How to Get a Distributor Deal for Music

Man browsing through vinyl albums in a record store
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Finding a music distributor is crucial if you want to see your album in the shops, whether you're a band planning to self-release your album or a label trying to get several albums out there. The task of finding music distribution is not always easy, however. This guide will help you get started and give you some clues as to what you should look for in a distributor.

Get the Ball Rolling

Trying to get a distributor on board is not much different than trying to get signed to a label. Instead of sending your demo to a record label, you are instead sending your "demo" to a distributor. Of course, when you are looking for a distributor, your demo is usually a finished album, or in most instances, your demo package will contain several releases.

To decide which distributors are going to get packages from you, do your research just as you would if you were trying to choose a record label. Check out your record collection—many albums list the distributor in the liner notes. Independent record stores can also be a great resource—get someone on the staff to tell you which distributors they buy from and what they think of them.

Once you have made your shortlist of ideal distributors, start making calls. You'll want to introduce yourself and get the thumbs up to send in a package. Larger distributors will have frontline staff running interference for their label managers, but be persistent and try to get through to one of these managers, so you have someone expecting your package. Distributors often have label managers who have varying music tastes so that the distributor can work with a wide variety of labels – make sure you get through to the person who is most likely to be into the music you are pitching.

Make Your Pitch

Now, about that pitch. What you will send to a distributor is essentially a promo package, but you should tailor your package so that it specifically addresses the information that distributors need to know. What exactly is it that distributors need to know? They want to know that they will be able to convince record stores to stock your album, so they want to know the album will be adequately promoted. Here are some things you will want to include in your pitch to the distributor:

  • An extensive set of press clippings for all of your releases
  • Radio playlists if the album has received any radio attention
  • Press and radio campaign plans including details of any impending press coverage (these plans can either come from you or a professional PR company)
  • Tour dates or information about any tour plans underway
  • Details of plans for the label or the band - upcoming releases, etc
  • And of course, the music

Increase Your Chances

Sometimes, the reason finding distribution is so tough is that you are not really "ready" for it yet - you don't have a framework in place to be able to take full advantage of distribution and move quickly if one of your releases takes off. The following things can increase the attractiveness of your release or label with distributors:

A self-release can be a tough sell to a distributor, especially if you don't have any plans to work with other bands in the future. This kind of setup can make your label look like a vanity project instead of a legitimate business. You'll create a better impression if you can show that you are interested in more than self-promotion.

Promotion is extremely important to distributors, so having a professional radio plugger or PR company can help your cause quite a bit. If you don't have the money to shell out for a pro, then create your detailed promotion plan and make that available to the distributor (be specific about which publications you will target, how you will approach the web and radio, etc.)

Unless an M&D deal is on the label, distributors want to know that small labels will be able to deliver the product. A working relationship with a manufacturer can be extremely helpful when you're trying to get a distributor on board.

Seal the Deal

When a distributor is interested in working with you, all that is left is to work out the specifics of the deal. You'll need to figure out the following things:

  • How many of each release the distributor wants to start with
  • How they will re-order stock
  • Who will pay for manufacturing
  • How many promos the distributor needs to work with
  • How long before the release date do they need promo materials
  • What price the distributor will sell the album to the stores for (this can change per release)
  • What cut the distributor will take from each sale
  • How you will be paid, when you will be paid, and how often you will be paid
  • How you will get sales sheets
  • Will the distributor hold any authority to put the album "on-sale" without your permission, and how much can they cut the album price before needing to seek your permission

Of course, this list is not exhaustive - your personal circumstances will determine what needs to be covered in your deal as well as the specifics of the deal. The most important thing to remember is - get it in writing!

Types of Distributors

There are many different forms distributors can take - indie distributors who work exclusively with indie labels, distribution through a major label, distribution through a larger indie label - there are several different setups that can be used for distribution.

But when you are pitching distributors, there are two basic kinds to look out for – the clearinghouse type of distributor that works with anyone who comes along and selective distributors who pick and choose the labels on their rosters (note that I am using these terms for descriptive purposes only – distributors are not usually referred to in this way). Here's the difference:

Clearinghouse Distributors 

These kinds of distributors work solely as middlemen between labels and stores. They are willing to add just about any label to their books, and they will deliver your product if stores start ordering, but they will not actively try and sell your album to the stores. It is up to you promote your music enough so that the stores take notice (often communicating directly with the stores is best). There are a few problems with this kind of distribution:

Directly promoting your releases to record stores is a full-time job in itself, and the job gets larger depending on where you live (imagine trying to communicate with every record shop in the USA).

These distributors usually have very large catalogs, so even if they send sales books out to the shops listing the releases they carry, a store may not be able to find your releases easily when they want to order them. Most of these distributors work on a consignment basis with labels, so you will have to carefully track all of your sales and invoice the distributor appropriately - there is lots of room for error, here.

Clearinghouse distributors do offer a few benefits. If finding distribution through other channels is proving difficult, a deal with a clearinghouse distributor at least gives you the avenue for getting your album out. Success at one of these distributors can be a selling point you can use to move to a more dedicated distributor.

Because you are (likely) working on a consignment basis, the world is not going to come crashing down if you miss a release date or have to cancel an album – you don't have to answer to the distributor. Also, many of these distributors have non-exclusive deals so that you can stock your releases at several of them.

Selective Distributors 

These kinds of distributors choose to work with you much the same way a label chooses to work with a band. They will be closely involved with your release schedule, working with you to make sure promo is happening in advance of the release date and coming up with good release dates for your albums. They will have the inside track on when other releases are coming out, so they can steer you toward a date when you will not be overpowered by a big-ticket album. This is the ideal kind of distribution.

These distributors take an active role in selling your album into the shops. They will have sales teams working the phone and going around visiting record shops trying to convince them to stock your release. You will be working with a dedicated label manager who is familiar with your entire catalog and has an interest in seeing your records sell. M&D deals may be available.

However, selective distribution also has a downside. If you are a small label working with a large distributor, you probably won't be their priority and can get lost in the shuffle. Because the distributor is working with you on a sales plan, not getting promos done on time or having to push back a release date can ruffle feathers.

Bottom Line

If you're looking for your first distribution deal, of course getting in with a selective distributor is the ideal. However, ultimately you just want your album on the shelves, and a clearinghouse distributor can get it there as well. There's no harm in taking any distribution deal you can as you get started and using that to set you up for better distribution in the future.