includes public relations outreach, placements on high traffic playlists, earned and paid media, and more. Overall, this is a much more hands-on approach, and artists with a clear view of their marketing may find it difficult to compromise, but it’s hard to quantify the value of this kind of access. .
“In 2021, distribution companies are more than just distributors,” explains Hewko. “They are multifaceted hybrid entities that blur the lines between distributors, labels and publicists.” The evidence is growing, as Sony Music Entertainment has just acquired distributor AWAL with the aim of merging their disparate offerings into one complete package.
And yet, despite the implications of this consolidation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding the right distributor – no “complete package”. For most artists, the right distribution partner understands this need for customization and takes the time to develop an individualized strategy for each artist they work with.
“We know there is no model for success. That’s why we are more selective with our list, ”says Shane Gill, Leader of the Opposition, an end-to-end distributor who offers digital labeling and marketing services. “We see every relationship with an artist as a partnership. Artists seek to reclaim their creative control without losing the industry expertise and connections a label can offer. We identify their individual needs to help them take their careers to the next level.
The benefits of this hands-on / straightforward hybrid approach are exhibited in Opposition’s work with emerging and established artists, such as Oklahoma City hip-hop / R&B collective O2worldwide and Australian alternative rock group The Rubens. In the case of the former, Opposition took stock of O2worldwide in their artistic journey and devised a distribution strategy focused on digital strategy, organic and paid media, and brand development to help them build a fan base. . For the latter, they devised a strategy around the strategic playlist, public relations and influencer marketing to help them take the next step and extend their reach beyond Australia.
“We were looking for a more progressive channel partner, offering extensive label services, combined with a large focus on social media and influencer campaigns across all platforms,” says Matthew Kennedy, director of The Rubens, about the choice of the team’s distributor.
The results of this type of personalized campaign speak for themselves. They are a testament to what distributors and labels can accomplish when they take the time to understand the unique challenges faced by every artist they work with. When O2worldwide started working with a distributor, it was a promising group with little success. But today, if they were to seek a contract with a major record company, they would have the advantage of negotiating favorable terms. In fact, they can even choose to forgo a recording contract altogether.
“O2worldwide decided to go with Opposition because of their sincere desire to work with us on the ‘BACK ON TRACK’ project,” says Zack Frye of O2worldwide. “Their team saw the potential of music and provided us with resources that took our reach to a new level. They also made the process extremely artist-friendly, and I would like more labels to be managed like this. It is the label of the independent artist of tomorrow.
On this last point, it is important to make a small distinction. If the labels of the past were gatekeepers, then the “labels of tomorrow”, like the opposition, do not fit perfectly into this category. More specifically, they are traffic controllers. They’re not trying to figure out who should cross the intersection; they just want to make sense of the chaos going through it, so that everyone can find their way to the destination they were headed to anyway.