Tarun Nayar’s band Delhi 2 Dublin has flirted with record labels, but locking into a complicated contract doesn’t really make sense for the road warriors.
“We make so much off of CDs when we’re travelling,” says the co-founder of the Vancouver band, which fuses both bhangra and Celtic music with pop flavourings. Any label they would attach themselves to would want a piece of their revenue.
“Once you sign, you’re no longer making the majority of the money.”
When Delhi 2 Dublin started gaining traction a decade ago, the band sought a way to get onto iTunes, which had emerged as digital music’s foremost retail store. It was then that they stumbled on the Portland-based companyCD Baby, a day-one partner with Apple’s music service. Soon the band discovered that the company distributed to other digital retailers, and even did physical distribution. Today, Mr. Nayar says, “they’ve turned into a one-stop shop for everything.”
The Internet undoubtedly shattered the recording industry’s traditional income streams by enabling piracy, but it has also opened up a whole new do-it-yourself world for independent artists. Services such as CD Baby and Tunecore have emerged to let artists bypass the traditional music distribution maze and handle it themselves, giving them greater control over their music and revenue while giving them a more global reach. This democratization extends to other artist endeavours, too, including film, as services pop up allowing independent filmmakers to instantly let customers around the world rent or buy their work. In the digital era, artists no longer need the backing of big business: more than ever, they can go their own way and let the art speak for itself.
While record deals, especially through major labels, can seem like career-changing moneymakers, the label often takes a huge cut of album and song income. Even the most generous deals usually net artists less than half their music’s revenue. Since launching in a garage in 1998, CD Baby has become a force in independent distribution, with a mandate to help indie artists collect all the money they can for their music.
On top of physical CD and vinyl distribution, “we’re on pretty much every kind of digital platform you can think of,” says Tracy Maddux, CD Baby’s chief executive.
The company says it’s the world’s biggest online distributor of indie music, with more than 330,000 artists using the service and $300-million (U.S.) paid out to them over its history. It has helped artists like Macklemore, Bon Iver and The National get their start.
It costs a one-time $9.95 fee to distribute a single through the service, and $49 an album. That includes worldwide digital and CD distribution. CD Baby then takes a 9-per-cent commission on digital sales and a $4 commission from physical sales.
For slightly more money, artists can sign up for CD Baby Pro, which opens the music up to more royalty collection opportunities, including through publishing royalties. CD Baby also offers synchronization song licensing, such as through YouTube, as another revenue stream.
As downloads have dwindled, they have put greater emphasis on subscription streaming music services such as Spotify, so that artists who use the service can keep squeezing value from their music. They can also opt out of specific services and markets. This helps Mr. Nayar, who says he is unlikely to offer Delhi 2 Dublin’s next album on streaming services, in order to encourage more fans to buy it outright. “That whole [streaming] thing, we’re just getting ripped off in a major way,” Mr. Nayar says.
There are a handful of Canadian-led ways musicians can distribute their work, including grassroots non-profit Wyrd Distro for physical releases, and Indie Pool for CD manufacturing and iTunes distribution. But the biggest do-it-yourself forces remain anchored south of the border, including TuneCore Inc.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company represents about 200,000 artists and has delivered $576-million to them since its inception in 2006. TuneCore offers similar distribution services to CD Baby, with a slightly different pricing structure. While the basic services cost $9.99 per single and $29.99 per album upfront, and artists recoup 100 per cent of revenue, TuneCore has additional annual fees to continue using the service.
(Both services offer side-by-side comparisons of their costs and benefits to let artists decide which is best for them. TuneCore notably does not do physical distribution, but has a partner that does so, which some of its artists use.)
Many artists who have left major labels to strike out on their own have come to TuneCore, including Fleetwood Mac, says its chief executive Scott Ackerman. Like with CD Baby, artists can pick which services to use and which markets to distribute their music to. “We’re giving artists opportunities to find ways to earn more money for themselves and become more successful,” Mr. Ackerman says.
Toronto-via-Calgary musician Jocelyn Alice had seen some small successes as a songwriter and in various bands, but earlier this year, her solo song Jackpot burst into the public eye, appearing on Spotify’s top-10 viral song chart and has spent more than a dozen weeks on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 chart. The song, released through TuneCore, has sold more than 33,000 copies – and now labels are chasing her down.
TuneCore, Ms. Alice says, got her music out to ears it might not have reached. “Had I gone out and tried to find a label, it would have been a very different conversation than having all the labels come to me,” she says. “I feel pretty lucky.”
Filmmakers are taking advantage of the Internet’s easy distribution channels, too. Some of the world’s biggest entertainers have gone do-it-yourself – comedian Louis C.K. regularly releases comedy specials online for cheap prices – but independent artists may reap the most benefits. When the formerly Toronto-based filmmaker Eva Michon released her documentary Life After Death From Above 1979 last year, she offered it up online for fans to access instantly. Through Vimeo on Demand, viewers can rent the film for 24 hours for $4.99, or buy a download for $9.99.
The film, which chronicles the decade-long breakup-and-reunion story of the band Death from Above 1979, was screened in various cities, but she wanted to make it available for fans anywhere. “It’s about a punk band, and the way we made it was very DIY,” Ms. Michon says. “It made sense to explore the idea of having the distribution in our hands as well.”
Vimeo LLC introduced the On Demand service two years ago for its community of professional filmmakers, who were already using the basic platform to share content. On Demand is available to Vimeo Pro users, who pay $219 (Canadian) annually, and filmmakers including Spike Leeand Joss Whedon have given it a shot. Vimeo takes a 10-per-cent cut of revenue from the films streamed through it.
“It’s really grown in leaps and bounds,” says Greg Clayman, Vimeo’s general manager of audience networks. “If you want to distribute content on Netflix, you’ve got to get them to take it. If you want to distribute on iTunes, you need a distributor. We’re an open, direct platform.”
Openness is crucial for artists who want to stay independent and keep the majority of their revenue.
For Delhi 2 Dublin, when the band releases its next project, it may be in conjunction with a friend’s small label, but Mr. Nayar plans to enlist CD Baby for help anyway. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an issue they haven’t been able to help us with.”