Digital Distribution for Musicians: The 101 Guide

Music distribution is more than just sending music to Apple Music and Spotify.

You’re an artist and you’ve recorded a song you want people to hear. You’ve already done the difficult part of working out arrangements and laying everything to tape or hard drive. Now it’s time to release your music via a music distribution service.

You could upload your music yourself to Soundcloud, YouTube, or Bandcamp and call it good — but that’s not quite music distribution; those are standalone Web sites that host your music. 

These days, the smartest way to get your work out to the whole world is via music distribution services. This is an important step in your music career and there’s a lot to understand, but if you can learn to shred on a guitar or make meticulous beats, studying up on the ins and outs of digital music distribution is a piece of cake. And we’re here to break it down for you.

What is digital music distribution?

Digital music distribution is how you get your music on Spotify, Apple Music, and all the other platforms people listen to music online. It is the process of managing and transferring your work in digital form to platforms that make the music more widely available.

There are two ways consumers access music from digital platforms:

  • Downloads: This is the original way people accessed digital music files. A download is a copy of the original file that the host platform creates for the consumer. The listener then saves that file on their device of choice (desktop, iPad, etc.) where they’ll use a media player to play back the audio file.
  • Streaming: This is the second, newer, way people access digital files. A digital music stream also creates a copy of the file, but unlike a download the listener does not get to keep the reproduced file; they can only listen to the audio by accessing it on their platform of choice.

How digital distribution gets your music gets on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music

Why should I do digital music distribution?

Digital audio’s ease of use is what makes it so appealing to modern listeners, and why digital distribution is such a powerful solution for artists today. Unlike physical formats like CDs and vinyl, digital files don’t take up any more space than the hard drive on which they are stored. The more compressed formats like MP3 are small enough files that users can fit hundreds of songs onto a portable device, or thousands on a moderately sized hard drive.

Easier still is streaming, which doesn’t take up any digital real estate. The only requirement for streaming is an account the listener must create with their platform of choice to access the files, and a monthly subscription fee for the platforms that charge. Once that’s done, the user can listen to their heart’s content.

Put simply: Digital distribution now allows you to get your music out to listeners all over the world, quickly, and with almost no barriers except the play button.

Okay, but why can’t I distribute my music myself?

Another way to ask this is, “Why can’t an unsigned artist get their songs onto Spotify and Apple Music directly?”

To put it simply, you as the artist are not their customer. Your fans are their customers. These companies don’t want to take on the substantial service and development burden of dealing directly with millions of musicians, as evidenced by Spotify’s quickly-abandoned experiment with direct uploads.

At CD Baby, our principle client is YOU — and we create the systems, artist tools, communication channels, and informational resources you need so you can upload your music ONCE and make it available worldwide in a successful way. I mean, Imagine having to create separate accounts and upload your music and artwork files for each and every digital music platform yourself. Imagine the accounting headaches. Imagine the emails.

CD Baby serves as a buffer between the creator of the music and the outlets that make that music available. But more importantly for you, we save you as the artist a ton of time and work.

What’s the best service for digital distribution?

CD Baby is the best aggregator for music distribution. An “aggregator” is an industry term for companies who distribute music to a list of digital platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, which are called “partners.” CD Baby offers the best distribution service for a few reasons:

  • We’ve been doing it the longest. CD Baby has been around since 1998, and was the first independent distributor to deliver music to iTunes back in 2004.
  • We have been paying our artists weekly since the beginning.
  • Our manual inspection process ensures when your music goes live with a partner it stays there. We know the guidelines of the digital services, which makes us the most trusted aggregator among all the digital distribution providers.
  • We offer a wide array of other services beyond distribution. Our Pro publishing and sync licensing services can bring in additional revenue for artists, and we have numerous tools for artists to promote their music.
  • Our customer service is there to address any questions you may have via phone or email.

What platforms does CD Baby distribute to?

CD Baby distributes to every major download and streaming platform. Each year sees the launch of new digital music platforms, and each year CD Baby agrees to new partnerships with the ones it determines are beneficial to artists.

We all know the major streaming and download platforms, but there are dozens of smaller digital services, many of which are popular in specific territories. CD Baby sends your music to those services and any new ones that we sign agreements with, at no extra charge to you. Those partners include:

The complete list of our partners is here.

As you can see, that’s a lot of partners! So, the next question is… 

How do I get my music on digital platforms using CD Baby?

That part’s easy. Head here to create an account. Once you’ve done that, click Add New Title to submit your release for distribution. 

What should I distribute first, a single or album?

Chances are, if you’re a new artist you likely only have a song or two ready to go. We firmly recommend you start with a single instead of waiting to record an album’s worth of material. A single gets your music distributed so you can establish a presence on the download and streaming services.

Why you must release a single first.

How long will it take for my music to get onto the streaming platforms?

Here’s what sets CD Baby apart from other aggregators: Every submission that is opted in for distribution is reviewed manually by our digital inspectors. Digital inspection is a crucial part of our digital distribution process, as it assures your submission meets the guidelines of all the platforms with whom we’ve partnered.

The CD Baby inspectors are real people looking at your submission. They know what our partners do and don’t allow with regards to formatting, artwork, track titles, etc. If something does not meet those guidelines, we will email you and let you know what the issue is. It generally takes about two business days for a submission to work through the inspection queue. If we request a change to be made, it will take another few business days for the submission to go back through the queue.

Once your submission passes inspection it will take a day or so to be distributed to the partners. Note that this does not mean it will go live in that time, as the digital music platforms honor the release date you enter, so if it’s set for a future date they won’t make it live until then.

