Music Distribution: Best Free & Paid Digital Services

Every song goes on a journey that starts with an idea then continues to recording, mixing & mastering and finally releasing it to the public. It’s in this last step where many new and independent artists struggle to figure out how digital music distribution works in order to get their music on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Tidal, Amazon and other major online music platforms.

But do any of these platforms allow you to upload music yourself? The short answer is NO – Digital music providers like Spotify, Apple Music or Google Play, rarely deal with individual artists directly. They only deal with approved distributors. So if you’re an independent songwriter, composer and musician looking for digital music distribution, aka to release your music, you’ll need to sign up with a Digital Music Distributor.  

In this post we’re going to explain what are your options when it comes to music distribution (free and paid), how distributors work, which one will work best for you and then go through step-by-step on how to upload your music to distributors.

Table of contents

Music Distribution: What are your options?

We are going to review the 6 most popular, long-standing and best-reviewed aggregators offering digital music distribution services around the world. Using any of these music distributors will get your music on Spotify and 100+ other online platforms. These online music distributors are:

What are music distributors? 

Let’s begin by answering this question: What are music distributors? Music distributors are a conduit to helping you upload and distribute your music globally through digital stores and streaming platforms. Distributors make their money by charging upfront fees and/or charging a percentage of revenue earned from the streaming and downloading of your music. Distributors do NOT own any rights to your music so you don’t need to worry about signing anything over or losing your music rights as they will never take ownership over your music. 

When it comes to choosing a distributor, the first thing to note is that there is no standout distributor that works for all. Each company has unique features that may be super important to some artists and not at all to others. But there is one thing that is common to all distributors and that is each distributor exclusively distributes your music, you can only use 1 distributor for each release. For example, you can release “Song A” using Distrokid and “Song B” using CDBaby, but you cannot release Song A through Distrokid & CDbaby.

 

Do distributors upload music to Spotify?

All music distributors, free and paid, offer the same level of distribution to all main stores and music streaming platforms. So no matter who you choose as your distributor, your music will certainly appear on Spotify and many other stores and online streaming platforms. Though the time it takes for music to go-live can vary depending on each platform and distributors. Generally speaking, you can expect your music to go live as follows:

  • Amazon Music, Deezer, iHeartRadio: 3-7 business days to go live.
  • iTunes & Apple Music: Go live within 24-48 hours
  • Amazon On Demand: 6-8 weeks
  • Spotify: 5 business days
  • Google Play & YouTube Music: 1-2 weeks
  • Tidal: 1-3 business days
  • All other stores take 1-3 weeks

 

Our next step is to find the right distributor for you. In these next sections, we’ll go through some of the “free” options (no upfront fees but charging a percentage of the revenue collected on your behalf) and some paid options (charging upfront fees). 

FREE Music Distributors - No upfront fees

The most popular distributors offering their services for “Free”, meaning you don’t need to pay any upfront fees are AWAL, OneRPM and RouteNote. See below tables for a summary, links and a quick review with Pros and Cons in each case.

Based in London, UK, AWAL’s main service is digital music distribution, but also includes marketing, data analytics, radio, and sync licensing. AWAL offers to distribute your music with no upfront fees, instead, they charge a 15% commission on all the revenue collected on your behalf. Although it’s free to join you still must apply and be accepted to use AWAL. This, however, gives AWAL the advantage of exclusivity and ensures music providers that content from AWAL artists is of consistently high quality. AWAL is an excellent choice for artists who are already somewhat established and have a track record of consistent quality. Since you have to be accepted into AWAL, make sure to understand exactly what they are looking for in an artist. To submit your music to AWAL, you’ll first need to fill out a “Join Us” form, which you can find here.

 
Pros
Cons
Free to join, no upfront or annual fees
15% commission, only paid when your earn
Great mobile App with analytics and trending reports
Need to apply and be accepted to use AWAL
Physical distribution options available
4+ weeks delay to get releases distributed
Sync licensing opportunities
Clients report slow customer support
Playlist plugging opportunities
No admin publishing partner to help collect songwriter royalties

With offices in New York City, Nashville, São Paulo and 6 other offices around the globe, ONErpm distributes music offering other services, not included in their distributors deal, such Marketing, Business Intelligence, Rights Mgmt & Publishing and Video Network which can be beneficial to your growth strategy until you have an established fan base. ONErpm charges no upfront fees and gives 85% of sales to artists and labels in a nonexclusive deal, so the rights of artists are preserved and they also have an option to distribute content using Creative Commons licenses.

