Music Distribution: An Audio Producer’s Guide

Man leaning against the wall with headphones listening to an app used for music distribution.

In the past decade, the distribution of music has changed dramatically, resulting in a larger market for music than ever before. The advent of digital distribution has led, globally, to more and more musicians releasing music, freed from the constraints of the hard copy production commitments. And by contrast, digital distribution has also meant increased revenue for musicians, cash that can be invested in hard copy distribution if desired or demanded.

The Concept of Passive Income

Digital music distribution provides income for the music producer in an income format called passive income. Rather than having to force every album sale in the form of a CD or cassette, formats that are rarely used now, the music producer is paid not only per digital album but plays on music streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal.

The concept of passive income is simple. It is aggregated income that requires little effort to grow in a material sense. For music producers to earn income, all that is required is for them to produce music, distribute it digitally, and support it with some minimal marketing work. The relationship between marketing and passive income will be discussed at length, as well as what skills music producers must learn, and time investments needed to get their music heard by their target audiences.

Music Distribution: Streaming versus Hard Copy

Streaming on listening platforms is the most widely used method of music consumption, followed by the purchase of digital albums on sites like Bandcamp, ReverbNation, and Shopify. But even digital album purchases still lag far behind streaming, as MP3 players are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and more and more people stream music via smartphone, tablet, and laptop using data or Internet connections.

Digital music distribution involves a smaller financial commitment to the music producer upfront, which means that a music producer who releases music consistently can quickly and cheaply upload their work for play and purchase. Additionally, streaming means that the music enthusiast can legally listen to music for free while still ensuring that the producer is paid for that consumption, with revenue being derived from ads as well as premium platform subscriptions.

Distributing music via hard copy, such as CD, cassette, and vinyl involves a greater up-front cost. Many hard copy production companies require an up-front payment to produce a minimum number of CDs, vinyl albums, and other hard copy options. This means the music producer has to put up several hundred to as much as a couple of thousand dollars to ensure their production. And following the production, they must either be placed in stores or sold at concerts and carefully priced to turn a profit, or even to just break even.

While music producers that are financially successful will have far less trouble with music distribution, music producers just beginning their careers, or that occupy niche genres, may have a hard time with this kind of financial commitment. Additionally, as the demand for digital distribution has far outweighed the demand for physical copies of EPs and albums, it may not be worth the expenditure even for music producers who are able to make it, with the possible exception of vinyl, which will be discussed.

Digital Music Distribution Platforms

A broad array of platforms thru which music producers can distribute their work exist, including DistroKid, CDBaby, Tunecore, and Landr. Each of these platforms allows the producer to upload their music to streaming services like Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, Pandora, and YouTube Music. There are similarities between them, but music producers should shop around to find the best platform for them.

Spotify, Pandora, and Other Music Streaming Apps

Digital listening platforms provide music producers with passive income derived from per-play fees, and this can mean an active and, over time, a rewarding income stream for music producers. Streaming accounts are for the majority of those listening to music globally, and so it behooves the music producer to ensure that they are on as many streaming sites as possible.

It’s important to note that in spite of its income potential, streaming does not pay exceptionally well per play, which is why it’s so vital to build an online audience via digital marketing. Establishing this as a meaningful source of passive income is playing a bit of a long game, however, the investment of a bit of time, energy, and a small amount of money can go a long way to that establishment.


YouTube is still something of a whale in the field of digital music distribution, in no small part because there are several levels of earning ability.

Any YouTuber with an AdSense account can earn revenue via video with ad support; however, the real income comes when a YouTuber does well enough to qualify for YouTube Partner. To do this, a YouTuber needs a minimum of a thousand subscribers and at least four thousand views (across all videos) over the past year. In addition to ad revenue, a YouTube partner can also tap into YT Premium sub fees and utilize SuperChat to allow fans to contribute money directly to them.

YouTube certainly takes work to monetize, and like all business endeavors it must be supported by smart content and solid marketing, but developing these skills is not impossible and can be done for free by reading books and articles and viewing tutorials or listening to marketing podcasts.

Marketing and Music Distribution

Music producers don’t just need skills in creation and technology; they also need marketing and business expertise.

Fortunately, a lot of free resources are available to help music producers develop marketing skills. Free marketing blogs are available from digital marketing giants like HubSpot, HootSuite, Social Media Examiner, Buffer, and Moz. They help everyone with a product or service to sell, learn, and enhance their marketing game. Learning best practices, post frequency, and best-performing content, writing a marketing plan and sticking to it, and producing a social media calendar is well worth the few hours creators will spend doing it, and the little bit of time each week spent writing and scheduling posts.

For music producers who love podcasts, the Social Media Marketing Podcast, Marketing School, Marketing Over Coffee, and the Science of Social Media are all great bets. There are lots of marketing podcasts available on listening platforms like iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google Podcasts, so music producers should dive into a few and pick their favorite ones and listen for an hour or two a week.

Finally, there’s no shortage of books on marketing, particularly about the intersection of music and marketing. The Musician’s Handbook, Guerilla Music Marketing Online, Get More Fans, and Music Business for Dummies are just a few of the most recommended books for music producers wanting to grow their business and marketing skills. The local library is always worth a check, as is requesting books from neighboring libraries, for music producers who might not be able to purchase books or Scribd membership right away.

The Reemergence of Vinyl

The reemergence of vinyl several years ago was unexpected but nevertheless celebrated. The rediscovery of this format and its advantages has resulted in more artists producing their work on vinyl. It has become so popular that some hard copy distribution companies have specials for vinyl-only or vinyl-inclusive hard copy orders, making it a somewhat attractive option for music producers.

The inclusion of vinyl in music distribution is still very much on a case-by-case basis. The demand for vinyl records varies by genre and generation. Music producers should know their audience well before opting for this method of distribution and additionally try to verify if there is some kind of demand for it from their personal audience.

Final Thoughts

A huge array of options exist for the distribution of audio-based work, and with some time and effort, music producers can determine their personal best distribution solutions, and earn well as a result.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.