The inspection process might sound like a hassle, but it’s really your best friend; we take the time upfront to ensure that once your submission goes live on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music it will STAY live. Many of those platforms do frequent maintenance on their databases and remove submissions that violate their guidelines. Other aggregators do not have an inspection process, so anything submitted to them passes without a human looking it over. While these companies might boast quicker distribution timelines, you run the risk of your music being pulled from the partners if it does not meet their guidelines. You took time to create your music, so take a little time to distribute your music the right way too.

When will my music be live?

This depends on the release date you set for your submission. If you set a future release date for your music, the platforms won’t make it live until that date.

What matters more for your music than the release date is the release timeline. We recommend setting a release date for your submission about a month in the future. This enables you to do some planning and promotion for your music.

How do I promote my music ahead of the release?

You have a few options to promote your music once it’s been delivered to digital music platforms with a future release date:

How do I claim my profiles with the digital platforms?

Have you ever checked out an artist’s page on Spotify and noticed a blue check mark next to their name? This means the artist got verified through Spotify for Artists. A verified page with Apple Music and Spotify grants you more visibility into how your music is performing, from daily listening stats to purchases on iTunes, and even popularity by country.

How to claim your profile on Apple Music:

  • Go HERE and log into your CD Baby dashboard
  • Select the artist you want to verify on Apple Music
  • Click “Get Started”
  • Create an Apple Music for Artists account using your Apple ID
  • Complete the Apple Music for Artists signup process
  • When you get to the authentication step, use your CD Baby credentials (the username and password for your CD Baby account) so Apple can quickly identify you as the legitimate owner of your music and profile on their platform.

How to claim your profile on Spotify:

  • Go HERE and log into your CD Baby dashboard
  • Click the Tools & Promotions button
  • Click the Spotify for Artists button
  • Locate your artist profile and click Get Access
  • This will reroute you to your Spotify account, where you can log in and verify

Does CD Baby deliver quality metadata?

Another win for the inspection process! Our digital inspectors make sure all of the metadata accompanying your music is in order. This means checking that you entered the album title, track titles, artist names, genres, songwriters, and publisher information correctly.

CD Baby also assigns ISRCs for your song(s) if none are provided. ISRC stands for International Standard Recording Code. It’s the unique code generated for each song that the digital platforms use to track streams. This ensures that plays are tracked properly, and royalties are accurately reported to CD Baby.

Why metadata is important for your music.

How do I get paid from digital distribution?

When your music is sold or streamed on any of CD Baby’s partner platforms, they report that revenue to us. Generally, it takes those services about a month or two from the time the song or album was downloaded or streamed to report the revenue to us (although you can view daily trending reports within your CD Baby dashboard for Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes). Once they report that revenue, we add it immediately to your account balance.

CD Baby has been paying weekly for 21 years, something no other player in the music industry can boast. Lots of labels still think it’s okay to this day to pay artists quarterly or worse!

But WHEN do you get paid by CD Baby? It’s all according to the pay point you set in your account. When the balance we owe you goes over the threshold you set, we’ll send your money to you the following Monday.

Digital Music Distribution: How the revenue flows

How do I increase revenue from my music?

We’re not just in the business of distributing music; we want your music to reach as many ears as possible. To that end, we’re constantly working on ways to help artists build audiences, boost streams, and make a bigger impact.

That’s why we’ve made – our suite of major-label marketing and advertising tools — available to all CD Baby clients for free. You can start using the same tools used by Maroon 5, Oasis, and many other big names today!

What other sources of revenue can CD Baby help me collect?

There are other sources of revenue aside from streaming and downloads that your music can earn. CD Baby helps you fully monetize your music and earn the most money possible. In addition to distribution, we offer:

  • YouTube video monetization: Using YouTube’s Content ID system, we put ads on any videos that use your music. You earn ad revenue any time someone clicks on one of those ads.
  • Social video monetization: Video means more than just YouTube, and CD Baby has got you covered, helping you earn money from the usage of your music on Facebook, Instagram, Oculus, and more. Plus, we’ll get your songs into Instagram Stories’ music catalog.
  • Sync licensing: Your songs are added to our searchable database for music supervisors, so they can find the right music for their TV, film, commercial, or video game project. We also proactively pitch music and have secured big placements on HBO, Showtime, MTV, all the major networks, studio films, and more. 
  • Publishing administration: CD Baby offers a publishing administration service through CD Baby Pro. Through this service, we collect publishing royalties for your songs on your behalf which are difficult for independent songwriters to collect on their own. If you write original music, you should be professionalizing your rights and earning every royalty you’re owed. 

How much does it cost to distribute my music?

CD Baby offers the most sensible fee structure for independent musicians. It’s a one-time fee ($29 for a Standard album, and $9.95 for a Standard single) — and then we keep a 9% cut of your digital distribution revenue. This way, CD Baby is partnering with you long-term; we only make money when you do (beyond our initial setup fee, of course). One of our clients even explained why this fee structure makes the most sense for artists in an article called “CD Baby is the only company to share the risk of your release with you.”

It comes down to this: There’s a cycle of growth and decline for every music release. This is the nature of things. You don’t want to pay a large annual fee in order to keep your music on digital download and streaming platforms once sales for that older material are on the decline. Those annual fees can add up; the larger your catalog gets, the more you pay each year to keep all your music available.

You definitely don’t want to feel the pressure ten years down the line to drop another few hundred bucks in annual fees, otherwise your older stuff which is no longer selling that well is gonna get removed! The smarter approach is to release a lot of music, build your catalog over a lifetime, put all that music to work for you, and NOT worry about annual fees.

Closing thoughts

As you can see, digital distribution is an ever-expanding business, redefining itself year by year. CD Baby has grown alongside a rapidly changing music industry, always adding new services that help artists make the most of their music.

21 years in, we’re still here right alongside you every step of the way.