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How Music Distributors Work

Types of Music Distributors
When releasing their new album in 2007, the Eagles signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Wal-Mart.
When releasing their new album in 2007, the Eagles signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Wal-Mart.
© Karl Walter/Getty Images

A music distributor links a record label or independent musical group to consumers. The record label signs the group and then oversees recording sessions, marketing, promotion and distribution of the group's CDs to retail stores. Major record labels usually have an in-house music distribution division or an ongoing relationship with an outside distributor. A band without a recording contract, like Devo in the mid-'70s, has to find an independent music distributor to get its message and its music to its fans.

The goal is the same: to sell recordings and to increase the group's visibility and popularity by convincing stores to stock and promote its recordings. Promotion can include in-store displays, media advertising, listening stations within the store, sale pricing and even special high-visibility placement of the group's records or CDs. Much of that comes through the distributor's sales reps, who build relationships with the chains and independent stores. The stores either buy with a purchase order or on consignment, only paying when the CD has sold [sources: Jeff Johnson and].

Although music downloads eliminate physical records or CDs in an actual store, much of the music distributor's role remains the same, substituting an online music seller, like iTunes or Rhapsody, for the retail store and converting store displays and advertising to pop-ups and e-mail or text message offers.

Music distributors can be categorized in several ways:

  • Major label vs. independent -- Consolidation has left only a handful of major music distributors affiliated with the big record labels: Capitol/EMI Distribution (Time Warner), Sony/BMG Distribution, UNI Distribution (Vivendi Universal) and WEA Distribution (Warner Music Group). Independents can be national or regional. Among the independents, the largest is Curb Distribution.
  • Subdistributors -- These are the middlemen between large distributors and retailers. They could be one-stops, which sell from a number of different distributors, or rack-jobbers who actually own and run the record department within a larger department or multipurpose store.
  • National, regional or international -- While the major distributors operate on a national basis, area distributors are smaller and focus on a specific region of the United States, perhaps even a single metropolitan area. International distributors handle one or more overseas markets.
  • Online, Internet or digital distributors -- These distributors supply iTunes,, Rhapsody, Napster and other Web music stores with the tunes that they offer. These distributors may also offer physical CDs, or they may operate only in the cyber-sphere.
  • Niche distributors -- Some distributors specialize in and can be categorized by the type of music they handle, such as classical, Christian, country or alternative music.
  • Printed or sheet music distributors -- Although they only account for a small share of the market, some distributors are actually publishers or work for publishers to sell musical scores, band music, pop songs for guitarists and vocalists, and other "on paper" works.

[sources: LaCosta Music, and]

Next, let's find out how record labels and independent bands work with music distributors.