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How to choose a digital music distributor in 2023

Releasing music online today is no hustle. For a small fee, you can have your song or a whole album distributed to hundreds of online stores and streaming services in a matter of days. There are hundreds of comparison articles that explain in detail the differences between the most popular digital music distributors. However, my goal here is to help artists who are at the very beginning of their music journey to make the right choice. Yes, there are differences. When you are an experienced musician and you make a living by playing, making, and selling music, then to make the right choice you simply need to calculate how much money you expect to earn and how much you would pay to each digital distribution platform in case you use it. It's that simple. If music is your hobby or a passion project, you may look at this differently. Maybe you don’t care about metrics and just make music for fun. Maybe you want to release one album and stop. Maybe you have big plans and want to release music consistently. All these situations call for a different choice of digital distribution platform. I'm gonna give you a few examples from my own experience. If you are here only for the comparison, feel free to skip to the chapter after the next one.


My background

I have a post-rock project called Diary of My Misanthropy that was active mainly in 2013-2015. I chose TuneCore as my digital distributor in 2013. At that time, they charged $50 for an EP\album per year and allowed me to keep 100% of the band’s earnings, which sounded really good in the beginning! I was actively promoting my stuff during these two years and made enough profit to cover all my production costs and even bought a new guitar (which I consider a huge achievement in my short musical journey!). What I didn't consider at that time was that I must pay for the distribution service every year even if I stopped promoting my music. Which happened quite soon. After 2015 I switched my focus to our design studio and wasn't making any music till 2017. For two EP releases, I had to pay 100 bucks per year simply to keep them in stores. And as you can guess, a few years after the release they generated less than I was spending. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that now TuneCore has a completely different pricing model, which is MUCH more attractive).

In 2017, I had another EP ready to be released. I also knew that I would take a long pause after releasing it. This is when I decided that I needed a new distributor. Same as always, I was choosing between the three biggest services – TuneCore, CDBaby, and DistroKid. I had quite specific prerequisites:

- I had to release 3 EPs at the same time (two old releases and the new one).
- I was planning to take a pause after this release.
- I wasn't expecting to make a lot of money, I just wanted my music to be available everywhere.
- I didn't want to pay more money than I could make for my music.

This is why I chose CDBaby – the only platform that doesn’t have an annual fee. They charge a one-time fee for each release and then take 9% of your earnings. That worked for me. I haven't released anything since 2017, but my project continues to generate money. It's not a lot, but since I don’t have to pay an annual fee, this money goes directly into my pocket, and I can buy a cup of coffee occasionally and enjoy it as a prize for my musical efforts.

Moving releases from one platform to another is quite a hustle! So, choose your first distributor carefully because changing it is a pain!

In 2023 I started a new music project (although it’s not rock or metal this time). Did I choose CDBaby again? No. And the reason for this is not that CDBaby is a bad platform. I simply had different prerequisites. I was planning to release a lot of music consistently for the next few years and I considered that the new project potentially can get much bigger results than the previous one. This time my choice was DistroKid because they take a flat annual fee and allow me to release as many singles/albums as I want. I also keep 100% of my earnings.

My purpose in telling you this story was not to relive my glory days. I’m not really a professional musician and I’ve never really “made it” in the scene. I wanted to give you some context because I think my experience is somewhat like most young artists' experience. At first, I didn't really know what I needed. It was hard to see the long-term effects of my choice when I simply wanted to put my music out there. I didn’t know what to expect. I tried three of the most popular music distribution services and each of them worked for a specific goal or a specific stage of my life. So, maybe my example will help you understand what you need.

And now, let's start the real comparison.


The basic breakdown

In this article, I’m focusing on the three biggest competitors in the digital music distribution industry – DistroKid, CDBaby, and TuneCore. Let’s take a look at the basic breakdown of their services.

Comparison table: music distributor services in 2023


Why should you choose DistroKid

DistroKid was the first digital music distributor that introduced a pricing model where you only paid a fixed annual fee for unlimited releases, and you got to keep 100% of your royalties. This allowed it to get very popular among indie artists very fast. Now most of its competitors have switched to the same business model, but DistroKid is still in the lead because of its community and the various tools that it offers as a part of its service.

It has three price plans now. The entry-level Musician plan costs $22.99/year and allows unlimited releases for one artist. If you manage more than one artist, you can get the advantage of their Musician Plus (2 artists) for $39.99/year and Ultimate plan (5 artists and more) starting at $89.99/year. DistroKid is often accused of being a pay-per-feature business model. That's partially true. You can upload your music within your subscription plan unlimitedly. However, they have a bunch of extra options that cost either a one-time fee or an annual fee.

Discovery Pack | for $0.99 per song/year allows your music to be recognized by services like Shazam/iPhone Siri.
Store Maximizer | for $7.95 per album/year DistroKid will automatically deliver your music to new online stores and streaming services as they add them.
YouTube Content ID | for $4.95 per single/year, $14.95 per album/year, + 20% of YouTube ad revenue you get paid if your music is ever used in any YouTube videos.
Leave a Legacy | for $29.00 per single, $49.00 per album of 2+ tracks (nonrecurring fee) your music remains in stores and streaming services even if you cancel your account.

