Ask The… Digital Distributor

By Pursehouse – follow me on Twitter

As the ‘Ask The… Agent’ and ‘Ask The… A&R’ posts went down rather well with you guys I’ve decided to make it into a little series in the same ilk. Imagine that.

Pros: You’re going to get your questions answered by people at the top of their game in that area of the music industry.
Cons: Less of my grammatically suspect nonsense.

Or should that be two pros?

Anyhow, this month I’ve pitched your questions to four digital distributors and the answers are shown as followed:

TO) The Orchard
Z) Zimbalam
EB) EmuBands
DM) Ditto Music

You’ll have now (hopefully) noticed that unlike the previous blogs, these guys haven’t opted for anonymity which means their answers arguably could be seen as a tad ‘safe’ (for example, I personally know quite a few digital aggregators who have several gripes about their relationships with Apple, but none here seem to have a bad word to say about the behemoths), but regardless this is a good insight into their world and how the four companies view their own place in the digital aggregation space.

And let us begin…

Does artwork actually matter anymore in the digital world? Surely people are only going to buy my music if they’ve heard it before and won’t be influenced by the aesthetic?

TO) Artwork still remains an important part of the package. It’s more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd with the millions of albums available online. Nice artwork can be a handy way of setting yourself apart and building a strong brand.

Z) It contributes to the overall representation of the artist and maintains what little value there is in what is an increasingly disposable product. Decent or unique artwork can serve to guide the promotional campaign for your release. Try expanding and elaborating on your theme when it comes to your website and email design.I’m sure I’m not alone in being influenced by good artwork. If I see something, even a thumbnail, that looks interesting I’m more likely to check it out. I remember trawling through MySpace looking for new bands and I always clicked on the most interesting profile pictures.

EB) Artwork is still a valuable part of any release both from a fans and artists perspective. One example which can used to evidence this, would be iTunes development of iTunes LP’s, aimed at allowing artist to provide a more complete audio and visual package.
Also as services continue increasing their catalogues and competition increases, artwork can play a role in making it as easy as possible for fans to identify your music. This may be through the use of a consistent image/style that your band uses or simply through the clear portrayal of your artist name and release title on your artwork.

DM) Never underestimate how much artwork says about you. How much good artwork says about your brand and how much BAD artwork says about your brand.
Labels spend time configuring artwork; it’s an integral part of the brand. What does your artwork say about you as a brand? If potential customers are looking for music via Spotify or we7, they will see your artwork before listening to your music. So do the following things; i) Get a good logo. You can go to somewhere like www.99designs.com and get one really cheap. ii) Artwork. Work out who your market is BEFORE you start thinking about your artwork. There is a reason rap albums all have the same style artwork; because it works. Who is your audience? What other music do they like? Justin Bieber’s audience is mostly female so you will see a striking image of just himself against a white background, on most of his artwork. Someone like Bon Iver has a more mature audience and his artwork captures the feel of the music. It’s atmospheric and picturesque. There is nothing wrong with researching what other music your fan base is into, and making yours similar. People’s brains react strongly to familiarity. Give yourself the best chance of arousing interest. Make sure you give yourself the best chance of being discovered and think of everything as to how it affects your brand.

As someone who works with them on a daily basis; what do you actually think of Apple?

TO) With such a powerful position in the digital music market, it’s important for us to work closely with Apple. They certainly have the most advanced back-end system and an insightful data feed. Both of these aspects make our relationship run pretty smoothly.

Z) I don’t actually work with apple day in day out; I focus more on the artists than the stores in my role. However I can say that Apple are a great driving force in music sales. They keep ahead of the technology, and while they may not always have the music industry’s best interest at heart, it probably couldn’t have survived without them. Apple was the first digital store to work this well and it’s still at the forefront of commercial consumers.

EB) We have a long standing and positive relationship with Apple. We find Apple to be a progressive company who continuously improves their iTunes service for both artists and aggregators alike. Examples of this can be seen in their work to substantially lower their turnaround times for new content through to the provision and launch of the PING network, to add additional value to the iTunes store for artists.

