I originally did this report for Ari’s Take. Everything is current and has been fact checked by every company.
This is the most comprehensive and accurate digital distribution comparison piece on the web.
Who is the best digital distributor? Read on…
I sat down with reps at 8 different digital distribution companies, CD Baby, DistroKid,Ditto Music, Loudr, Mondotunes, ReverbNation,Tunecore and Zimbalam, 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 8 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 iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, etc and NOT about stand alone, digital download, self-managed stores, like BandCamp.
Full disclosure, I should say, I have used CD Baby, Tunecore, DistroKid and Loudr to release my music in the past. I just released my latest album and this piece honestly helped me decide who the best company for this release was.
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.
If you have any questions or have used any of these companies please let me know in the comments below!
On To The Comparison!
(in alphabetical order)
I spoke with Kevin Bruener, Director of Marketing and a musician himself. He has been at the company for 8 years and worked alongside founder (and music biz icon) Derek Sivers for many years. This is one of the biggest (and the first) independent digital distributors in the world. They have over 330,000 artists signed up to their service.
* Because they have been along for so long, they are proven and aren’t going out of business anytime soon (your releases (and reports) are safe).
* They offer physical CD and Vinyl distribution as part of the digital signup price (they will fulfill (mail out) CD/Vinyl orders for a fee of $4 a pop).
* No yearly (or hidden) fees. Once you signup an album you never pay again for any service (other than publishing).
* iTunes weekly Trend Reports. Still don’t get paid for a couple months, but you can see how the new release is doing.
* They also offer their publishing service CD Baby Pro that will link up. I did a full report on that here.
* Only company to collect SoundExchange (Rights Owner) royalties for you. It’s a massive process (and headache) to signup as a rights owner (and fill out their catalog spreadsheet). CD Baby covers this for you. You still have to signup as a Featured Artist on your own with SoundExchange, but this cuts a lot of the hassle down.
* They take 9% commission.
I spoke with the founder, Philip Kaplan about his service. He is a musician and programmed it all himself. He is also the founder of the musician meet up site, Fandalism with over 600,000 musicians signed up. DistroKid is the newest service on the market. It opened up to the public on October 10th, 2013. It’s a completely different model than all the other digital distributors. They have been recommended by Derek Sivers (founder of CD Baby) and Jeff Price (founder of Tunecore) – who no longer work at the companies.
* Unlimited songs. You heard right. Whether you release 1 song or 1000 songs, it’s still $19.99 a year.
* Their website is SUPER clean and simple and you can get started with no headache.
* 2-4 hour upload time to iTunes (if it doesn’t get flagged for an audit by iTunes)
* They do not take commission.
* They clear cover songs with a check box (and get you the proper mechanical license)
* Email every step of the way. Every step that you complete you will receive an email – including when it’s live on the store (only company that does this).
* They charge for their “Store Maximizer” feature which automatically adds all your releases to any new store that comes out. Worth noting, you can manually add your releases to new stores (for free), but who is going to keep checking back to see if any new stores are added? Adding releases to new stores should be built in for free. **Update 5-4-15
* Extra features prices (like the Store Maximizer) is not clearly stated in their FAQ or their pricing page. It’s only on the actual Upload page.
* They charge $.99 PER SONG for Shazam atop of the $20 a year
I spoke with Lee Parsons, the co-CEO and co-founder of Ditto Music (his brother is the other co-CEO/founder). He is a musician from the UK (now living in Nashville and heading up the US operations). Because Ditto started in the UK its main focus (and angle) is for UK artists. Anyone in the world can signup, but there is a clear UK focus on the website (just like there is a clear US focus on the other sites). They have about 60,000 total artists (now nearly split evenly US/UK and many coming in from Sweden and Australia). Not the biggest, but definitely large!
* Will distribute up to 10 songs to (just) iTunes for free
* They do not take commission
* Lots of expensive extra services (which are free with other companies).
**Update 7/25/14 Customer Service. I’ve heard from many readers, once you pay for services you never hear from them again. This is more than one isolated incident so I have to mention it. I originally had Customer Service under one of their “Bests” as it is listed on their website that they have won awards here. But unfortunately, I’m moving it to one of their Worsts because of the responses I’ve received.