Pros
Cons
Free to join, no upfront or annual fees
15% commission, only paid when your earn
Great stats and analytical reports
Don’t obtain mechanical licenses for cover songs
In house playlist pluggers
No Asia distribution
Payment splitting
Smaller list of distribution outlets
Give advances
No admin publishing partner to help collect songwriter royalties

Routenote is based in London, UK and it’s one of the only distributors offering free and paid premium options. RouteNote free option is exactly as it sounds, FREE. No upfront or hidden costs, they distribute your music and charge a 15% commission on the revenue they collect. On the other hand with their premium option, you receive 100% of collected revenue in exchange for a small upfront fee and subscription. This is a great option for your best sellers and perfect for an artist with an established fan base. This is very useful as you can always start with the free account and then if sales are doing great you can upgrade to the premium version and keep 100% of collected revenue.

Pros
Cons
Free. No upfront or hidden costs
15% commission
Strong distribution in Asian markets
Don’t obtain mechanical licenses for cover songs
In house playlist pluggers
45-day delay getting paid
Payment splitting
Slow distribution speed (3-4 weeks to go live )
Get SoundCloud Unlimited at no extra cost
No admin publishing partner to help collect songwriter royalties

PAID Music Distributors - Upfront fees apply

The following distributors are paid options, either based on a subscription model or pay per release. Something to consider in subscription-based models is that they required the subscription to be paid yearly otherwise the distributor will take down your music from all the online platforms they have distributed to. 

DistroKid, with head offices in NYC, is an independent digital music distribution service, founded in 2013. Distrokid is free to sign up and it offers a very simple and attractive pricing system, a subscription model for $20 a year where you can upload as many songs as you can make a year! However, they do offer up-selling options that can easily add to the total cost. With Distrokid your keep 100% of your earnings, there are no commissions whatsoever, and you also keep 100% of your royalties. 

Heads up, unless you select the option “Leave a Legacy” ($30 extra per release) when submitting your music, you will need to keep paying your subscription annually otherwise your releases will be removed.

Pros
Cons
No commission. You keep 100% of the revenue
Annual Fees
Unlimited songs for one yearly price
Basic reports and analytics
Unique Spotify and Itunes features (Lyrics & Cover photos)
Lots of extra fees not disclosed up front or in the FAQ
Payment splitting
Annual fee for Youtube monetisation on top of commission
Easy to use platform & cloud backup of your songs
No admin publishing partner to help collect songwriter royalties

TuneCore is an NYC based independent digital music distribution, publishing, and licensing service. TuneCore business model is based on a 0% commission (you receive 100% of the profits you earn from your sales), but makes its revenue by charging yearly fees. Tunecore is free to sign up and they charge an annual distribution fee. For Singles, it costs $9.99 per year & for Albums, it costs $29.99 for the first year and then raises it to an annual charge of $49.99, for continued distribution, every year after that – but they don’t take any percentage of your music sales.

Tunecore has a unique feature which offers revenue advances. The way it works is if your past releases have generated consistent revenue, Tunecore will advance you the money for future releases so you can have more of a budget upfront for production and marketing. 

Pros
Cons
No commission. You keep 100% of the revenue
Annual Fees
Own admin publishing comapny to help collect songwriter royalties
Removal of music if you don’t pay the annual fees
Offers advances for future revenue projections
20% commission on Youtube monetisation
Great reports. Revenue, analytics and daily trends.
Extra fees for adding new outlets
TuneCore social app
No payment splitting

CD Baby was founded in 1998 in NYC and has been around the longest. CD Baby is leading the front in the “one-stop-shop” business for DIY musicians. It is the only digital aggregator with top preferred partner status with both Spotify and Apple Music, and it is home to more than 650,000 artists and 9 million tracks that are made available to over 100 digital services and platforms around the globe.

