How to Digitally Distribute Your Album

Audio Engineer working in recording studio.
Images By Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

Digital downloading is huge, and you're probably wondering how to get your cut of the action. Legal download services such as iTunes, eMusic, Spotify, and Rhapsody have created a huge opportunity for major and independent labels alike to sell your music to a large, diverse market with little to no overhead costs. These services are a great way to distribute your music to the masses.

Getting Your Release Ready by Mastering and Artwork

As an independent artist, you'll need to make sure your album is up to commercial standards before releasing it digitally. By now, you're probably familiar with the process of evening out the dynamics and maximizing the volume of your recording. Make sure that, whether you do the mastering yourself or hire an engineer to do it for you, your final product sounds its best. You'll be on an even playing field with the major-label acts (well, almost) when you distribute digitally, so make your release stand out as best you can.

You'll also need complete and compelling artwork to submit along with the complete track credits. None of the online services posts music without artwork.

Obtaining a UPC 

To sell your music in any online store, you need a UPC assigned to your release. There are a few options, and they're all about the same price. One option is to go through your CD duplication company. For a small fee, you are assigned a unique UPC for your product, which you can use on both CDs and your digitally distributed content. Just ask, if the company hasn't offered it already. Another option is CD Baby. This online store is a major player in the digital distribution market. It assigns a unique UPC for a low price. You can also do a Google search for "UPC Code," and you'll get results—just don't fall for a company that wants hundreds of dollars for a UPC.

Finding a Distributor

Unless your independent label is a major player, you won't be able to deal directly with Apple for access to the iTunes Store. Due to the volume of interest, iTunes requires that each artist partner with an established distributor. 

The number one thing to look out for in a digital distributing partner is a non-exclusive licensing agreement. Make sure that you continue to own all rights to your own music. Don't sign anything and, if in doubt, take it up with an experienced entertainment lawyer. Make sure that the pay cut is fair. The average payout is about 60 cents per song download and most digital distribution services take a 9 to 10 percent cut of that.

One of the best distributors is CD Baby, which partners not only with iTunes but also with many of the other major players in the digital market. The company sets up to sell your CD—digital only or physical copies—on its online store for a minimal fee. There's some setup work, but it's easily done. CD Baby handles the digital encoding of your material to make sure that your music stays in the proper format at the highest quality.

Another great option is a company called TuneCore. TuneCore offers similar features to CD Baby, although it only deals in digital distribution. The pricing model is different; TuneCore's pricing is based on whether you have a single or a full album. You can either do unlimited songs at all 19 stores or choose your stores and songs for an additional fee. You go live on iTunes worldwide, eMusic and many other services. The company doesn't make any claim to your material; it just distributes it. TuneCore offers free UPC generation and connect you to a good graphic artist if you don't have cover art.

Digital, Traditional or Both

While it may be trendy to go the all-digital route, there is still a small market for CD sales, especially for independent musicians. The numbers may tip towards downloads, but many people still prefer physical CDs.

You may want to retain the option to sell CDs—especially at your shows. Most artists see CD sales at their merchandise tables, even when they're not selling well in stores. Before making a decision to go exclusively digital, consider the benefits of doing both, especially if you have the budget to do so.