How to Digitally Distribute Your Album

Selling Your Music on iTunes

The iTunes Music Store. Courtesy Apple, Inc.

As an independent artist, you're aware that 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 represent a great way to distribute your music to the masses.

As an independent artist, getting your music digitally distributed on the big services may have seemed like an impossible task—until now.

Getting Your Release Ready: Mastering and Artwork

As an independent artist, you'll need to make sure your release is up to commercial standards before releasing it digitally. By now, you're probably familiar with the process of mastering—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 big, 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.

Want to learn more about mastering?

Learn all about mastering here.

Obtain 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 if you know where to look. 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 your regular CD and your digitally distributed version.

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.

Find 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. Unfortunately, but understandably 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. Still, when compared to the overhead of printing and distributing an actual CD copy, you're coming out ahead.

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 real 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 for you 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 can hook you up with a good graphic artist if you don't have cover art.

Digital or Traditional or Both

While it may be tempting to go the all-digital route and avoid the printing costs of a CD, it's important to understand that there is still a market for CD sales, especially for independent musicians. The numbers tip towards downloads, but many people still prefer physical CDs.

Whichever way you go, you 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 local stores. Before making a decision to go exclusively digital, consider the benefits of doing both, especially if you have the budget to do so.

Want to find out how to get your music on Spotify? Here's a guide to selling and streaming your music on Spotify.