CD Baby charges no fee to sign up with them and they break their distribution services into three pricing tiers: 

  1. Free: No submission fees but they take just a 15% commission of your sales and is limited to only offering your music on CD Baby’s online music store.
  2. Standard: One payment of $9.95 for a single or $49 for an album to distribute your music plus a 9% commission on your revenue from then on. Ability to distribute physical hard copies of your music with a $4 cut of each physical sale.
  3. Pro: One payment of $34.95 for a single or $89 for an album plus 9% commission on your earnings. Pro includes the ability to distribute physical hard copies of your music with a $4 cut of each physical sale. Also included are the publishing royalties services which will help you to earn money when others record, perform or otherwise use a song that you have written. The commission for these publishing royalties services is 15%. 
 

That’s it for costs. With CD Baby, there are no additional costs! 

Pros
Cons
No yearly fees. You pay once, your music is up forever
9% commission
Physical distribution & ecommerce store for CD and Vinyl
Extra Charge for UPC codes
Admin publishing service to collect your songwriter royalties
30% commission on Youtube monetisation
Collect your SoundExchange (Sound Recording Copyright Owner)
No payment splitting
Sync licensing possibilites
40% sync licensing commission

Manually distribute your music everywhere else

Once you have got your music distributed to all the major stores/streaming platforms, then you should proceed to upload your music manually to any other channel you can think of where people find new music.  For example, you should upload your music to SoundCloud, Bandcamp, SoundClick, TikTok as well as posting videos with your music on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc. 

This is very important because when someone discovers you through any of these channels and starts telling their friends about you, your music will be easily findable everywhere online. 

Bandcamp is a free service that let artists and labels to upload music to their online platform providing you with a customizable profile, full control over setting prices, and some useful (free) services for selling merch and generating download codes. 

Fans can download their purchases or stream their music on the Bandcamp app/site only once or unlimited times by preserving the purchase voucher. They can also send purchased music as a gift, view lyrics, and save individual songs or albums to a wish list. Uploading music to Bandcamp is free, and the company takes a 15% cut of sales made from their website (in addition to payment processing fees) and a 10% fee on all merch. 

If you’re an indie artist and you’re trying to put your music out, I encourage you to get set up on Bandcamp regardless of whether you’re also doing Digital Distribution!

Which distributor is best for your music?

We have covered some paid and free options to release, sell and distribute your music worldwide. So the question is: which option would work best for you. To answer this question we will need to look at a change in trend where music fans are listening to their favourite artist and discovering new music through streaming services such as Spotify. Long gone are the days when fans were buying albums. Now, they’re streaming tracks that are served through curated playlists.

This means that to increase your chances to be heard in a very competitive market you need to be releasing new music as much as possible. The more frequently you release content, the more chances your track will get added to a playlist, and have its chance to shine. 

This requires you to put out new music consistently and hence you should choose a distributor offering services that support and are better priced for multiple releases a year. 

Paid recommendations

When you’ve planned to release music consistently throughout the year, Distrokid is a great option for the independent artist, even after paying the extra fees for their additional services. 

On the other hand, if you are planning to release only once a year, like an EP or Album and don’t want to pay subscription fees, then CD Baby might the best alternative for you. 

Free recommendations

If you can’t afford the distributor’s upfront fees, then you should go with one of the free services available. I would recommend submitting your music to AWAL and see if they will accept it to distribute it. If you are not chosen, then I would recommend going with OneRPM which has good reviews and a consistent track record of delivering good results to their clients. 

Uploading your music | step-by-step & best practices

You are only a few steps away from releasing your music. See the below step by step to learn what you will need to do once you have chosen your preferred distributor.

  • Step 1 – Sign-up: Create an account with your distribution service.  
  • Step 2 – Provide details of your release: Choose what type of release you’re distributing (single or album) 
  • Step 3 – Enter artist and release information: Make sure you enter the track title exactly how you want it to appear in the stores. Double-check your titles, if there are errors in your titles it could delay your release from appearing in digital stores and changing titles after you release can be a hassle as well.
  • Step 4 – Upload artwork: For digital distribution, you’ll need to make your Single or Album Cover a 2400 x 2400 pixel .JPG or .PNG file. The cover art requirements are:
    • A square Minimum 2400 x 2400 pixels
    • Make sure there’s no blurriness or pixelation
    • Don’t include URLs
    • Leave out all social media logos
    • No references to brands
    • Absolutely no pornographic images

For DIY musicians who need graphics for things like CD covers, merch designs, business cards and flyers, the best free app I highly recommend you try is Canva (affiliate link). They have a free plan that you can pretty much make anything you’ll need without ever paying and it’s easy to use.