The problem with these extra features is that the costs accumulate with each release. However, in my opinion, all these features are rather optional. Even the YouTube Content ID isn’t worth it in most cases. Unless your music gets uploaded to YouTube by other people a lot.

In my opinion, Distrokid is the best choice for people who want to release a lot of music frequently but don’t need all the paid features that it offers as extras. This way, you can keep your costs low and maximize your earnings. Distrokid also offers a bunch of extra tools to help you promote your stuff. It got HyperFollow (a free landing page generator), Upstream (a service that connects artists and labels), a Spotify Canvas Generator, and a lot of other useful stuff. Most of it is free or included in one of the plans. DistroKid also gets your music to music stores and streaming platforms faster than its competition.

YOU CAN CHECK OUT DISTROKID HERE - https://distrokid.com
And if you use the link above, you will get 7.5% off and I will get a couple of bucks and maybe buy myself a nice cup of coffee.


Why should you use CDbaby

CDbaby is the only digital distributor that doesn’t have a subscription business model. You pay a one-time fee of $9.99 for each release and they keep 9% of all your earnings. You also get a free YouTube Content ID, but they keep 30% of your earnings through it (which is 10% more than DistroKid keeps).

After doing simple math, you can realize that this model is not very cost-effective for musicians who actually make money. If you make $1000 per year with your music, a 9% fee means you pay $90, which is much more than you would pay for a subscription service with an unlimited number of releases.

However, this business model is beneficial for people who make music for fun or simply don’t want to risk annual costs in case their music doesn’t launch well. I know that most people dream big and don’t want to have limitations, but for some people, music is just a hobby. They want to have it out there so people can enjoy it, but they don’t plan to make a living from it.

The other benefits of CDBaby are responsive customer support and very detailed sales reports. CDBaby also has a bunch of extra tools and services for promoting music, but they are mostly paid separately and can be used even if you distribute your music with someone else.

YOU CAN CHECK OUT CDBABY HERE - https://cdbaby.com


Why should you choose TuneCore

Before 2022, TuneCore had the least cost-effective business models. They charged for EVERY release ANNUALLY. Then in 2022, they realized this wouldn’t get them anywhere and switched to the same model that DistroKid has. Their entry-level plan is even cheaper now - $14.99/year, unlimited releases for one artist. They also offer YouTube Content ID for free, which makes this option even cheaper compared to DistroKid.

Why would people use DistroKid if there is a cheaper option? For me, it’s a matter of taste. I like DistroKid’s Interface and reports much better. I still have access to my Tunecore account, so I have checked their new interface out and I honestly don’t like it. I find DistroKid’s tools more useful. And I simply like the indie community of DistroKid. If you are not sure which one to pick from these two, don’t waste your time comparing every feature that they offer. Choose the one that gives you a better first impression and call it a day.

YOU CAN CHECK OUT TUNECORE HERE - https://www.tunecore.com


Is there a free alternative?

If you make music for fun and are looking for a way to distribute your music for free, I have good news for you! There is one! Amuse is the only online music distributor (which I know of) that has a free plan that also allows you to keep 100% of your royalties. You can distribute 1 release per month and it will take up to 28 days for it to be uploaded to all the stores and platforms. It even allows you to get a Spotify Verified Artist Checkmark and do Royalty Splits. However, if you want to get more tools, get your music uploaded faster, and not be limited by 1 release per month, you need a paid plan that starts at $24.99 per month, which is more expensive than all the other platforms described in this article.

YOU CAN CHECK OUT AMUSE HERE - https://www.amuse.io



Do you need to look into other digital distribution services?

Probably not. There are hundreds of them, and I believe it’s healthy to have competition in the industry. However, I have seen such services come and go. Do you want to be stuck with a distributor that ends its business at some point? I don’t think so. These three giants of digital music distribution are so big that they can simply offer you more than any other services. Not only price-wise, but also with extra services and tools. And the competition between those three keeps them in shape and helps them refine their services constantly.

If you want to check other services, though, take a look at Ditto Music, IndieMassive, Boost Collective, Spinnup, LANDR, Amuse.


Final thoughts

- Choose one distributor and stick with it. Unless you chose CDBaby initially, but now make a four-figure profit annually.
- Consider your goals. If you make music for fun and don’t expect high earnings – go with CDBaby and spare yourself the stress of an annual paid subscription. If you want to release music frequently and make money from it – go with DistroKid (or Tunecore).
- If you want a YouTube Content ID AND you want to release more than one album per year, then go with TuneCore rather than DistroKid.
- If you already work with a distributor that you are not satisfied with, you can still switch to a different one. It won’t be quick and easy, but it’s doable. I did it myself and it was worth it for me.

I hope this article will help you to choose the right way of distributing your music!

Vladyslav Tsarenko | CEO at All4band Design