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  •  The EvO:R-Pedia Musicians Tips Section

    Welcome to the EvO:R Tips Section. We call this section EvO:R-Pedia because it is like a complete reference library for Indie musicians...Just about every tip has been used so you won't find false promises and a series of books to buy after reading each tip. This section was put here by musicians so that people that followed can take this knowledge and use it's power.

    "For The Masses" by Jake Finkelstein


    Music distribution has to be one of the most misunderstood topics by independent musicians and start-up record labels / distributors alike. Many unsigned bands feel that selling their records at gigs is adequate, and those who do have label representation are all too often willing to leave the distribution decisions up to their label. Start-ups, on the other hand, know full well that they must make sales in order to survive, but rarely understand how the distribution process works; or know all of the options available to them. This article is an attempt to break down these misunderstandings and offer alternatives to the trial-and-error process which so many do it yourself-ers have gone through. This article will touch on traditional distribution channels, as well as some of the more unconventional, and ultimately put you in a better position in order to get your record(s) into the hands of your customers.

    NOTE: Here is something that I tell EVERY band/label I work with – once you release a record to the general public, you are no longer only an art project, you are a PRODUCT as well. Distribution relies heavily on the concept that your "great, earth shattering, new release" is a commercially viable product, and that your image as a band supports this assumption. For all many bigger distributors care you could be a toaster oven. All they are interested in is whether or not your record will sell to their customer base. Similarly, smaller "indie" distributors/stores want to make sure that your release will sell to its niche customer base, and often rely on the same assumptions. It may suck, but it's just the way the free market system works…

    Retail Outlets

    Retail music outlets are by far the biggest sales generators in the music industry. The vast majority of all record sales come from this good old standby. In fact, I'm willing to bet that when you want to buy a record the first place you will think of going is your favorite record store – despite the fact you have several other options. Over the past few years, the industry has experienced a great consolidation. In other words, a handful of large chain stores have been forcing the "mom and pop" stores into bankruptcy due to the fact that they do not receive the same quantity discounts, from big labels, that the large stores do. Here's an interesting side note – places like Best Buy often just break even, or take a loss, on every CD they sell. To them, it is much more important to get you into their store and have you possibly walk out with a CD and a new computer, for instance, on which they make a lot more profit. In other words, CDs are simply there to draw you to the store on a regular basis. An unfortunate side effect of this is that stores, which rely on music sales as their primary income (most notably the smaller ones), cannot afford the same leniency. Anyhow, back to the point – while this does not diminish the importance of retail outlets, it does change the rules of the game a little.

    Let me make a few assumptions:
    1) You have a commercially viable product (meaning your record – generally a CD – is well produced, has an UPC code, decent artwork, and is shrink-wrapped).
    2) You have adequate promotion standing behind your release. I'm sorry to say folks, but with more than 30,000 records currently in print, your CD is little more than a guppy in a sea of sharks unless you have strong support behind it (including, but not limited to: radio and press publicity, touring, freebees such as stickers, etc.). While this does not mean you have to spend thousands of dollars on promotion (though, for a label it often does), it does mean that you have to have people realistically interested in purchasing your record, even if only on a limited geographic scale (say, for instance, the city you live in plus three surrounding cities).
    3) You have a good press kit. This is the first impression that is going to strike the store's merchandise buyer, so make it good! It usually includes press clippings/reviews, a band photo, a band biography, and a "factsheet." However, there are other things you can add to it which can prove useful (sorry, don't have the room in this article to get into it).