  • Step 5 – Upload your music files: Most platforms require (or recommend) to upload your music as high quality (44.1khz, 16-bit or higher) WAV audio file. But if you only have MP3 versions, first make sure it’s a 320kbps file (minimum) and make sure your MP3 files are properly tagged with the corresponding metadata or you may end up with some weird looking artist/song information when you try searching for your music on Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal etc. 
  • Step 6 – Choose the platforms you want your music on: In most cases, I would suggest choosing ALL of them. 
  • Step 7 – Choose a Pre-Order (Optional) and Release Date.
  • Step 8 – Confirm all the info and finish the submission: Triple check all the information you’ve entered and files uploaded and only then submit your music. 

That’s it! 

You’ll also eventually need to enter in your payment information for how you want to be paid out for sales you make.

A word about your music

Let me make this clear, before going through any of the above steps you MUST be 100% satisfied and happy with the music you are putting out there. Don’t release a song if you’re not excited to show it to anyone. Relax, take your time, this isn’t a race to the finish, it is a journey, and you should treat it as a gift to be able to discover your artistic vision, on your terms, and on your own time. Every song should be your best work. If you think you can make the song better, then you must make it better, anything less is an insult to your artistic self.

Once you have the song you want, make sure its sounds “technically” correct and that it will translate well in all kinds of playback systems. This might seem like an obvious one, but you would be surprised at how many musicians play their music off one source and then release it to the world. You cannot listen to anything on one device and hear it for what it is, there is simply not enough information to go off here.

 

How do you ensure your tracks are technically ready for release? 

Well, you need to have your final mixes professionally mastered. This one thing is critical in the process of releasing your music and sometimes underestimated by artists who self produce their music.

 

Why Master? 

Because mastering makes your mixes sound better. It’s also the last quality control to your tracks done by a third party individual with a room and equipment specifically designed for this task.

Your music needs to sound great before it’s out to millions of potential listeners on every online music store. Mastering engineers specialize in standardizing and refining the dynamics, applying complementary levels of EQ and compression, helping each element of your music sound clearer and smoother. The mastering engineer will also provide you with all the corresponding files and formats that are accepted and that you will need to submit to the respective distribution platforms.

 

No mastering budget? 

If you haven’t budgeted to master professionally or if you aren’t convinced that it’s worth it, please at least do your audience the favour of trying your best to “master” the tracks yourself! In this case, you will also need to make sure to check the minimum specs that are requested to submit your track digitally. Listen to your masters on as many systems as you can have access to (your car, different headphones, your friend’s Hi-Fi system, etc) and tweak it until it sounds good everywhere!

 

When in doubt ask for help! 

If you not 100% if you mix or master is ready for release, I’ll be happy to help and provide you with some feedback. Of course, free of charge. Please get in touch! 

On the other hand, if you want to hear what mastering can do for your music, I’ll be happy to provide a free mastering sample for you. Get your free mastering sample here and hear the difference professional mastering can do for your music.

Final words

Now you have understood how to get songs on all those different pro platforms it doesn’t mean you are done.  Your next step is to come up with a promotional plan to make the most out of your releases.

While you’re building your fan base, it’s best to release new music as often as you can so you show up on their radar and stay on it. The more frequently you release content, the more chances your track will get added to a playlist, and have its chance to shine.

For artists who aren’t ready to release an album or an EP, it’s recommended to release a single each month to stay top of mind. This gives you a chance to hone your craft and find out what works with your audience. It also gives you a chance each month to submit a track for playlist consideration. Remember, only one track per release can be submitted to Spotify editors for their consideration. This means that whether you put out a single or a 9-track album, you only get one chance to impress per release.

Last but not least

For every single release, you should create a PR, pitching, and promotion strategy that builds the album’s story over time. Your next task will be to assemble your assets, get your Electronic Press Kit together and begin letting publicity outlets know you have a new single coming out. I will be writing more about this in my next article. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll find this guide useful in helping you release more music to the world.

Extra: 10 Distributors full features compared

There are a number of other Digital Distributors which haven’t been covered in this article. To help you compare between these other options, I’ve prepared this comparison chart with 10 of the most popular, well established and long-standing aggregators out there. 

My aim is to show you some of the basic features they all share that are important to look for when determining the right partner and deal for your music distribution.