DM) They are good people and they have helped independent artists by working with companies like us and not just the majors. It would be good if they had more people looking after the featured artist content. That is why sites like http://www.musicindie.com are great. They hash out deals for the Indies. I think we will see more of these over the next few months.

As an artist, what should my feelings be towards Apple’s iCloud and Google & Amazon’s respective digital locker services? Is there anything I can do now in preparation to make the most out of them?

TO) Unless you’re a major artist, it’s unlikely you’ll see a great deal of cash rolling in. It’s more like finding a few quid down the back of the sofa that you’d lost, so treat is as a bonus. The main thing you should be doing is ensuring the metadata is correct for all your releases. Otherwise you’ll end up with unmatched tracks and lost revenue!

Z) This is a tough one to answer. It has been somewhat of a race between these three companies to get their version out first, Amazon even launched with no licensing as they didn’t feel they needed it. I think this race has resulted in these services being released somewhat unfinished and I believe we will see more and more things we can do with the technology in the coming months. I think it’s too early to tell what long term effect the ‘cloud’ is going to have on the industry and I do not believe anyone really knows. There are some interesting ideas for artists popping up at the moment. DIY Media has come up with a cloud-based platform, which artists on SoundCloud can use. It allows artists to sell their tracks direct to fans around the world using their social media and websites whilst using ‘DIY Media’s easy-to-use social commerce storefronts’.

EB) Excitement. The continuous development of new service models provides you, as an artist, with new opportunities to engage with potential and existing fans and get your music out there. As an artist, investigate the offerings available to music fans through different services and tailor your release/fan communication strategy accordingly. These are the channels through which you will be communicating your music with your fans, so it is vital that you understand the way that these channels work from your fans perspective.

DM) The Cloud hasn’t taken off at an alarming rate and there are still only a small percentage of music users actually subscribing. Things like The Cloud will change the music industry over the course of the next 10 years, but The Cloud by itself won’t have the impact once thought. YouTube and other free streaming sites still rank highest amongst teen users. Labels/artists will find themselves picking up more cheques for less money over the next few years. As this happens though, and they find new revenue streams, collectively artists will start earning more money. There will be many new services that artists will need to get their music on.

If I was to distribute a 10 song album through your company to iTunes, how many units would I have to sell in order to make my money back? Any what percentage of the artists that you distribute sell that amount?

TO) We work on a percentage basis with no upfront fees, so we only make money when you do. 100% of the labels and artists we work with make their money back, and then some.

Z) The price to distribute an album through us is £29.99, so the number of units you have to sell in order to get that back is entirely dependent on the price you give your album. For the sake of this answer we will say that you are choosing to sell your album for £7.99. At that price you would only have to sell 4 units to make your money back, with £1.97 to spare!

EB) We do not operate a charge on a per-store basis – thus in order to make your money back, sales can be drawn from other retailers without increasing the amount of money you need to recoup. There are also some variables to take into consideration such as the territory in which the sales are made as this may alter the royalty rate paid by stores, the price tier set for your release and the exchange rate at the date of payment.
However, based on a 10 track release, selling at a standard price tier on the iTunes UK store, an artist would look to sell 10 releases in order to earn the amount paid for distribution through our service. Our decision not to charge any ongoing fees such as annual, maintenance or storage fees means that this number is fixed as opposed to continuously increasing year upon year. This results in the vast majority of artists using our service earning back the distribution fee without any problem.

DM) Music distribution to iTunes is completely free with Ditto Music. No subscription charges and no percentages. We are the only company to offer this service. The first track you sell makes you profit. 99% of our artists sell more than one track. You keep all your rights and royalties. Barcodes, ISRC codes are all free, so you can make money straight away. Our business model is about more than just putting music on iTunes. We have had 11 UK top 40 singles and we want more successes with independent artists. We offer a wide range of services for artists, form chart eligibility to label set up. We do more than just get artists on iTunes.

The digital aggregator landscape appears to be quite overcrowded with a lot of companies, is one company going to come out on top? If so; what will they do that the others won’t?

