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A Beginner’s Guide to Selling Music Digitally​

Phone with music earphones next to a computer keyboard
Written by MicroStartups

The music biz has been irrevocably transformed by the influence of digitization and the internet. In the past, the path to success in the music industry was not easy – but it was pretty straightforward. Be discovered > get signed > sell records > sit back and sip cocktails from the deck of your yacht. They were simple (but not necessarily better) times.

It’s never been faster or easier to share your music with the world than it is now, and it is possible to make a living from it, if you’re prepared to make a small amount from a variety of sources. Here’s an introductory guide to selling your music and marketing yourself in the digital era.

Sell via online stores

This refers to retailers such as iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. There are of course many others, but these are the top three that generate the majority of music sales.

The benefit to selling music through online stores is that they are trusted by music fans. These stores already have their music preferences and card details on file, making it quick and easy for them to purchase new music that they can simply add to their collection. You may be discovered by new fans who wouldn’t have known about you otherwise. And it certainly feels good to find you’ve made a sale on one of these outlets. However, there are downsides too (this is why you should always have your own website as well).

The first and most obvious drawback is that you don’t make as much money as you do from selling directly, because these stores take a cut. iTunes, for example, takes 30% right off the bat. Others simply charge an annual fee.

The second drawback is that once a sale is made, online stores will keep these customer details for themselves. This means you have no way of contacting them to let them know about new music, shows or merchandise: they are technically not your customers. It’s worth doing, but it shouldn’t be your sole sales channel.

Distribute your music via TuneCore

One of the best ways to put your music in the most popular digital music stores is to use a music distribution service like TuneCore. With TuneCore, you can share your music, grow your fan base, and best of all, you keep 100 percent of your sales revenue and 100 percent of your music rights. There are more than 150 digital platforms on TuneCore, including iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Google Play and YouTube.

Getting started on TuneCore is easy – just sign up for a free account. You’ll need to verify your account by email. Then you can start uploading your music – here’s a good tutorial to help you do this. From here, you can select a range of options, from single or ringtone distribution to a full album. You also have the option to collect your YouTube sound recording revenue for a one-time fee of $10. TuneCore allows you to post and schedule updates to social media directly, with built-in social analytics to help you improve your engagement with fans.

Sell directly through your website

On balance with those digital avenues, there’s really no excuse not to have your own dedicated band website, since they are super easy to set up!

Shopify’s music store builder is a good one to try that requires no knowledge of coding whatsoever – and you can give it a go for free in the first two weeks. Your biggest fans will prefer to buy music directly from your website, and this is also a great place to shift any merchandise that you offer. (Blues star Jimmie Vaughan uses Shopify to sell his merchandise and music).

Your own website is also a great place to tell people about your band, list tour dates and keep a photo gallery of your latest gigs and adventures. Make sure you include a way to get in touch with you so you can stay connected with your fans.

Work with a label

The preferred method, if you can get it. Most record labels work with distribution partners, which means artists don’t really need to worry about distribution or who/where it’s coming from – it all gets sorted for you. This is obviously a huge benefit. The downside is that due to the number of people involved in this kind of arrangement, such as your manager, the distributor, the label and so on, you may not see much in terms of profit. Once everyone has taken their slice, the pie looks considerably smaller.

Generally this approach is better suited to more well-established artists who already have a thriving fan base, and as a result will shift more records. Some distributors prefer to work with big labels, and as part of the deal will also provide marketing and other commercial services, which leads me to…

How to market yourself online

Of course, it’s all very well making your music available online, but it’s of very little consequence if nobody finds it. Because it’s so easy to publish music online, it actually makes it much harder to be heard, especially so because there is a surfeit of free downloads everywhere you look. So to make it, you need to really commit to promoting yourself.

Aside from your website, your other must-haves should include Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at the very least. Be sure to remember not to talk only about yourself. Share a mixture of content – some about your music, some about similar music and influences. The key is to post and interact regularly – it is ‘social’ media after all. Always remember to include a link to the places where your music can be purchased online on every profile. Of course, this is all the bare minimum.

As a musician, one of the first places you should put yourself is SoundCloud. It costs $3 per month for up to 4 hours of music and lets you post new tracks for people to find and listen to. It won’t make you money directly, but it does work well as a promotional tool.

Then of course, there‘s YouTube. It’s a search engine in its own right, and therefore one of the most popular means of finding music. Since it’s free to post, it makes perfect sense to utilize its capacity for gathering followers. You can post a track using a simple image-based background, or you can edit together a short video. Allow ads on your music, and you may make a small amount from the advertising revenue. However, don’t rely on this. It really only works when you start racking up hundreds of thousands of views.

Show me the money

It’s probably important to realize now that the chances of getting rich overnight by sharing your music online are slim. For example, Spotify pays an average of $0.01 per stream. The profit is only slightly more for an iTunes download. So if your songs get streamed millions of times, then of course you will be doing quite well. But that doesn’t happen for everyone, particularly those who are new to the online music scene. It’s something to build up over time.

So alongside getting in with as many online avenues as possible, here are some other ways to boost the number of people listening to (and paying for) your music:

  • Make it easily accessible on every platform. Some users will ONLY find new music on iTunes, for example, and so this is the only way you will ever reach them. Even huge artists are available on big online stores, so to appear credible, you should be too.
  • Play live as much as possible, 1) to build your fanbase among the people who actually attend, and 2) so that someone can record it for you and give you more material for your YouTube or SoundCloud channels
  • If you can, try to get yourself on some Spotify playlists. Millions of listeners use this feature to discover new music. Could this be where they discover you, too?

Always remember the importance of building and nurturing your fan base. Major labels are much more likely to sign an independent artist if they have proven themselves to be popular.

These days it is possible to build a career out of your music, but you have to be pretty savvy about it. It’s not like a conventional job, where all of your income comes from one place. You need to establish a firm presence on the internet and be willing to embrace a multi-channel approach. So what’s stopping you from starting today?

About the author


A team of writers and marketers, MicroStartups was founded to inspire the entrepreneurial and business community to give back. We believe in business growth through giving and supporting the local community.

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