Artists go through a multitude of steps just to get their music to listeners, and a large part of the process of distributing music is the artist’s use of a music distributor. A music distributor, says Philip Kaplan, author of the article “How to tell if your music distributor is ripping you off,” is “a company that helps musicians (and record labels) get their music into iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and other online music stores & streaming services.”
Obviously, music distribution is an integral part of ensuring an artist is being paid for their work and that their music is as accessible as possible.
Exploiting the artists
However, as Kaplan points out, distribution is an easy service. Thus, he warns artists to never “give a percentage of [their] earnings to a distributor.” When a distributor has access to a percentage of an artist’s earnings, they’re in a solid position to make more money when an artist sells more music – without doing any extra work at all. Kaplan stresses that this is a perfect way for distributors to piggyback off the success of an artist, without even lifting a finger. “You shouldn’t have to pay more,” he says, “if you happen to be more successful.”
Are distributors purposely misleading?
Although it may seem easy to just reject a distributor that tries to collect a percentage of an artist’s sales, Kaplan says it’s not so clear-cut. Many distributors are sneaky about their fees and what percentage of earnings they collect, and they can trick artists into believing their service is free.
Kaplan illustrates this purposely misleading conduct with screenshots of “free” music distribution service sign-up pages. He avoids naming the companies, but, nonetheless, shows how exploitative they are.
Some don’t collect a percentage of earnings but charge flat fees per album release – which is not free. Others do collect a percentage of earnings – one service collects 15%, which Kaplan points out is “higher than anyone else.”
Avoiding the traps
There are legitimate music distributors out there that will not bleed artists dry. The city of Austin has a great service set up for local artists to search through music distributors and find the one that best suits their needs. This service also includes a brief statement about each service’s fees – which should hopefully bring some clarity to artists in the already extremely murky music business.
Building a better solution, locally
Another solution to the distribution problem would be for Austin to create a more cohesive music industry network within the city.In Ali Killian’s Reporting Texas article “Austin’s Fragmented Music Industry Limits Local Labels’ Reach,” she quotes Don Pitts, formerly of the ATX Music Department in Austin, who says of artists: “… no one knows they’re here, because the market is very fragmented.” As Killian points further points out, Austin’s fragmented music industry is a major hurdle for artists to overcome, and the fragmentation makes the distribution process much more difficult since it lacks the more polished infrastructure other major music cities often have. It also leaves Austin’s numerous artists struggling to get their music distributed, which prevents greater exposure for the artists.
For these artists to get their music distributed on a wider scale, the Austin music infrastructure as a whole needs to come together to better support the musicians and to prevent them from outsourcing their distribution needs to other music hubs like Los Angeles or Nashville. “We do need more labels. We need more publishers. We need more licensing companies,” Pitts says.
Indeed, if Austin wants to ensure its musicians aren’t taken advantage of by music distributors, it’s best for the city itself to start solving the issue – rather than leaving it to artists to navigate the confusing and manipulative world of music distribution.