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Deep Dive

Picking The Right Distributor: 7 Tips For Indie Artists

Artist managers break down the three tiers of distribution services, how to find one that best suits your needs and what to do before signing a contract.

So, your single or album has been mixed and mastered. It’s time to figure out who will distribute your music — digitally, as a physical product or both. But with dozens of options available, it can be difficult to know which service is the right fit. Billboard spoke with managers working with independent talents to determine some of the most important factors to consider when establishing a relationship with a distributor.

Know your needs.

Before beginning your search, it’s crucial to know what you want out of the relationship. “Distributors operate best when you come in with a full plan and a full body of music and a story and can say to them, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done. What can you bring to the table?’” says Alex Valenti, founder of 3V Method, a management, recording and publishing company. “‘What do you feel excited about based on your connection with the music and what you’re working on so that we can blow this up and have a win together?’”

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The answer often starts with what the artist is looking to do. “These days, independent artists often behave like entrepreneurs, having to manage many aspects of their careers themselves beyond just the music,” says TuneCore CEO Andreea Gleeson. That, she adds, “can be daunting and difficult to navigate, especially when it comes to understanding and utilizing data.”

Pick a level of service based upon your needs.

Not all distributors are created equal. Ben Locke, A&R manager at Capitol Records and partner at Hot Management, which guides the careers of Ella Jane and Cece Coakley, among others, explains that essentially there are three different tiers of service.

The first is a basic distribution platform like DistroKid, CD Baby and TuneCore; services that upload your music to streaming sites such as Spotify, Apple Music, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube for a nominal set price that can be as low as $20 for an act per year.

The second tier includes distributors like Stem, Level and Sparta, which are more selective with the artists they take on as clients. Some require acts to apply for distribution through an online form. If you are deemed a good fit (and investment), the service contacts you. In addition to distributing your music to streaming services and digital radio providers like Pandora, these companies will pitch your music for editorial playlists, which is one of the reasons they’re pickier about clients. They might also provide you with a small advance upfront; however, they will ask for a percentage of your master royalties, which typically ranges from 7% to 15%, although deals vary based on the bargaining power of the act versus the distributor. You may also be required to agree to a period of exclusivity with the distributor.

The third, and most involved, tier of distributors is often dubbed “label services.” These companies are sometimes owned by major labels — Sony owns AWAL and The Orchard; Universal owns Virgin Music Label & Artist Services and InGrooves; and Warner owns Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) — or larger companies and have in-house A&R teams that scout for talent themselves. So, unlike the second tier of distributors, they rarely take applications from artists. The menu of services these distributors offer comes close to that provided by labels, but in return, they will want a much larger cut of royalties. Advances range from 10% to 25% of master royalties, although some will do a joint-venture deal for, say, five years in which the distributor splits the profits with the artist or label.

In reality, the second and third tiers are quite fluid, with companies like AWAL offering a mix of both levels of service depending on the act. Locke says artists should begin their search for a distributor “knowing what your goals are and what you need to get there. If you don’t think you need an advance, don’t commit yourself to recouping a large sum of money early in your career. If you need an advance for living costs or other expenses, then go with a partner that can give you that.”

Hannah Peale, who manages Ambar Lucid and DJ_Dave through her company Night Media, urges newcomers to remember that “the more services and money you’re getting upfront, the more you have to do to recoup.” If you already have a manager who handles a lot of tasks themselves, consider asking the second- or third-tier distributors to toss out specific services — like marketing, synch and publicity — that are redundant or unnecessary.

Consider a partner that specializes in your genre.

Although many distributors work with a large range of genres, some specialize — and artists who create in that genre should consider them. EMPIRE, for example, is known for its expertise with rap music. ADA hosts a Latin music division, offering its acts specialized global support in Spanish-speaking countries. TikTok’s SoundOn and SoundCloud’s Repost distribution divisions are also options if you fare particularly well on one of those platforms and want to focus on growing your audience there.

Sean Lewow, A&R at the label, management and music publishing company S10 Entertainment and manager to indie artists Katherine Li, Austin George and Kate Peytavin, says his experience with SoundOn has been fruitful. “They understand TikTok trends better than anyone else,” he says. “We do most of our content strategy in-house, but SoundOn gives us tips here and there and explains broader patterns on TikTok. It helps us guide the artists in the right direction with content.” Plus, with SoundOn, Lewow and his team get access to a dashboard that provides key insights about the music’s performance on the app.

Avoid cold submissions.

Many distributors, especially those on the second tier, offer submission pages for new artists to share their work for consideration, but Hannah Hicks, who co-manages DJ_Dave with Peale and is on the management teams for Take a Daytrip, Grimes, Michael Uzowuru and other acts, suggests a more personalized approach: “Find someone who works at the company and seems to like your genre and reach out via email or social media. With LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram, it’s easy to find people,” she says. “That helps you skip the general pool of people and find someone who could potentially take interest in your project.”

Go with the distributor that cares.

If you’re in the position of having multiple options for second- and third-tier distribution, Lewow says the best partner is often the one that shows “proactivity and responsiveness.” “The reason you’d go for an elevated distribution service is so there’s a human being there for you when you have a question, when you want to swap out the cover art last minute, when something goes wrong,” he says. “They can hold your hand through the process.”

Hicks adds that ensuring the company is enthusiastic about the project is key as well, especially if you’re signing a longer-term deal with a higher advance. Because employees come and go, Hicks says it’s important to know if there are multiple champions for you at the distributor. “See if you can meet more than one person at the company before signing to gauge their enthusiasm for your music,” she says.

“I feel like distributors all kind of do the same thing; the only thing that makes them different are the people within the building and within the teams,” says Kei Henderson, president of label and management firm Third & Hayden. “It’s important for young artists and young managers to research and find all the avenues possible. And once you find that one person who really cares about you and your music, make sure they have the power to help move your shit.”

Ask for payments directly to collaborators.

Some distributors, like Stem, have systems in place to send royalty payments directly to collaborators for their share of the track, while others don’t. If your music features additional collaborators on the recording side, like producers or featured artists, consider finding a partner that can do this. Bryce Sexton, manager for indie trio Hablot Brown, says that “if you don’t get a distributor to automate the [royalty-splitting] process, it creates a bunch of work for either the artist or manager who will have to weed through each royalty statement to figure out who needs to be paid what.”

Splitting royalties is even more complicated when the artist is trying to pay royalties to producers and/or featured artists at the same time as recouping his or her distribution advance. “It’s very easy to make mistakes if you’re handling this yourself and causes a larger headache,” he says.

Getting an advance? Get an attorney.

Though distribution contracts are often considerably shorter than label deals (because they do not involve copyright ownership and other stipulations found in the latter types of agreements), it is still important to have a lawyer review the paperwork if an advance is involved. “Music attorneys have probably done 40 or more of these deals,” says Peale. “They will know what is normal and what you can ask for.”

Additional reporting by Dan Rys.