**Update 10/8/14 Ditto threatened to sue me for asking a question. They are hiding something. I’ve heard reports from readers that they cannot get their albums removed from stores and aren’t getting paid. STAY AWAY
I spoke with the founder, Chris Crawford. The service was created by 8 musicians. This is the 2nd newest service (by 16 days) and launched October 1st, 2013. Chris had a previous distribution company primarily used for A Cappella groups. Loudr’s digital distribution service is mainly for cover artists to easily get their music on iTunes. Loudr goes directly to the publishers and gets licenses directly for their artists (instead of the artist having to hunt these down). Chris used to work at iTunes so has “an in” there still and understands it a bit better than most new distribution companies. They have a stand alone download store, similar to BandCamp, which is their main focus, but I felt it was worth to include their digital distribution feature as it’s innovative and unique.
* No signup fee. You heard right. This is the ONLY company that is free to get unlimited music on iTunes. Whether you’re releasing a single or 10 simultaneous albums, it’s free.
* Obtains mechanical licenses for your cover songs
* Revenue splitting. If you have multiple artists creating a song together (like collaborations) and all artists are owed revenue from the downloads, they can all sign up for Loudr accounts and Loudr will pay out the respective percentages to each artist. This is especially great for “YouTubers” who constantly collaborate on cover song videos.
* Submission to Pandora. The only company that will submit you directly to Pandora.
+Watch Out Harry Fox, Loudr Is Coming For You
* They only distribute to 7 outlets – the fewest of any company
* They take 15% commission. (If you want Loudr to clear cover songs and obtain the mechanical license for US downloads it’s 30% – just for US downloads though, it’s still 15% for streams/international downloads)
* Most of their features like iTunes pre-order setup and digital booklet creation you cannot do on the site, you have to work with a support member.
I spoke with the co-founder Steve Norris, a self proclaimed “serial entrepreneur” and a musician. They do not have direct partnerships with their outlets, but rather work through Interscope/Universal Music Group’s (UMG) distribution arm.
* They distribute to the most outlets by far. They are the only distributor that gets you to the same outlets UMG will. Other distributors built up direct relationships with retailers over the years, while Mondotunes just teamed up with UMG’s distributor who had these relationships already.
* No yearly fees
* They threatened to sue me for calling out the fake, very pro-MondoTunes (and anti-others) comments on this report on Ari’s Take. Steve sent me a loooong 8 paragraph email trashing the other services (before I posted this review). The fact that they have to go out of their way to trash others and are so defensive makes me think they are hiding something serious.
* The look of their website. Their website is so ugly and unprofessional looking it may get some to disregard all their good features and run away fast. Seriously guys, get this shit updated ASAP! They need a logo upgrade and a graphic design artist and web programmer who understand how images work on the web (pixelated edges, sloppy logo, etc). Their toolbar looks like it is out of a 1997 Website Building for Dummies book. With how many artists they infer are signed up (they would not give me a number) they should have the money to seriously overhaul this sloppy site. I have a guy if you’re looking. Seriously. Sorry for the rant, but come on, you’re competing with the big boys now.
* (Up to) 30 days to get on iTunes. Because they’re working through another distributor it takes them much longer to get releases out. They have set their release date (by default) to 30 days. Sometimes it’s quicker. Sometimes it’s longer. If you’d like to have it expedited (1-14 days guaranteed, it costs $25).
* They DO NOT pay 100% of net income (like they claim on their FAQ – awfully misleading). Their distribution partner (they asked me to withhold name) takes 10% commission of net income from retailer. They have since updated their FAQ to mention this (only after my initial report came out and made mention of this clear, misleading omission).
I spoke with reps from ReverbNation twice. First with Ferol Vernon, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Artist Services, when I initially worked on this report for Ari’s Take (11/2013), and most recently for this updated report I spoke with the CEO, Mike Doernberg.
ReverbNation is a one stop shop, “all in one package” for new, young musicians. They don’t target established musicians and they have built up a huge network of bands just starting off who don’t know where to begin (their website boasts 3.56 million). RN tries to keep everything in house (email services, EPK, social media sync, etc), which is great for bands starting off, not good for more established, mid-level bands. They also do not have direct relationships with outlets but use INgrooves Fontana for distribution (like Mondotunes).
Doernberg explained to me the vision of ReverbNation and explained they are currently in a company transformation. Since I first posted this initial report on Ari’s Take, ReverbNation has updated many of their policies, price points and distribution outlets. I guess blogs can make a difference!
* Packages. For $19.95 a month they offer a mailing list service (up to 10,000 subscribers), free song downloads, the ability to submit to opportunities such as TV placements and festival slots, and distribution of 2 releases per year.
