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Finding Distribution: Online, Retail and Other Outlets for you Music

by No. 1 Best Selling Author, Jaci Rae

Finding a brick and mortar distributor can be a daunting task, but it can be done. The question is, do we need the antiquated system to sell our goods? It can take months and months before you find and secure a distributor, which is not an easy process for independent labels or individuals. However, with the advent and every growing popular of online distributors, not to mention selling your own music one download at a time off your website, do you really need brick and mortar stores anymore?

I don't believe that brick and mortar will be going away any time soon, but with our fast paced society that is extremely mobile and always on the go, people prefer convenience and ease to that of trying to find a parking space, wasting money on gas only to end up at a store that doesn't carry what you want.

While getting into a brick and mortar star can be next to impossible unless you are a local artists or you already have a huge fan base, the same does not hold true for online distributors such as iTunes, Rhapsody and others. It's as easy as filling out an application and uploading your music, one song at a time. There is an additional benefit of online distribution and that is you don't have to have the expense of making an entire CD, you can make a single and still make money and have a hit. It's not easy and you will need to market and play live in order for you to achieve any sales strength, but it can be done. Don't just upload your music and expect the money to start rolling in.

On the flip side, if you are an established artist, with a very large fan base and are touring frequently, you will want to get your goods into a brick and mortar store as well for additional selling power as well as playing in-stores and having a signing session there.

Getting into a brick and mortar store is not as easy as an online store, so I will need to go into a lot of detail and the do's and don'ts. First, don't give up or get discouraged; keep plugging away, even if you can't find a distributor after months of searching. Distributors get a lot of packages on their desks every week, so it's imperative that you contact them first before you send them a package. When calling a distributor, you may get them on the first try, or it may take you weeks before you get a live person to talk to.

You must contact the distributor before you send them a package. Never send a brick and mortar distributor a package unsolicited, it might get tossed or sent back unopened. But you may think, 'My product is awesome! They would never do that with mine.' Sorry to bring you bad news, but your package may never get opened. As a matter of fact, it may never get past the receptionist's desk without prior clearance. So why not make sure that your product has a much better chance of getting heard by getting permission first?

If you feel you are too shy to make cold calls, you must get over it and commit yourself to doing it unless you have a friend do the calling for you. Getting through the first phone call is always tough, but then you will see, as you make more and more calls, that it gets easier every time. You are in competition with a lot of people who are making the calls. If you don't call, the chances are very slim that you will ever be heard.

Once you've made the first call, if you still feel that you are just too embarrassed, try making up a character and make your call as that character. Become "Jicki Wicki" from "Nagawicki." (You never know; it could lead to an additional career of acting!) Make it a game. It's important that you submit your CD to a distributor that distributes your kind of music. The person you send it to is not necessarily the person in charge of final decisions. From the time you start contacting them, it may take you six to eight months to get the actual product in their hands and get them to finally listen to it, before you find the right distributor. Once you finally get one, it can take an additional few months to get added to their database. Here are few words of advice on finding a distributor:

  • On your first call, tell them your name and label. If you haven't picked a name yet, make one up.
  • Ask about their submission and distribution policies.
  • Ask if being the only act on an indie label is going to cause a problem. Many distributors will not take products from Indie labels unless they have at least three to fifteen CDs in their 'stable.' Additionally, many distributors will not take you on unless you already have established airplay. The catch-22 is that many radio stations, while they may play an independent artist, will only do so if they have national distribution.
  • Ask what they want in the press kit. Some want an entire press kit with a CD (forego sending a headshot unless specifically asked for one), while others just need a letter of summary which contains recent happenings, targeting ideas, and review excerpts, if you have any. It's important to find out this information beforehand. We found out, after much wasted time and money, that several distributors only wanted the letter. They had opened the package, read the tear sheet, and thrown the rest away. Once we started calling frequently, they asked for the whole package again. What a waste of resources!
  • In your letter/press kit they will want to know your "SRP, " which is your Suggested Retail Price. For those of you who are unfamiliar with retail versus wholesale, retail is the price the consumer would pay in a music store and wholesale is the price the distributor pays to the product owner.

Figuring out your SRP is an important step. You don't want to price yourself out of the market. When you look in a music store, most major-label artists' CDs are "on sale" for $11.98. My suggestion is that you go at the same price or lower than the major-label artist. Set your SRP at $11.98 - $12.98. Distributors will typically take 40-60% of your SRP as their cut (which at 40% x $11.98 gives you $7.19 per CD), and the music stores will typically mark up your SRP by $1.00 - $4.00. If you set your SRP at $11.98, and the store adds an additional $2.00 to the price of your CD, the cost to the consumer would be $13.98. However, if you set your SRP at $13.98 and the store adds $2.00, the price to the consumer would be $15.98. Which price do you think a consumer who had never heard of you would be more likely to pay?

  • Double-check what style of music they currently distribute.
  • Ask if they require your music to be played on a particular radio station.

Specific distributors require you to have airplay on specific stations before they will distribute you. If that station does not play your genre of music, you have wasted your product, money, and time. Let me give you an example of why this is another key question. We had asked all of the above questions, with the exception of this particular one. Then we shipped off the package. When we contacted them later, they asked us if we were playing on a certain radio station. We said no.

The station the distributor was referring to only played alternative music, while our CD is Country/Jazz. You can see the problem. When we approached them about this fact, they said they did not distribute Country Music. We asked when they stopped distributing Country Music. The gentleman we spoke with during our initial call said he was considering presenting Country Music to the company, but hadn't had the chance. He realized that we would never be played on the station on which they require airplay, so he dropped it. A great example of wasted time, effort, and money!

  • Inquire where their distribution arm reaches. Ask for specific states and regions. Some distributors only distribute in certain states. If your radio airplay, live gigs, and promotion are not in those regions, they cannot help you.
  • When is the best time to reach them?
  • Who are some of the major stores they distribute too, and in what areas? Call several of the stores and double-check their references. If the stores have never heard of them, they may not be a legitimate distributor. Save your product from an unscrupulous person who may be trying to rip you off.

Whatever you do, don't forget to get your music listed with iTunes, Sonymusic and all the other online distributors. Once you actually obtain a distributor it's an entirely different playing field, and a lot of work, but can be worth it. You must stay on top of a brick and mortar distributor because many are really poor payers and it may take you six months to a year or longer to get any pay from them.

Copyright Jaci Rae

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