Mysteries of Distribution Dispelled

copyright 1997 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 45 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Oct '97

The concept of CD distribution is largely misunderstood by neophytes of the independant music scene. Many times I've heard the gleeful announcement, "We've got distribution for our new CD!", to which I usually reply, "That's nice, but what does that mean?" More often than not, the response is somewhat muddled.

Some of the misconceptions are quite common. Having a "distribution agreement" does not mean that the Distributor will promote, advertise or pitch a new release. It does not mean that the Distributor will place (or "rackjob") your CD in stores from one end of the country to the other. They will not get your opus to radio stations or newspaper writers. It does not mean that you will actually sell product to the public. Well what the Hooey does it mean, dude?
If you are a independant artist with a CD that you are trying to market, having a distributor can a very useful thing, depending on the company you align yourself with and the amount of time, effort & money you put into promotion & publicity. If you don't establish a strong & ongoing profile in the music business by constantly performing & getting airplay or some kind of notoriety, a distributor won't be able to help you.

You can also handcuff yourself by choosing a distributor that can't get your CD in stores in Prince George or Thunder Bay in time for your big gig there, or doesn't have the organization to cover the country should you develop a " Hit" . So shop around. One of the Distibutors on the list below didn't answer their phone at all, so do your own research.

These days retailers want to see artists develop their own BUZZ and the big chain stores such as HMV, Sam's, A&B, Futureshop and Musicworld may only test market an indie artist's Cd in a select location, to see if it gets "legs" before placing it in their other outlets.

When you come to an agreement with your chosen Distributor they will ask you to provide them with X number of units. Some will be for "free in-store play copies", some for select placement and the rest for warehousing. Some kind of renumeration system (for them) will be installed either upfront per unit handled, or after point of sale. This last method takes 30 to 90+ days before you get paid for units sold. Nobody pays upfront. There may be a nominal maintainace fee or in the case of a co-op system, a membership charge. It's not a free service.

The Distributor basically provides you with an introductory service to the people who purchase or order product by the unit to sell in their retail outlets. More often than not, this means you are simply included in a catalogue of product that your distributor handles and the in-store product purchaser may or may not want to stock your album. Its sort of a passive consignment system with a middleman.

If someone knows about your fabulous group and wants to buy your new CD they will be able to look you up in the distributors catalogue at the store and thereby order your CD. Some time later when they are broke or have lost interest, your product will make it to the store and they will have to come back to buy it... hmmm. Should have sold it to them at the gig.

You may have a certain amount of product tied up in a warehouse situation which is okay if have a stack of CD boxes that are taking up living space. On the other hand if you only have 200 units left & you have 100 tied up...well.

Don't get me wrong. I think that distributors provide a very important service to artists and small record companies that need to have product in place for their audiences. For instance, if you have a song or video that is generating rotation on certain stations in the country and you have an up-coming tour, you can let your distributor know where you will be performing and they will make sure you have product available in those particular cities. They may even liase in-store appearances and if you provide them with posters, will include them in orders delivered to these appropriate outlets.

When dealing with a prospective distributor, it is wise to ask to see a sample catalogue and find out how frequently they maintain placements. Make sure they service all the areas that you are targeting and if they don't, make sure your arrangement is non-exclusive for those other regions. Don't double up distributors because you will get flamed if they call up a store to place your CD & "Brand X" has already jobbed it.

It is also important to retain the right to sell off-stage because that is where you might make 90% of your sales.

Hint: Find out if the distributor wants bar-codes on your product. If you haven't already put a barcode on your CD cover, you can purchase stick-on barcodes from a CD manufacturer to apply to the outside of your shrinkwrap. This will cost about $50 and will help retailers scan you in to their computer systems. Make sure your artwork includes the MAPL Cancon symbol and the words "Made in Canada". Also make sure you have a valid contact number or address visible on the packaging. Good Luck!

Here is a modest list of Distributors that you may wish to contact if you are in the market for one. Ask them to send you their information package. Contact several. There are many more. Try to be professional, polite & prepared.

-IDAC: 800-563-7234
-CMIC: 800-255-2642
-Roblans (Sam's Toronto): 416-977-6490
-Festival: 604-253-2662
-Cargo (Montreal): 514-495-1212
-Indieland: 604-733-3472
-INDIEPOOL: 604-255-5549
-BDC (Portland): 503-231-0876

If you are a distributor and wish to comment on this article feel free to write the magazine (and if you want to advertise with us, we have reasonable rates).

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:

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