* Tons of Data. Because they have so many bands who have registered so many shows, they have a touring database built up (similar to indieonthemove.com) that can help bands find venues of similar size in multiple cities.
* Everything a band sets up with ReverbNation is branded heavily with ReverbNation. It’s hard to operate independently from them in any respect.
* They are built for the beginning bands and don’t offer “professional” services for bands that outgrow the beginning model.
I spoke with Chris Mooney, Senior Director of Artist Promotions and Strategic Relationships. That’s a mouthful. They are one of the biggest distributors and he mentioned that 1 in 3 artists playing SXSW this year was a Tunecore artist.
* They do not take a commission
* iTunes, Spotify and Amazon MP3 Trend reports. You can see how much you sold on iTunes and Amazon (and streamed on Spotify) THE NEXT DAY. You still don’t get paid for a couple months, but this is a great way to see how a release is doing.
* They’ve been around a long time and are proven. Like CD Baby, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Your releases (and reports) are safe!
* They have a publishing service linked up that you can read more about here.
* Yearly fees
* Additional store costs. Every store they add after you initially sign up costs $2 to send your existing release to them. Or you can signup for their “Store Automator” for $10 per release to distribute to all future stores at no extra cost. Imagine my horror that releases I had with Tunecore from a few years ago were NOT sent out to a bunch of popular (newer) stores and now I owe over $150 to get it to them?! That’s great they continue to add stores. It’s super shitty they charge for each store. Ouch. No other company does this.
* High fees for most extra features
* They don’t respond to my emails anymore. Signaling that either they hate me (not sure what I did…) or serious shit is going down in the company.
**Update – Tunecore sold to Believe Digital. And the mystery is solved!
**Updated 1/9/15: I just added this digital distribution company to this report on 12.12.14. They have become a major player in the market with over 100,000 artists on the service. I spoke with the Product Director, Sandrine Hippolyte, from their French offices. Thick French accents are hard to understand! But oh so sexy. Oui Oui! Zimbalam was started by the indie digital distribution company Believe Digital. Believe (similar to The Orchard and InGrooves) only works with indie labels (and a few approved artists). Hippolyte mentioned that Believe got so many requests from artists for their services that they launched Zimbalam in 2009 for unrepped artists. Any artist can distribute through Zimbalam. Zimbalam operates independently from Believe, but because they are part of the same company, Zimbalam artists have access to the same Believe technology, connections and metadata.
+Believe Digital Acquires Tunecore
* Site can be used in 13 languages. They offer worldwide customer support (in most languages).
* Newsletter manager with open and location analytics (up to 10,000 names), single page artist website (with a vanity URL option), and embedded music players come with every distribution package – for life.
* No yearly fees
* iTunes, Spotify and Deezer weekly trending reports
* It’s under the Believe umbrella. If you start to sell a bunch, Believe will take notice and could sign you to Believe Records or Believe distribution which comes with one on one support and advanced promotion.
* Only company to charge a takedown fee. So if you want to switch distributors, it’ll cost you.
* 10% commission
* They pay quarterly. All other companies either pay monthly, weekly or immediately.
Terms from above chart:
Number of Outlets:
It’s very tough to get an accurate number from anyone. I got a (somewhat) complete list from Ditto, ReverbNation and Mondotunes, but they claimed they hit more stores than their list stated. All distributors said numbers fluctuate so much because many outlets are sub distributors (like Medianet and 24-7) who send your music to stores they are partnered with. The outlets listed on each distributors’ site are just the biggest. Mondotunes has by far the most (they hit most of Asia). While Ditto seems to be a close second claiming they hit “all stores.” It seems CD Baby and Tunecore send it to about the same places, while Distrokid and Loudr are very clear they only support the ones listed. At some point this numbers game got way too absurd.
More, though, isn’t necessarily better. All distributors hit iTunes worldwide.
AND REMEMBER, just because you’re in more stores doesn’t mean you’ll make more sales. You have to be able to promote to people who buy from those stores.
How much the company takes of the net amount. Meaning, after iTunes takes their cut of 30%, these stores will take 0-30% of the remaining amount.
This is the fee the distributor charges to get your album distributed and covers the first year of distribution.
This is the fee the distributor charges after the 1st year signup fee. CD Baby, Mondotunes and Loudr don’t have this, the others do.
All of the distributors are constantly bringing on more stores and outlets based on those that rise and fall in popularity (some shut down like turntable.fm and others pop up and take over the industry like Spotify). Only Tunecore charges per store they bring on.
