What Is Music Distribution?

Definition & Examples of Music Distribution

Man listening to album in record store
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Music distribution is the way that the music industry makes recorded music available to consumers. It's a core aspect of its business model, and it makes it possible to purchase most music in stores or download or stream it online.

The mechanics of music distribution have changed dramatically since the arrival of the internet, with mixed results for artists. Let's look at how this field traditionally operated and how it continues to shift in the digital age.

What Is Music Distribution?

Aside from the musicians themselves, there are many actors involved in getting music from its point of creation to where you can hear it. Producers, engineers, record labels, promoters, agents, and publicists all play a role. Distributors are a significant piece of this puzzle, as well.

Music distribution makes recorded music available to the public. Through a system of contracts and payments, distributors grant record stores, online download platforms, and streaming services the rights to purchase and resell an artist's music.

How Music Distribution Works

Traditionally, distribution companies sign deals with record labels, which gives them the right to sell that label's products. The distributor takes a cut of income from each unit sold and then pays the label the remaining balance.

Most distributors expect record labels to provide them with finished, ready-to-market products, but sometimes distributors offer manufacturing and distribution (M&D) deals. With this setup, the distributor pays the manufacturing costs of an album upfront and keeps all the income from album sales until that initial investment is paid off.​

Throughout much of the 20th century, distribution companies were the links between record labels and retail outlets, which included music-only stores, big-box retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy, and bookstores.

It is helpful to think of music distributors as wholesalers to better understand their role in the music industry.

Record labels signed (and still sign) contracts with music artists. They oversaw music recording, marketing, and promotion. Consumers bought their favorite music on vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs. In most cases, it was the record labels that paid to have these products manufactured. To get album copies in the hands of fans, record labels signed deals with distribution companies that, in turn, signed deals with retail stores to sell the albums.

Some distributors bought albums from record labels outright, while others distributed albums on consignment. Retailers did the same thing—some bought albums outright, and others agreed to put the products on their shelves on consignment.

How Music Distribution Has Changed

Downloading brought radical changes to the music industry at the turn of the 21st century. Before crackdowns, fans downloaded millions of tracks from a wide range of artists at no charge through companies such as Napster.

Although consumers now pay to download music legally from outlets such as iTunes and Amazon, sales of CDs and cassette tapes have plummeted, and the music industry has lost billions of dollars. Since 2015, subscription services such as Pandora and Spotify have helped the industry rebound and start to create a new model for music industry distribution and revenue.

Although sales of most physical media have continued to decline since the advent of music streaming services, vinyl record sales are bucking this trend. In 2019, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl records sold the most units since 1989.

With hundreds of music distributor businesses folding, only a few affiliated with the largest record labels remain. Although there are hundreds of independent record labels, Sony, Universal Music Group, and Warner own the largest music distribution companies. Whether you buy music at a local record store, download it from Amazon, or stream it on Spotify, one of these companies is likely responsible for making it possible.

DIY DIstribution

There have always been musicians who prefer to work around the industry and find their own ways to get their music out. As many artists have protested the inequities of the streaming model and its growing dominance, more of them are dodging labels and distributing their music themselves. Chance the Rapper made history in 2017 when he became the first musician to win a Grammy without selling physical copies of his music. Even iTunes and Spotify offer a way for artists to distribute their music directly through their platforms.

The Future of Music Distribution

There is still a role for music distributors in the digital age, even in the face of radical industry changes. After all, not every record label and musician wants to take on the task of distributing their own work. For this reason, the music distributors that remain still work closely with record labels to bring music to fans. Some retail stores continue to sell physical album copies on vinyl, CD, or cassette. They also distribute music to digital download outlets, even though such businesses also offer distribution deals directly to artists.

Digital music isn't going anywhere, and its reshaping of the music industry will probably continue for years to come. As more artists find ways to release their music independently, the place of distribution in the mix will likely continue to evolve, as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Music distribution makes recorded music available to the public in physical and digital forms.
  • Traditionally, distribution happens through record labels and the deals they make with various music outlets.
  • The digital age has radically changed this model, but distributors still play a role in getting music to the public in downloadable and streamable forms.
  • Although it can be challenging, some artists are successful at taking music distribution into their own hands.