    Assuming that you meet these conditions, you are ready to get started. But wait – where do you start? Honestly that depends on where you want to end up. If you are interested in having your CD in large chain stores, such as Best Buy, The Wall, HMV, and Tower Records you absolutely have to go through an established distributor who is familiar with these companies. If you are interested in having your record carried mostly in "mom and pop" stores, then you can do this on your own – although it is often easier to leave this to an established distributor as well. So, I guess that's where we'll start –


    Getting a distributor to carry your release can prove to be a difficult process (particularly with the larger distributors such as R.E.D., Matador, etc.). You have to prove to them that you meet all of the above three conditions – something that is difficult to do if you're running a label out of your basement on a miniscule budget. If you are a band without label support, don't even bother calling the bigger distributors. Try the smaller, independent ones… but I'll talk about that a little later. Anyhow, when you are first trying to establish a relationship with a larger distributor it is important that you call the company BEFORE you send them a sample. Why? First off, you want to verify that they are accepting promotional samples at that time. Second, you want to verify all the important contact information (you can imagine how effective a package sent to the wrong address, or with the name of the former merchandise buyer on it, would be). Third, this call helps you establish name recognition. Perhaps you're lucky enough to talk to the person who you need to send the sample package to. When he/she receives the package the following week, hopefully they'll remember your conversation or at the minimum have the name of the CD ring a bell.

    Once the phone call has been taken care of, and you are given permission to send a sample, do so right away. Don't wait a week, or worse, even longer. Try to get that package to the distributor as soon as possible in the hopes that your conversation with them is still fresh in their mind. Make sure you include your press kit [note: sometimes distributors only request a "one-sheet" in leu of a full fledged press kit. A "one-sheet" generally has a picture of the cover of the CD and/or band, the UPC number, a short description of the record, and any highlights which may be important to the distributor] as well as a cover letter (quickly reminding them why they are receiving your lovely package) and a price list. The price list simply lists your wholesale prices (for a CD I would suggest nothing more than $7. 7" EPs $2.50 unless it is colored, a special shape, etc. Cassettes $6. 12" LPs $7, unless colored, etc.), quantity discounts, et al. Once you send off your package, wait roughly 2 – 3 weeks and then place a follow up call (if you have not heard from them before that). Ask if they received your package, and what they thought of it. This is where it is extremely important to be polite. If they say they haven't had a chance yet, or worse, just don't like the record – be professional and thank them for their time and consideration. This will give you some leeway in the future if you decide to send them a copy of your next release.

    One thing to be warned about when contacting large distributors – they generally don't like to take risks. These are the same guys that carry all the hugely popular records that sell thousands of units a week. You have to be pretty savvy to get them to take a chance on your record. While not impossible, it's not easy either. Furthermore, if you're lucky enough to have them pick up your record, if it does not sell well it can sometimes be difficult to get paid (this is just my personal bias from past experience. I have found that if you are a small label, and your record does not do very well, some of the large distributors do not have any problems with not paying you. If this happens, just continue to bug them until you get paid. After all, the agreement is under contract, and in the end you ARE right).

    A solid alternative to the big boys, are the smaller distributors. While not always able to get your record placed in the big chain stores, there are still thousands of "mom and pop" stores located through out the United States which they often work with. The process to get your record distributed by them is essentially the same as that of the large distributors. The only difference I find comes once they pick up your release. Here is something to live and die by; make sure to get all agreements in writing before you send them any merchandise! While this does not necessarily protect you from getting stiffed, it does prove that you had an agreement in the first place. The reason I make this point is that some of the smallest distributors are just enthusiastic fans who run the show out of their bedroom, and have little practical business experience. As a result, they are sometimes reluctant to work under a formal contract. Unless they pay up front, and in full, I would not work with anyone unless it is under a contract. Another problem that you will often run across is that you're dealing with numerous distributors who, individually, do not sell many units. Thus, you have additional paper work, phone calls, etc. for each. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to get around this. It's just part of the game.

    Also, here's a word of advice. Just as I strongly suggest contacting each and every large distributor before you send a sample package – do the same for the small independent distributors. Some, such as Rotz Records, or Rhetoric Records, are established enough not to disappear off the face of the planet over night, while the smaller ones run by the average music enthusiast can (and often do if you are using dated contact information). Just double-check everything before sending out 30+ packages. Another piece of advice is stay away from what is called "shotgun mailings." This is when you send out a large number of promotional packages without verifying contact information, what sort of music the distributor works with, etc. Whatever the purpose of the mailings (publicity, to establish relationships with distributors, etc.) shotgun mailings are expensive, ineffective, and unprofessional.


    One alternative to working with distributors to get your product placed in stores is to go directly to the stores yourself. This is particularly attractive if you are a band without label backing, a small/start-up label, or a label that is focused primarily on your community [note: I would only suggest this for "local" sales. It is too time consuming and difficult for anything beyond an hours drive]. Let me start by saying that this approach will get your released placed in mostly "mom and pop" record stores, and USUALLY not in the chain stores in your area. Sometimes the chains have company-wide policies of taking local music on consignment (such as Blockbuster, Strawberry's, and Rainbow Records to name a few) – sometimes you'll run across a sympathetic manager/music buyer – but I wouldn't count on having your records for sale at all the local hot spots. However, trying never hurt anyone, so I would still suggest giving it a go.

    Regardless of whether your are trying to have The Wall or Uncle Joe's Records pick up your release, the pitch (and more often than not the terms of the agreement) will be the same. After selecting which stores you are interested in having your record sold, pick up the phone and give them a call. Find out whether or not they might be interested in hearing more about your release, and if so who you should talk to (note: sometimes they will refer you to the corporate office if it is a chain store. Don't worry. Just follow the same rules as when working with a distributor in that case). If they are not interested, thank them for their time, hang up the phone, and move onto the next store (do you see a theme developing?). If the nice person on the phone DOES tells you to visit the store, find out who you are to talk with, and what time(s) they will be there. Bring a sample copy of your release to the meeting, along with all the appropriate marketing information (read: press kit, price listing, etc.). I would also suggest dressing nicely (not necessarily a suit and tie, but be presentable) for your visit. Go in there and introduce yourself, and start your well-refined pitch. Communicate to him why the people in your area are so interested in the record, and why he should pick it up. Tell him all about the local college (commercial if you're really lucky) airplay and press coverage that the CD is receiving. You get the idea. Don't lay it on too thick – be honest, but you're a salesman, don't be afraid to embellish a little. Just remember that if sales don't live up to the expectations you put down, the store will hold you accountable.

    Once you finish the pitch, the music buyer will usually let you know if they are interested in picking up the release. If so, generally it will be on the condition that the product is taken on consignment. What exactly does this mean? Well, when you sell a number of units to a distributor or store, they agree to pay you in full by a certain date (for instance Net 30, meaning you will receive full payment within 30 days of delivery). Consignment is a little different. Here you are allowing the store [or distributor] to take, say five units, but no specific date is set for payment. Rather, whenever the CDs sell, that's when you get paid. Thus, if three of the five sell within the first week, and you go in the second week to check on sales, you can reasonably ask them to pay you for those three CDs and keep the other two available for sale (assuming the store doesn't want to take anymore at that moment). In reality, the situation and terms of the consignment agreement will often vary. In my experience, stores will usually take roughly five to ten units of a new release at your wholesale price. Every thirty days or so, you will have to go back and check to see how the sales for the previous month went. Don't expect the stores to call you to let you know! Even if you sell out within the first two days, more often than not they will not call to re-order, much less volunteer to pay you. As a result, if you don't "make the rounds" every month or so, chances are you'll never hear from the stores again. Furthermore, both you and the store can cancel the agreement at anytime simply by notifying the other party. So, if all the stores in your area are selling the CD really well, but Afternoon Records Shop isn't, you can feel free to pull the release from their shelves. Again, I would strongly suggest having each and every consignment agreement under contract AND that you keep good documentation (i.e. receipts) on the sales. I've had stores tell me that I only gave them five records, when I actually gave them ten. If I didn't have my sales receipt, and a copy of theirs, I would never have gotten paid for the other five.

    While getting your release placed in the store to begin with might seem like a big accomplishment, I'm sorry to say that the hard work is only beginning. Many record stores treat local bands/releases differently then other records. Sometimes they will be placed in a "local" bin in the back of the store. If you're a little luckier, they will be mixed in with the rest of the records. However, either way your CD still does not standout from the crowd, thus making it more difficult to generate sales. There are numerous ways you can counteract this; not all of which I will mention (or even know for that matter). Bottom line is – be creative. Anything that brings attention to your release is important. For instance, all records fit a specific genre of music. If the store you're working with has a section for that genre, make sure you let the manager know… and make sure your record is placed there! Give the store a free copy of the CD to play in-store. Arrange for an in-store show for the band. Give the store a poster or memorabilia to hang up on the wall; or free stickers to pass out. If you have the money, make displays (note: you can get small ones which can hold roughly 10 CDs or cassettes from DISCMAKERS for an affordable rate), and see if the stores might be interested in putting one on the register counter – or if they are large displays – next to do entrance door. You get the idea. Be creative, and I promise your sales will pick up.

    Before I finish discussing stores, I have to mention an organization that is taking this concept to a new level. The Independent Distribution Network (IDN) has come up with a spectacular idea – why not link together the thousands of people across the world who are working with a few stores in their area to create a network of distributors? I have worked with this non-profit company, and they are great! They allow you easy access into stores across the globe (including places like HMV, Tower Records, Blockbuster, Rainbow Records, and more), as well as offering a slew of other FREE services. I would wholeheartedly suggest checking them out.


    Another terrific arena for music distribution is mail-order. While not talking about the BMG music club or the like (now wouldn't THAT be nice?), there are medium and smaller sized mail-order catalogs which you should be able to get your release listed in without too much hassle, provided you have a quality record. You should treat these companies in a similar fashion as conventional distributors. All of the same rules apply. Call and verify contact information, and whether or not they are accepting new releases at that moment, before you send them a package. Follow up on all sent packages within 2 –3 weeks after they are mailed; or whenever the mail-order company told you to call them back. If accepted, provide all appropriate marketing material. You get the gist of it. Additional marketing opportunities differ between mail-order providers – but sometimes you can buy ads in their catalogs to give your release a little more exposure or convince them (usually for a fee) to include a flyer which is provided by you in all of the catalogs they mail/hand out.

    On-line Retailers

    Many years after the invention of the Internet came E-commerce. You've probably read a lot about it recently, and perhaps have even bought a few things on-line. This is perhaps one of the newest, and fastest growing, segments of music distribution and sales. You quickly, easily, and generally inexpensively have a way to reach anyone in the world who has access to the Internet. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well – in some aspects it is.

    Most of you have heard of CDNow, Music Boulevard, and N2K. But for the few of you who haven't, these are probably the three largest on-line music retailers in the world, much less the United States. These on-line stores know how to keep their overhead low; in other words they don't have a traditional "storefront" to pay for; and via aggressive advertising and co-promotional agreements with other companies, such as America On-line for instance, they have become some of the most successful on-line stores around. To fully understand these companies, you have to understand how they work. Essentially, they are not distributors or mail-order companies in the conventional sense, rather just a storefront.

    Let's take CDNow for instance. This company does not house any of the 200,000+ records they list on-line. Rather, they work with a distribution company called Valley Distribution who handles all warehousing and shipping. Basically whenever CDNow receives an order, they notify Valley who then ships it out. CDNow then pays Valley for the merchandise at a later date. What is deceiving at first to labels and bands who want to have their records listed at CDNow (or the others), is that CDNow does not make the decisions on what records they list on-line. Rather, they simply carry ALL of Valley's catalog, and Valley makes ALL of the music buying decisions. As a result, to have your release listed on a large on-line music retailer, you have to go through the same process, and difficulties, as you would when you approach a large conventional distributor. In other words, getting your CD listed on CDNow, Music Boulevard, or N2K is not an easy task.

    Thankfully, however, is the fact that there are many smaller on-line retailers whom you can work with in order to have your CDs available on-line. For small labels and bands who cannot afford to have their own on-line ordering system (credit card processing included), I would recommend CDBaby (http://www.cdbaby.com) or The Orchard (http://www.theorchard.com). CDBaby will create an individual web page for your record (on their server, including scanned pictures and digitized Real Audio clips) as well as make your release available for sale via check, money order, or credit card and handle all shipping for a small fee (as of 11/98 a $25.00 one-time setup fee plus $4 per record. So if you charge $10 retail, you'll actually only receive $6). The Orchard, on the other hand, works a little differently. Co-founded by Richard Gottehrer (co-founder of Sire Records, also wrote "I Want Candy" and "My Boyfriend's Back"), The Orchard offers you a chance to have your records listed for sale at CDNow, Amazon.com, Music Boulevard, and Total E – in turn they get a 30% take of the sale price of the record. Both services work on a non-exclusive basis. Also, if you work with conventional distributors (such as Rotz Records or Bayside Distribution, who handles purchasing for Tower Records), or some non-conventional distributors (such as the Independent Distribution Network), they will occasionally offer web sites where you can have your CD available for sale. Your approach to these companies would be the same as with small or medium sized distributors.

    One other option, which can be much more difficult, is creating your own web site where you can sell your release. This option can be expensive (you have to pay for the design and housing), and at times hard to implement. Furthermore, you have to handle all your own order processing (credit card processing is expensive and difficult to secure), shipping, and advertising for the site. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I wouldn't count on a band or small label web site generating a significant amount of orders. Yet by the same token, band/label web sites are great tools for promotion and interacting with your fans.

    Person-To-Person Sales

    Person-to-person sales are a time-honored tradition among bands and labels alike. In fact, if you currently have a release available for sale, I bet you are already using this to your advantage. Basically, this technique involves taking your release(s) to gigs [either ones you play, set-up, or have access to] and sell your wares to whomever is interested. Whether it means selling CDs out of the trunk of your car or setting up a table next to the door – person-to-person sales are a way for you to interact, directly, with your fans and hopefully affect their buying decision. Not too much goes into this really. All you need is an area to sell the records and a price list posted in a visible area. Additional items such as free stickers and a mailing list sign-up sheet are also good to have as they help increase participation of the fans in the music they (presumably) like so much.

    There are a few things that I would highly suggest having on hand when selling at a gig. First, make sure you have a cash box. I mean, I sure wouldn't want to walk around with $100 in my pocket at a show (remember, that's only 10 CDs sold). Second, bring enough change! Image this: you have a customer who wants to pick up your newest CD ($8). He hands you a $20 bill. Oh no! You forgot to bring change, and loose the sale! I have seen this happen numerous times, and there is no good reason for it. Before the gig, hit the bank and have at least $60 in change (I would suggest 3 $10, 2 $5, 10 $1, and the rest in change if you have an uneven sales price). Third, have a book of receipts. You can pick one up cheap at Staples (or the like). Having one of these is more for you than the customer. Basically, by keeping a receipt of each transaction you can keep track of how many units you sold. Simple enough, but often overlooked. Fourth, and finally, try to bring any sort of promotional material you can. If you have a show next week, bring a stack of flyers. If you have some stickers or patches you can give away, set them up on the table too. Put your mailing list out as well. Each of these little things will help you promote and sell your band.

    End Notes

    The various avenues and techniques for distribution which I have listed in this article are not the end all be all. Rather, look at this as a starting point that is only limited by your imagination and creativity. Don't be afraid to experiment and push the envelope of what is acceptable. Just be smart about it. By the same token, distribution is only one part of a successful record release. You could have your CD sitting on every shelf, in every record store in the world – but if you don't have adequate promotion behind it, no one is going to buy it (because no one knows about it). Back up all your distribution efforts with equally as powerful promotion and you won't have any problems. Good luck!

    About the Author:

    Jake Finkelstein owns/operates Forty-Two Records (a record label, distributor, and consulting organization) and plays bass for the pop-punk band The Herculoids. He welcomes comments, and can be reached at fortytwo@juno.com or through the Forty-Two Records web site at http://www.mk.net/~logik/index.html.


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