Every distributor sends it to iTunes in 100+ countries (ReverbNation JUST updated this). It’s important for someone in Venezuela who falls in love with your YouTube video to be able to download it from iTunes.
Speed to iTunes:
Chris at Loudr used to work at iTunes and explained that “there’s no guarantee with Apple.” However, CD Baby has proven to Apple that their content is up to Apple standards and they no longer get flagged for review. Apple randomly flags releases for review from all the other retailers and if your album gets flagged it can add an extra 16 days to get to iTunes, HOWEVER, any distributor can ask iTunes to expedite it by simply clicking a button on their end.
The cost to remove your album from all digital retailers. Only Zimbalam charges a takedown fee.
You know how you can buy some artists’ albums on iTunes for about a month before the release date and then get it at 12:01AM the day it’s released? That’s pre-order. Some companies offer “instant gratification” song(s) that customers can get the moment they pre-order the album. Some also are able to set the pre-order price different than the sale date price (like $7.99 pre-order vs. $9.99 day of).
Youtube content ID monetization program:
Will you get paid for your songs on YouTube. Be careful, though, no company should take a % of revenue generated from your videos on YOUR channel – both CD Baby and Tunecore’s affiliates do. Audiam does not. However, typically you can “whitelist” your channel with most YouTube monetization companies (however you then have to signup for Google’s ad service which is a headache).
Digital Booklet in iTunes:
The ability to offer a PDF booklet that accompanies the album when it’s downloaded.
You no longer need a physical CD to submit to Pandora! Hallelujah! Read more about how to submit to Pandora digitally (anyone can) here.
Loudr is the only company that will submit you directly to Pandora.
Custom Label Name:
All retailers want to know who the label is. If you don’t list one, the retailer will most likely default to the distributor name or the artist name. To have control over this create your own label name when distributing.
ISRC / UPC codes:
ISRC codes are identification codes encoded into the digital files (and in your CD – you should send these codes to your mastering engineer) that helps with tracking and charting. To register with Soundscan you need a UPC code. UPC bar codes are also necessary if you want to sell your CD/Vinyl in stores.
Get Codes Before Upload:
Mastering engineers like to encode the CD with the ISRC and UPC codes before sending the CD to replication. This ensures that all digital files will be encoded properly and chart accurately. Not being able to get the codes before you are able to upload the masters inhibits tracking.
It’s free and super simple to do. Go to http://titlereg.soundscan.com/soundscantitlereg/ to do this. All digital retailers report their sales to Soundscan for chart placement. By registering your UPC on the Soundscan website it insures that the sales are tracked to the proper release (and artist). If your physical CDs are sold in physical stores (remember those?), those stores will report their sales as well based on your UPC code. Worth noting that Ditto’s “Chart Breaker Package” registers for worldwide charts (not just Soundscan).
Opt Out of Stores:
Some independent artists have territory specific record deals and cannot distribute their album independently in certain territories (like a deal with Universal UK – not US). It’s important to have this flexibility. You never know what lies ahead for your career.
When payment will be in your bank account (or Paypal)
How much you have to have in your distribution account before you can withdraw the money.
Tunecore, ReverbNation and CD Baby are the only services that will let you know how your release is doing in iTunes day by day (Tunecore) or week by week (CD Baby and ReverbNation). All the others will let you know when they get paid from iTunes 6-8 weeks later.
Obtain License for Cover Songs:
If you want to releaser a cover you must obtain (and pay for) a license first. It’s kind of a headache, but you can do this from Harry Fox Agency or Limelight. Loudr goes directly to the publishers and gets these licenses for you.
Customer Support Email Turnaround:
I tested all of this.
Customer Support Phone:
Sometimes it’s important to get a response right away.
Clearly, there is no “best” service. Every artist’s situation is different and you have to decide what fits your current needs best.
Distrokid is best for constant creators; for those who don’t work in album cycles, but create music all on their own and want to put it out in the world immediately. Loudr is ideal for cover artists, collaborators and those who don’t want to pay any upfront fees. Zimbalam is great for artists all over the world. CD Baby and Tunecore are great for all their extra features. ReverbNation is good for beginning artists who like everything bundled together with the utmost guidance. Where do you belong?
It’s worth mentioning that Mondotunes and Ditto took swings at the other companies when chatting with me. Props to the others for only talking about the companies they represent. This isn’t a political election!
If you have any questions, comments or experiences with any of these companies please list them in the comments.
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of Ari’s Take. Listen to his new album, Brave Enough, on Spotify or download it on BandCamp. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake