Music distribution is a constantly evolving component of the new music industry. Every new company and new model brings with it new questions. One of the most consistent questions we see from artists and managers of all sizes is, "Who should I use for distribution?"
So, RootNote chatted with Gareth Mellor, TuneCore's newly appointed "Head of UK" (a title that hasn't quite earned Mellor the royal reception in the street you'd think) about what artists should look for in their distribution relationship, what makes the U.K. scene similar to and different from the U.S., and what hasn't changed about the music industry in the past 15 years.
Before Mellor was heading up TuneCore's new UK footprint, he served as Kobalt's Marketing Director for the U.K. and Europe and AWAL's Strategic Marketing Director. And before that, he was promoting live shows featuring local talent and global stars.
And before he was doing that, he was a struggling (or in his words, "failing") DJ and producer, crashing couches and forming an appreciation for the kind of work that still has to go in to being an artist.
"Well that depends if you take DJ'ing as an art form," Mellor laughs. "At the time I was DJ'ing breakbeat, which was incredibly unpopular and there weren't a lot of people wanting to make it. But artists and managers — these are the people I work with every day now. These people form my friend circle."
What Makes The U.K. Such A Special Music Market?
Music is an increasingly global experience, but in a lot of ways, that makes understanding regional differences even more important when it comes to releasing and promoting your music.
"The U.K. is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — music markets in the world," Mellor says. "There's something very special about the U.K. that really requires boots on the ground to understand."
While the U.S. tends to think of itself as the primary purveyor of Western culture, the U.K. has so many scene-specific cultural catalysts. "If you said to someone about American hip hop that the West Coast and East Coast are similar, or that Atlanta rap is like any other kind of rap, you'd get corrected in seconds, and the U.K. is a very similar situation," he says. "There are very tight-knit scenes. I get those things. I get the differences between the types of Grime, and how important it is, or how important the Bristol scene has been to U.K. culture. I'm seeing the same things they're seeing. I'm living the same socioeconomic situations."
Because the U.K. is also smaller, it's possible to expand regional traction more quickly. And British and European audiences still tend to place a slightly higher value on the music experience: all unique qualifiers that lend themselves towards making the U.K. a hotbed for rising talent. "The U.K. is still very much an independent-friendly territory," Mellor says.
And from his new TuneCore perch, that gives Mellor the opportunity to help grow an established brand that is still developing in his specific territory. "I would rather spend 10 hours of my day helping one artist," Mellor says. "If we can get the bit about respecting the artist right, we will kill it here in the U.K."
So far, TuneCore has rolled out a U.K.-specific Instagram account and announced the #IndependentAF campaign, which sees 24 U.K.-based artists taking over the channel with performances.
What's Changed In The Music Industry Since The Couch Surfing Days
So what's changed in the music industry since Mellor's first day of university (when he first got a Facebook account) and now? "Well, DSPs are obviously a huge shift," he says — referring to the emergence of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. "But really, it's user psychology. Attention spans have changed. We demand instant gratification in music and release cycles don't exist the way they used to."
And while there are more ways to find your audience than ever before, your audience might be spending less time actively "finding" you. In other words, you have to be present and consistent in the places people interact with you the most.
For some artists, it can feel overwhelming trying to maintain a social presence amid also trying to be creative and, often times, balancing the realities of a 9 to 5. But the solution, to Mellor, hasn't changed regardless of all the different platforms that spring up.
Keep It Real
"I think the ones who succeed are authentic," Mellor says. "I don't think that's ever changed. If you fake something, you get found out. You can be really creative and still be yourself. Not to go on about Russ, but he's found a really authentic way to talk to his fans."
So you don't have to be everywhere all the time — you just have to be somewhere consistently, and be yourself. It's a concept that goes beyond just music. As more and more brands look to differentiate themselves from their peers, they lean more into what makes them unique.
"All artists are brands, and you can't see 'brand' as a dirty word," Mellor says. "You have to have a creative vision. You have to have a creative voice."
A Distributor's Role In An Artist's Career
Prior to the emergence of streaming, distribution was a bit of a walled garden. Companies like TuneCore and CD Baby were essentially the first ones to make the process of getting your music into the iTunes store easy for everyday artists. And even then, most independent artists were still more concerned about physical manufacturing and getting records on the best shelves in preferred music stores.
Now, there are dozens upon dozens of digital distributors, all vying to snatch up artists under different business models. Many distributors have started offering hybrid "label services" in addition to the core function of getting your music out to all the streaming services. Many also offer "playlist pitching" support. Some offer advances. And some of the bigger ones have been acquired by major labels.
Not surprisingly, it's led to confusion about what role a distribution company should actually play in an artist's career — often leading to unhappy relationships and misaligned expectations.
"I think it's the role of the distributor to educate the artists that use them," Mellor says. "In my opinion, TuneCore's role is to give them a platform to get their music out there and support them in that process. I was talking with an artist the other day who is getting label offers but wanted to stay with TuneCore. To me, that's the perfect position. We've helped you get to the point where you have the chance to make a choice; that's what pure independence is."
So should you take the deal if you're getting offers? It totally depends on your circumstances. But you should always know what the deal is.
"If you go into a label deal these days and you've been in music long enough, you know what label deals are," he says. "You should know what you're getting into. Labels do some very good things sometimes. But also look at what some of these artists go through. Nobody should be going into a label deal blinkered."