TO) I think there is space for a number of distributors. Each provides differing levels of service, pricing and specialist tools. To succeed, they must have the ability to adapt to the market and listen to their artists and labels. It’s about consistently raising the bar. Personally, I don’t like the term aggregator as it implies a reactive rather than proactive stance. The Orchard doesn’t consider itself an “aggregator.”

Z) It’s impossible to say who is going to come out on top, but a nice by-product of this stiff competition is that artists are getting even better deals as distributors lower their prices and offer more tools.

EB) We view competition as a positive, particularly from an artist’s perspective – as it means that aggregators are continuously pushed to improve their offerings, ultimately resulting in better services for artists/labels. Our ethos from the beginning has been to keep things simple. Our belief is that a service providing a simple, affordable, effective and importantly transparent solution for digital distribution will come out on top. Tied in with this, is the importance that the process both pre and post distribution be made as simple as possible, allowing artists to focus on other areas.

DM) We have been in business since 2006 and I understand that companies look into the market and see monetary potential. We started the company because we wanted to release our own music, not to start a business. We ran into a problem and we needed to fix it. We have all been in bands and we know how artists think and what they need. For new companies stepping into the market they do it purely from a profit making perspective but this isn’t like a normal business. You are dealing with people’s careers, you have to be in tune with their demands and know what they want. As long as we keep listening to our customers then we will continue to lead the market in digital distribution.

How do you make the most of releases when there is so much competition within the stores? What are the secrets for getting noticed?

TO) As I mentioned, artwork is still a useful way of getting noticed and edging the consumer towards buying/streaming music. Solid metadata is a must, so avoid spelling mistakes. The most important factor, as it should be, is the music. Make sure your fans are able to access the music easily, from your social networks and website. Always provide direct-to-buy links, playlists at Spotify are also useful, providing they’re circulated. If your distributor offers marketing, retail features still remain relevant, especially at iTunes – providing your campaign is strong enough.

Z) I’m a firm believer that the music is still the most important factor but I think these as a new artist days you need to embrace all the tools available to artists and be more innovative with your promotional strategy. I think there’s great potential for the first bands to embrace Google+ to get noticed like Lily Allen and Artic Monkeys did with Myspace. Don’t get me wrong it’s not a case of signing up to every site out there (that would take forever!) it’s how you use them. I think now it’s better to use 2 or 3 sites really well than have profiles. Adele has the biggest selling album of this year and she’s not on Twitter. In terms of usable tips great video content is a good place to start especially if it has viral potential, i.e. people watch it and want to share it because it’s funny, cool, or totally unique. Giving music away in exchange for email address is now a tried and tested technique for building your fanbase. Make it easy for people to find your music so put a link to your free download in your Twitter profile and Facebook about section (on the right hand side of your page).

EB) Editorial teams at the majority of online retailers are very receptive to receiving content for review – however these teams are no different from any other areas of the media, in that one of the main things they look for is coverage in other areas i.e. press, broadcast etc.
We regularly successfully submit feature requests to stores, including iTunes, which result in our artists/labels releases being featured – be this on the home page, new release section etc.
The secret – hard work and communication. Work hard to achieve as much coverage as possible in other areas and communicate and talk with your aggregator of choice to make them aware of your release plans to see what they can do for you.
We assign each artist/label account with a personal account manager, with one of the key reasons for this being to increase communication so as that artist/labels are able to fully maximize their releases.
It’s also essential to allow enough lead in time, feature requests are generally required by stores 4-6 weeks in advance of the release date to allow the appropriate scheduling. Despite the lowering of turnaround times by both retailers and distributors, this can also be an example of good practice by a band and will ensure that they allow themselves enough time to fully promote the release through other avenues.

DM) The key isn’t the store; it is making people aware of your product. You have to have your weapons in place before going into battle. The net is swamped with artists but only around 10% of these artists are playing the game properly. When you pitch to stores, or we pitch to stores for you, then you have to give them something newsworthy. If you have a big following on Facebook, if you are selling physical copies at gigs, then it shows the stores that you are going to be a good commodity for them to promote. If you are looking to get onto Beatport and you have a proven track record, they will most likely take you, as long as your music fits the criteria.

