Music Distributors - The Basics:
The job of a music distributor has changed in recent years with the advent of digital music distribution, as the needs of a physical distributor and a digital distributor are different. Further, there are several different jobs that fall under the heading of music distribution - some depending on whether the distributor takes on all music that comes there way or if there is some kind of vetting process for label/musician partners. Generally speaking, however, distributors are the link between labels/musicians and retail stores and/or customers.
Music Distributor - Label Manager:
At a music distribution company, a label manager is the main contact person at the distribution company for label clients (or musicians, if the distribution company works directly with artists). The position of label manager may have different names - account manager, for instance - but the job involves working directly with labels to come up with release date, prices and promotion plans, such as arranging for a label to be included in an ad the distributor is running. This is the go-to person for the label to inform about press, new releases, tours, and other news that might help sales or to ask questions.
Music Distributor - Sales:
The sales team at a distributor works with the retail stores. They use the information collected by the label managers about new releases to encourage the shops to stock their releases. Sales jobs at distributors can involve both in-office work and traveling around to different stores, meeting the buyers and pitching new releases. The sales also makes sure the stores have promos and display materials to promote the releases and will keep in contact with the shops to see how sales are coming and to encourage re-orders.
Music Distributor - Other Roles:
Depending on the structure of the distribution company, there are a few other potential jobs to be filled:
- Advertising - arranging ad copy for new releases (labels usually buy on to these ads, each paying a share to have their releases featured)
- Shipping and receiving/warehouse work
- Accounting - tracking sales records, issuing monthly sales reports to labels, making payments and collecting on invoices
Music Distributions - Digital Distributors:
The roles listed above are important to physical distributors, but the digital distribution realm can be different. Depending on the structure of the distributor and whether they sell directly to the consumer or place music on other distribution channels (eMusic, iTunes, etc), there may or may not be a need for label managers and sales teams. However, digital distributor obviously have a far greater need for other roles than physical distributors, like programmers and site designers.
How Do Distributors Get Paid?:
Distributors make money the different between the price they sell a release for and the price they pay the label/musician for that release. In other words, distributors keep the difference between the price a record store pays them for an album and the price they pay to the record label for that sale. Digital distributors that sell direct to consumers keep a portion of the price of each sale.
There are exceptions - notably, Tunecore - which is a flat fee digital distribution service.
Music Distributors - The Bottom Line:
Like record labels, music distributors come in all shapes and sizes, and the jobs available at music distributors change accordingly. Both online and off, distributors that take on all labels/musicians that approach them will need more help with accounting, shipping and programming/site maintenance. Distributors who pick and choose the labels/musicians they take on will need people dedicated to working with those labels and understanding their genre of music/market. At small distributors, some jobs may overlap, while larger distributors tend to split up the job descriptions a little more.
You can learn more about working in distribution in this interview: Q&A with Garreth Ryan of Shellshock Distribution.