There are many different forms distributors can take - indie distributors who work exclusively with indie labels, distribution through a major label, distribution through a larger indie label - there are several different set ups that can be used for distribution. But when you are pitching distributors, there are two basic kinds to look out for - the clearinghouse type of distributor that works with anyone who comes along and selective distributors who pick and choose the labels on their rosters (note that I am using these terms for descriptive purposes only - distributors are not usually referred to in this way). Here's the difference:
Clearinghouse Distributors - These kinds of distributors work solely as middlemen between labels and stores. They are willing add just about any label to their books, and they will deliver your product if stores start ordering, but they will not actively try and sell your album to the stores. It is up to you promote your music enough so that the stores take notice (often communicating directly with the stores is best). There are a few problems with this kind of distribution:
- Directly promoting your releases to record stores is a full time job in itself, and the job gets larger depending on where you live (imagine trying to communicate with every record shop in the USA).
- These distributors usually have very large catalogs, so even if they send sales books out to the shops listing the releases they carry, a store may not be able to find your releases easily when they want to order them.
- Most of these distributors work on a consignment basis with labels, so you will have to carefully track all of your sales and invoice the distributor appropriately - there is lots of room for error, here.
- If finding distribution through other channels is proving difficult, a deal with a clearinghouse distributor at least gives you the avenue for getting your album out.
- Success at one of these distributors can be a selling point you can use to move to a more dedicated distributor.
- Because you are (likely) working on a consignment basis, the world is not going to come crashing down if you miss a release date or have to cancel an album - you don't have to answer to the distributor.
- Many of these distributors have non-exclusive deals, so you can stock your releases at several of them.
Selective Distributors - These kinds of distributors choose to work with you much the same way a label chooses to work with a band. They will be closely involved with your release schedule, working with you to make sure promo is happening in advance of the release date and coming up with good release dates for your albums (they will have the inside track on when other releases are coming out, so they can steer you towards a date when you will not be overpowered by a big ticket album). This is the ideal kind of distribution for several reasons:
- These distributors take an active role selling your album into the shops. They will have sales teams working the phone and going around visiting record shops trying to convince them to stock your release.
- You will be working with a dedicated label manager who is familiar with your entire catalog and has an interest in seeing your records sell.
- M&D deals may be available.
- If you are a small label working with a large distributor, you probably won't be their priority and can get lost in the shuffle.
- Because the distributor is working with you on a sales plan, not getting promos done in time or having to push back a release date can ruffle feathers.
If you're looking for your first distribution deal, of course getting in with a selective distributor is the ideal. However, ultimately you just want your album on the shelves, and a clearinghouse distributor can get it there as well. There's no harm in taking any distribution deal you can as you get started and using that to set you up for better distribution in the future.