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« Artist Path to Market Post #2: Navigating the Hype Machine | Main | How to Set and Reach Your Music Goals »

Real in-store CD distribution: still working for anybody?

A musician emailed me today, asking my advice on choosing a physical distributor. He was considering paying big money to one company who promised to get it on the shelves of record stores, or another who would take a big cut, or using CD Baby’s in-store distribution (

Here’s my advice to him.  Feel free to critique it.  I’m curious to hear any replies from people who have had success with real in-store distribution recently.

The big question is:

How many people are going into physical stores (shopping malls, etc) - looking for your CD - and are unable to buy it?

Are those people truly unable to buy your CD, and give up before looking online?

Record stores are closing left-and-right. They’re few and far-between. Because of this, people aren’t depending on their shopping mall as a place to buy music anymore. Then that just accelerates the trend.

I really think there will be almost no record stores in a few years. Just a little section at Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

Because of this, CD distributors are desperate and panicked. They can’t afford to distribute anything that’s not going to sell really well, really fast.

I think you’re better off putting your energy where it’s going to get you the greatest return : by selling and promoting 100% online.

Take that same amount of time, money, and energy into making a GREAT online presence.

Your website is good - but make it even better. Make it irresistably interactive : so everyone who runs across it will give you their name and email address. Then engage an ongoing interesting discussion with those fans. Make it easy for them to tell their friends.


This will do you 100-times more good than fighting the uphill battle against the trend of desperate distributors and shutting stores.

Reader Comments (20)

I agree with you on this. First, if you can't sell at least 2-3k copies yourself to all the people who you know and come to your shows then how are you going to sell the same amount or more to an audience who don't know you.

How do you get people who don't know you to buy your Cd? A very large marketing budget to buy endcaps and placement will get you started. There has been a failed belief that mass advertising will get people to buy music. Although this has been true for many years I don't think that is the case now. Yes, for the pop divas and commercial bands this is true but the only people who have a budget like this for their artists are the major labels.

Also unless your willing not to be paid or have to wait to be paid for 180 days then I would stay away from physical distribution. As we all know even some very large bands are realizing obviously that physical distribution is disappearing and that they can continue to develop their fan base outside of the former system in place. The best part is they get to keep most of the money to grow their brand.

Our bands only have Cds to sell at shows otherwise the cost of distribution is next to nothing online and when it does cost (e.g iTunes, Amazon) it's a more transparent that any physical distributor. The money is in the Paypal account one month after the sale. There are no returns or 'brokens'. So I find no reason to use physical distributors right now. It just doesn't make sense.

January 28 | Registered CommenterDale Adams

Heck, I used to think physical retail was a waste of time BEFORE there was an internet :)

January 28 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

retail like wal-mart and target still works for pop records, where soccer moms and convenience oriented impulse shoppers go. retail like hot topic works for indie titles and things like the soundtrack to the twilight movie. the decay of retail is a slower process than the pundits may think, its just over for smaller indies and an unwise option for a baby band. the sole exception being local mom and pop record stores that have survived.

January 28 | Unregistered Commenterbill

It depends on your demographic. Urban, Latin and Country fans are still buying CDs. Music that appeals to tweeners is still selling CDs. If your audience is 30-35+, they're mostly still buying on CD. If your audience is white affluent high school or college age, hmmm.... I guess it depends on how big your act is.

January 28 | Unregistered CommenterSuperfly

I agree with you Derek. CD sales are mostly going to be for name artists. If you really want to sell CDs as a new artist, do it from your website.

Though another strategy for new artists with regard to CD is to get on compilations. Those will still sell in physical form (because of the name artists).

January 29 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Charakupa

I agree. I defintiely wouldn't abandon brick & mortar store toally. I would balance out where put my energy at though. Online is defintiely he way to go. But for the genre I typically market which is Urban Gospel/ Hip Hop, cd's in the church & Christianbookstores are still important. You can also still do consignment deals locally with Mom & Pop stores as well. But as far as nationwide, it makes no snce if you jst coming out the gate. CoeryRd & Precise is a prime example of how not to do it

Metal fans still like CDs, the artwork, and lyric sheets - and indy stores that specialize in the genre and punk/HC and music DVDs have fared pretty well in the post-Sam Goody environment. CDs are still doing well in Europe too. I know it's blasphemy to say it here in cyberspace, but not everyone necessarily has, or feels a need to have, a computer. Not to mention the reduced sound quality of MP3s vs. CDs.

January 29 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Cult record stores are closing left right and centre in London (most of the ones in Soho), as well as half of the big chains having trouble (Zavvi, Fopp). So yeah, wouldn't rely on recordshops in Europe either.

People who still buy CDs tend to buy some of them at live gigs, and the rest on the internet. Heck, a few weeks ago, my partner's 75 year old dad asked me to help him with ordering a CD from a german record label, and since then, he has ordered another CD from Amazon.

While many people still like CDs, it doesn't mean they get them from recordstores. Many people have access to the internet, either at work, at a relative's, at a friend's or at home (and many more people in Europe than in the USA have broadband at home), so they can order CDs off the internet to get the cheapest price.

January 29 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

First of all, "promised to get it on the shelves of record stores"? I don't believe distribution works that way. They may make it available to the stores, but if there is no demand, there is no order! That goes hand in hand with "How many people are going into physical stores (shopping malls, etc) - looking for your CD - and are unable to buy it?"

I have to agree with the online presence statement, just not 100%. There is still plenty of room for old-fashioned, grass roots marketing in conjunction w/online promotions!

Now, I speak only from an underground metal standpoint, and offer advice only to those who still have an interest in selling physical CDs. The key is niche marketing. As an old school metal head, I have been bombarded with the "death of heavy metal" since 1992. The internet (particularly online radio) w/a little help from OzzFest, has shown us that in most parts of Europe, metal has been thriving (in smaller pockets) for the last 17 years!