With over 400 stores available, what are the key stores for independent artists and is it worth being in all of them?

TO) If your distributor has deals in place with the services – and if they don’t charge extra for additional stores – you should make sure you have your titles in all full-catalogue stores, plus the specialist stores that are important within your genre. For example, If you’re dance artist, it’s important to be on Beatport

Z) I don’t think you have to be on all of them but it depends on what kind of music you make and where you want to sell your music. iTunes accounts for the vast majority of all digital downloads but there are others which are essential like Amazon, eMusic and Spotify. If you make dance music then Beatport is essential as it is the leading resource for electronic music.

EB) Our primary role is to provide the opportunities for artist/labels – we work to provide artists/labels with an effective solution to distribute their content to all major online retailers.
The importance of individual retailers is dependent on the artist/label and their target audience. No-one knows this target audience and how this audience can best be reached/maximised better than the artists/labels themselves. This ties back to knowing the offerings available by each of the services.
In saying that, the vast majority of artists releasing through our service take full advantage of the fact that we do not charge on a per-store basis and opt to distribute their releases to all of our retail partners. This approach certainly has it’s merit, the more platforms your release is available through the more options you are providing to your potential/existing fans, enabling them to access your music in a way that suites them.

DM) It never harms you being on more stores. In a recent conversation with the author Jay Frank I learnt that he only listens to music if it is on RDIO. This is the service that he has chosen to subscribe to. You may only get a few seconds before you are forgotten about. If your new fan goes to THEIR favorite store to look for your music and you aren’t there, they will move on. Distribute and promote yourself as widely as possible. Check your stats and then learn which markets are working for you.

What are the alternative release formats that are proving to be successful? I.e. Clusters instead of the traditional albums/EP’s/singles

TO) Bundling releases, especially with experiential and limited edition stuff, is becoming increasingly important. Once you have an established fan-base, why sell them one product? Give them options. Let them dictate how much they want to pay depending on how much they want to get. The results are eye-opening.

Z) While album sales aren’t doing very well sales of digital single tracks are rising. People can pick and choose the tracks they want rather than purchasing whole albums so they are more likely to pick the best selection of tracks from multiple artists. Therefore giving people as many buying options as possible including the option to pay what they want, a la Radiohead, can only help.

EB) This is still something very much being trialled by both artists/labels and the retailers themselves – at this point the potential of alternative formats has still to be fully explored. This will require further work by the stores themselves in how these are presented to fans/customers and furthermore by artists to ensure that the content they produce takes full advantage of the alternatives available.

DM) I don’t think we have been in the realm of EP’s for quite a long time. People are more used to buying individual songs now over albums. In my opinion this is a good thing as it generally means albums have to be good quality for people to buy the whole album. Gone are the days of having an album with 2 hits and a bunch of filler. People will continue to download single tracks, and fans of bands will buy albums and everything they can get their hands on. For hardworking bands with good fanbases, this won’t matter.

What’s the future of digital distribution going to look like?

TO) The million dollar question! Personally, I think we’ll see established artists moving to direct deals with distributors and smaller indie labels thriving with the global reach and knowledge that distributors can offer. The landscape will settle down and we’ll see long-term partnerships emerge.

Z) We all become one with the cloud and you will be probably able to ‘follow’ your favourite artist to the extent that as soon as they’ve written a new song it will be instantly wired to the iChip installed in your brain

EB) That’ll cost you.

DM) A big pie split up into a lot of pieces. With many revenue streams coming in from new technologies.

So there you go! Any eye opening answers there? Any particular company speak ‘your language’? Let me know your thoughts via the usual methods.

What I’m listening to this week: Gotye, Hey Sholay! and Cattle and Cane.

What I’m reading this week: Not so much ‘reading’ per se, but I can’t stop looking at these ugly tattoos. It’s one of the greatest websites I’ve ever known.

Stay tuned.

~ by Sentric on July 14, 2011.

One Response to “Ask The… Digital Distributor”

  1. […] So there you go! An insight to the world of the music lawyer – if you enjoyed that be sure to check out the similar posts with A&R, agents and digital distributors. […]

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