But being given the option is allowing a lot of artists a more refreshing path towards independence. "One of the things that's happening a lot is an artist is coming out of a development deal or label deal and deciding to do it themselves," Mellor adds.
For its part, TuneCore has doubled down on educating and incentivizing artists in a scalable way. The company just released TuneCore Rewards, a rewards program featuring educational masterclass style videos about brand building as an artist. As artists progress through the education component and reach certain milestones in their careers (things like streaming and revenue milestones), they'll "level up" within the program and earn opportunities for more tailored education and review from TuneCore.
It's basically like hotel or travel rewards, but for releasing music — a novel application of a tried-and-true way to keep users engaged. The fact that TuneCore is centering the program largely around education and growth shows just how important it is for users to really understand how and why they make money from music in the digital age.
How Do You Know If You Have A Good Relationship With Your Distributor?
It's one of the most FOMO-inducing aspects of releasing music: who should I choose to distribute my songs? In a lot of ways, distributors created the confusion themselves. In order to attract more customers, they started pitching themselves as a pathway to editorial support and growth opportunities for a client's music.
Naturally, managers and artists immediately tried to get the inside scoop on who actually performs this function best. It can lead to a lot of unhappy customers and distributor hopping — especially when you consider that the primary function of any distributor should be to, you know, distribute your music.
So how do you know when you're in a good relationship with your distributor?
"When you're both aligned with what you're expecting," Mellor says.
A company like TuneCore offers a fairly straightforward service. Artists pay per release, anywhere from $10 a year to $50 a year depending on the release type (single vs album etc., though the first year of an album is $29.99). They have a few additional optional "a la carte" services like TuneCore Social ($8 a month) and publishing admin for a one-time $75 fee.
"TuneCore is very fluid and easy to use," Mellor says. "If you go to TuneCore, you know we're not pitching you, but the release process goes well and we're quick at getting back to you in terms of customer service."
So you're not getting additional "label services," but you're also paying a fixed amount based on what you release. If that's what you need and expect, then that's a good relationship. But if you're expecting tailored playlist pitching from TuneCore, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
On the other side of the coin, you've got distributors who take a percentage of a user's income, typically anywhere from 9% to 30%. And if you're giving a distributor a percentage of your earnings based on the promise of label services, the "expectations" conversation can get a lot murkier.
A lot of artists are attracted to distributors based on the pitch that a distributor can get their music in front of editorial curators and increase the chance of a signal boost for their new music. But with such a subjective value add, there's no way to guarantee any distributor can do more than the primary function of getting your music out on time.
So you might ultimately be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to your distributor taking a percentage of your catalog when you could be only paying $50. Or, they could be the ones to help you land that first big editorial opportunity. It's a gamble.
Regardless of your priorities, Mellor stresses that building good relationships takes time, likening it to how long it takes an album to climb the charts in the U.K. or a song to break radio. "It's a two-way street," he says. "It's like with any relationship — if you think it's all about you as an artist or manager, it's not going to be a good relationship."
What's The Key To A Happy Team?
"Transparency," Mellor says. "There has to be. Obviously, coming from Kobalt, that was one of our pillars. But from the label down to the artist, everybody should be able to see what they want to see. Not that everyone needs to see everything all the time, but you should have the ability to understand your business. I think that's where a lot of the labels came apart."
So, align your expectations and be honest about where you're at. Seems like some genuinely good life advice.
Mellor stresses that having a "team" is hugely important, but that "team" might not be what you think it is in the traditional sense (like a lawyer, a manager, an agent etc.). "Even if you're just getting out of school, you probably have friends around you who can be part of your early team," he says. "Graphic designers, photographers, web developers; some people have their whole community within the band."
What Is Your Major Misconception?
What's the one thing artists and their teams should know before they go to their distributor or marketing team? "The big one is that playlists are not a marketing strategy," Mellor says. "I personally believe DSPs are viewed in the wrong way. They are technology platforms that host music. They are not altruistic beings of a service that are there specifically to help artists."
In other words, don't simply expect to get support from any of the music streaming services because it would be nice of them. When it comes down to it, if you show them you're bringing more listeners to their platform, they'll probably give you a longer look. But that doesn't mean you should solely focus on the DSPs.
"Your life does not need to revolve around the DSPs," Mellor says. In fact, the path to a sustainable business may not run through your streaming revenue at all. Artists have opportunities to build viable brands through direct-to-fan engagement, online sales, livestreaming, fan clubs, and more.
What Is The One Thing An Artist Can Do To Increase Their Chances Of Success In The Streaming Era?
"Work your ass off," Mellor says. "You have to do the work. TuneCore can do all the work to educate users, distribute their music, upstream them to Believe [TuneCore's parent service for more established artists], start offering label services and playlist support, but as an artist, you have to put the legwork in. No artist succeeds these days without putting that effort in."
That, and don't be afraid to build what Mellor calls your "musical C.V."
"When I talk to artists and teams, I tell them to think of their first track as their first job," Mellor says. "You gain experience from that track. Maybe you get some blog coverage, or local paper coverage, or something from SubmitHub. But you use that to build on the next track and the next track. I usually recommend artists wait to release the song they're most excited about until the third song in a release cycle. Give your fans a chance to grow with you."