As mentioned in another reply, demographics are a major factor. I have always been an advocate of starting local and spiraling out a bit at a time, but if your chosen genre doesn't sell in your town, don't waste your time & money trying to market it! Find out where & who is buying your style of music and simply "market your genre"! Bottom line, you may have to find several foreign distros that cater to your audience.

Take the distro idea for markets outside your touring radius, while continuing to have CDs available at gigs. But keep in mind, the product won't sell itself! Some form of marketing and promotion are critical, whether online or off.

January 29 | Unregistered CommenterWicked D

hey....i havent even tried the real in-store it worth it?


January 30 | Unregistered CommenterChris Bracco

My conclusion is that it probably isn't worth putting thousands of dollars towards physical distribution. It's costly, and it's not guaranteed that you will sell more albums.

preety much spot on. i think one thing to keep in minfd is that physical distribution can still be selectivly effective for mosrt artists. if you play enough times successfullly in a certain place, or have radio support, or whatever, having a per diem setup with the local record store could be a great idea. either way, online distribution plus distribution at live events (where consumers are driven for impulse buys) are the way to go! great thoughts!

February 1 | Unregistered Commenterjim bellizzi

As a musician playing the red dirt circuit in a band who i wont say, but has had heavy regional airplay& two #1's off the last record, I can tell you that over 80% of our cd sales have been at shows or online. (usually downloaded 4 free) And we have a label who's considered one of the good ones and has our cd in a nice display in this regions Hasting's and even Walmart.

My advice? Give the damn thing away, try to build an audience, and make your real money on your merch. it aint rocket science its just work. So you better like to play your fiddle and hustle.up gigs or if your fortunate enough have your booking agent (who is important to ones career) bang the phone.The days of making $$ off cd's is over. It's just a damn calling card SO GIVE THEM AWAY!!!! If its any good, most people will be downloading it for free anyway you can trust me on that. Hell drop em from the sky if you can. The Greatful Dead got it right over 40 years ago and that was the golden age.

Not bad for a bunch of stoned out hippies,

Somewhere in Tx.

February 2 | Unregistered CommenterDave

You're right, physical distribution is dying, or dead, and the CD as a product is moribund.
We should not despair though because the music contained within it lives on. People are still listening. Music is the soundtrack to their lives, on their phones, ipods, PC's and TV sets. Well known musicians have lifestlyes we all aspire too and still attain celebrity status. The product's value is still intact, little changed since the advent of popular music in the 1900's.

Music is still being consumed in large amounts, but there is a big difference in that most musicians and their representatives cannot now make a profit from CD sales. Downloads are profitable but do not generate the anything like the legal revenue they should. The recent report in Digital Britain has found that only 10% of all downloads are legally paid for.

The sales of physical CD's are declining sharply and their retail value has gone through the floor. Part of the problem is that people are reluctant to pay for something they might get free elsewhere. Imagine that half the country had tapped unhindered into a free source of electricity: wouldn't the other half then be up in arms about paying their bill?

Many people are consuming copyrighted material for free. In other mediums this is called theft. All the people who have worked, sweated and given of themselves to create the music are being robbed.

Why should musicians be expected to work for free? It's the same old story. Many musicians live in hope of 'making it', giving free performances or music in an attempt to get known.

Once they've broken though the glass ceiling, successful performers can earn potentially big money from appearances, but it's not so easy for songwriters or producers or other members in an artist's team to benefit from this income stream.

We should stand up for ourselves and lobby to combat piracy. If technology makes it possible to steal copyrighted material then technology can be developed to protect it.

We know the need for artists and music will never die. But we can't afford to be complacent. We need to put our thinking caps on make sure that the business that supports them survives. Ruby Paul.

February 3 | Unregistered CommenterRuby Paul

Music distribution has gone from large companies with 50+ staff, warehouses, fulfillment, printing, creative teams, pressing etc etc to digital labels running the whole thing out of someones home office. In the meantime, any distributor who is left standing is struggling to deal with millions of CDs in inventory much of which has probably come back from Walmart on a "returnable basis."

I run a Jazz label and during the 90s we were 15 strong with offices. Now there are two of us running the gig from Starbucks.

I still have 6500 CDs taking up space in my garage. Taking up space, that's pretty much all they are doing!

February 3 | Unregistered Commentercb

Neither the musician who emailed you nor any of those commenting here have had legitimate national/international-major/major-indie distribution deals. Though it might be less relevant/profitable than it once was, physical retail distribution--the REAL kind that ships in bulk ahead of the street date with label support via a retail co-op ad budget--is what separates legit, commercially viable artists from everyone else. "Paying big money ... to get on the shelves of record stores" is like self-publishing a novel.

February 4 | Unregistered Commenteroliver

In my opinion some still prefer cd distribution than podcasting. We have to consider that some people are still traditional and personal too.

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterMariah

I think online store now are more popular due to its convenience.

February 22 | Unregistered Commenterjared

It isn't any cheaper to buy the download version of the album than the CD so why not just buy the CD version and then make copies onto your computer/ I Pod? That way you get decent sound quality, the artwork plus the digital copy.

You can pick up CDs really cheap on the internet and so i can't understand why anyone would stop buying them.

April 7 | Unregistered Commentermark

There is one universal truth about creating hits - radio is to hit songs what theaters are to blockbusters - they can't survive without each other. Getting stations to play your songs isn't easy, it may require a promo company and some money...but if it is really a great song, it will find program directors willing to play it, and fans willing to buy it...and then Walmart will come to you.

Make a great Youtube video, get your local fans involved...and sell off your website.

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

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