In the not-so-distant past, there was a time when the music distribution process was so fraught with gatekeepers that thousands of artists resorted to selling music out of the trunks of their cars. Lacking the support and resources supplied by record labels, the best way for these artists to get their music to travel widely was to literally drive it from place to place. In years past, everyone from JAY-Z to DJ Screw adopted this model, painstakingly building their fan base one recruit at a time.
Of course, for every DJ Screw who built an empire from the trunk of their car, there were thousands of more acts who never found enough ears to survive. For every JAY-Z who went on to attain international superstardom, there were a million more bands who retired in obscurity after spending decades hawking their CDs at local shows.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since this era. In the late 90s and early aughts, the internet democratized music distribution, creating opportunities for every artist to find a fan base that supports them. Today, every artist on the planet is just seconds away from being discovered by a lifelong fan, all but eliminating the need for traditional gatekeepers.
The downside to this accessibility is that the competition for these fans’ attention has never been greater. If artists in the past were trapped in a giant hedge maze, playing Marco Polo with blindfolded listeners, today’s artists are crammed in a circular room together, shouting “Marco” simultaneously, while listeners surveying from above struggle to discern the source of each call. Even if their music is easily accessible, artists still need a way to stand out from the pack.
Enter distribution partners, like Tunecore, AWAL, United Masters, EMPIRE, Distrokid, and Opposition, whose job it is to make sure an artist’s work is delivered to and visible on all the platforms audiences frequent. In its most basic form, this means providing a hassle-free way for artists to upload their output to DSPs, like Spotify, TIDAL, and Audiomack, with the click of a button. But distribution services can—and depending on their clients’ requirements—provide so much more.
"Distribution is a dime-a-dozen service nowadays," says Brenden Hewko, who manages the buzzing Toronto rapper, DillanPonders, and partners with Opposition to distribute his music. "Any one platform can distribute your content. At the end of the day, the major differentiating factor is the infrastructure and in-house resources that are being provided alongside the actual distribution itself."
If you’re an artist, determining what “infrastructure and in-house resources” you require from a distribution partner is the most important step in pinpointing which one is right for you. It requires you to take inventory of where you are in your creative journey, examine the success of your ongoing marketing efforts, and figure out where the gaps lie. If you’re a young artist still experimenting with your sound, for example, a hands-off service like DistroKid might be all you’re looking for. In exchange for a small subscription fee (or a fee per upload), DistroKid offers a self-service platform that allows anyone to upload their music for automated distribution across DSPs.
By contrast, if you’re a buzzing artist, who has accumulated enough leverage to sign a mutually beneficial record deal, you might opt to go the traditional route and sign with a record label, like EMPIRE, that handles distribution, too. Typically, this means ceding a portion of your revenue (and creative control) to the label in exchange for access to its vast infrastructure. This distribution strategy is then coupled with a broader rollout plan that includes PR outreach, placements on high-traffic playlists, earned and paid media, and more. All told, this is a much more hands-on approach, and artists with a precise vision for their marketing might struggle to compromise, but it's hard to quantify the value of this sort of access.
"In 2021, distribution companies are much more than just distributors," explains Hewko. "They are multifaceted hybrid entities that blur the line between distributors, labels, and publicists." Evidence of this is growing every day, as Sony Music Entertainment just recently acquired distributor AWAL in an attempt to meld their disparate offerings into one complete package.
And yet, despite the implications of this consolidation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding the right distributor—no “complete package.” For most artists, the right distribution partner understands this need for personalization and takes the time to cater an individualized strategy for each artist they work with.
“We know there’s no template for success. That’s why we’re more selective with our roster,” says Shane Gill, Head of Opposition, an end-to-end distributor that offers label and digital marketing services. “We see every artist relationship as a partnership. Artists are looking to reclaim their creative control without losing the industry expertise and connections that a label can offer. We identify their individual needs to help get them to the next level of their career.”
The benefits of this hybrid hands-on/hands-off approach are on display across Opposition’s work with emerging and established acts, like the Oklahoma City hip-hop/R&B collective O2worldwide, and Australian alternative rock outfit The Rubens. In the case of the former, Opposition took stock of where O2worldwide was in their artistic journey and devised a distribution strategy centered around digital strategy, organic and paid media, and brand development to help them establish a core fan base. For the latter, they tailored a strategy around strategic playlisting, PR, and influencer marketing to help them take the next step and expand their reach beyond Australia.
“We were looking for a more progressive distribution partner, offering extensive label services, combined with a large focus on social media and influencer campaigns across all platforms,” explains Matthew Kennedy, manager of The Rubens, on the team's choice of distributor.
The results of these sorts of personalized campaigns speak for themselves. They’re a testament to what distributors and labels can accomplish when they take the time to understand the unique challenges facing each individual artist they work with. When O2worldwide began working with a distributor, they were a promising act who’d gained little traction. But today, if they were to seek out a major label record deal, they’d have the leverage to negotiate favorable terms. In fact, they may even opt to forego a record deal altogether.
“O2worldwide decided to go with Opposition because of how much they genuinely wanted to work with us on the ‘BACK ON TRACK’ project,” says Zack Frye of O2worldwide. “Their team saw the potential that the music had and provided us resources that took our reach to a new level. They also made the process extremely artist-friendly, and I wish more labels were run like this. It's the independent artist's label of tomorrow.”
On that last point, it’s important to draw a minor distinction. If the labels of the past were gatekeepers, then the “labels of tomorrow,” like Opposition, don’t fall neatly into this category. More accurately, they’re traffic controllers. They’re not trying to determine who gets to go through the intersection; they just want to make sense of the chaos that’s flowing through it, so everyone can find their way to the destination they were headed to regardless.