Recently, I was approached by a friend to look over a contract she had been given by a distributor. It was not a long or complicated contract and not written to deceive. It clearly stated that, in exchange for 3-year exclusivity, a $500 ‘set up fee’ and 20% of net profits, they would handle the digital distribution of her single. Sounds simple enough right?
The main sticking point for me is that they were only willing to handle digital distribution. It is not necessarily a problem to only distribute your songs digitally, and in the modern era of music, that will be your most wide-reaching and common form of distribution. It is not unusual these days (I sound like my mother!) for people not to print physical CDs or vinyls at all. The problem was the extortionate price they were changing for this service. Digital distribution is not a difficult task. Thousands of independent musicians handle this themselves – myself included. There are services such as Tunecore and CD Baby (amongst others) that facilitate this. On Tunecore (as this is the service I use and so know the most about, although there are others for similar pricing) it costs $9.99 to distribute a single and $29.99 to distribute an album for one year to over 80 online stores and radio services, including iTunes and Amazon. In my opinion, the task of doing this is neither difficult nor time consuming enough to warrant a set up fee of $500 and following costs of 20%.
That being said, if the distributor was willing to distribute physical CDs and get them into stores (although the number of stores selling physical CDs is getting fewer and fewer) this may be worth considering. Getting physicals out there is verging on impossible for the independent artist. Sure, you can sell copies at your gigs, maybe even be lucky enough to get them into some local stores or sold at music-friendly coffee shops, but to get them into a national store like, for example, Target, is impossible. Having your physical CD sold in a store like that is publicity you can’t buy. If a distributor were offering you this, then they would be worth considering. Obviously their costs would be a lot higher and you would have to have the contract checked by a shark of a lawyer to make sure there were no hidden rotten eggs in there that would end up costing you down the line. But in these circumstances, it would be likely that a distributor would be well worth your while.
For digital distribution however, I honestly recommend (and this is just my humble opinion) considering handling it yourself. Unless you find the task really daunting, confusing, or you do not have an hour that you could dedicate to it (in which case I would think carefully about whether being an independent musician is right for you), there are better ways to spend the $500. Spend it on printing physicals to sell at gigs, or perhaps a good bit of publicity to let people know your songs are out there. But don’t give it away to people taking advantage of independent musicians who think they need help to get their music out there. All you need is a little information on how to proceed by - and for - yourself.
The moral of this story is make sure you read all your contracts carefully and be sure of exactly what you’re getting, and have to spend to get it. Hire a lawyer if you need to. Don’t trust what anyone tells you in conversation, that has no relevance to your agreement with them. In the event that there is a dispute, the only thing that will matter is what’s written in the contract.
Remember, the music business is still a business, so make sure you’re protected!
Lily Lambert graduated from The University of Hertfordshire School of Law with Honors, and proceeded to be involved in the Entertainment Law field for the next 8 years.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be, or replace, legal advice. The law is constantly changing and will differ depending on your location, therefore information contained within this blog may not apply to your location or set of circumstances. Nothing in this blog is intended as a substitute for the advice of an attorney. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney licensed to practice within your jurisdiction.