Jeff Price, CEO, Founder and President of TuneCore launched the digital music distribution company in 2005 with the goal of serving artists. Four and a half years later, TuneCore is the world’s largest distributor of music. American Songwriter interviewed Price to find out exactly what TuneCore does and why. (Be sure to check out TuneCore’s profile on American Songspace.)
What is TuneCore?
TuneCore enables anybody on the planet that creates music or sound to have access to worldwide distribution into iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Rhapsody and more for a simple upfront flat fee. That’s it. You just simply hit a website tunecore.com, you upload your music, you upload your art, you say put into iTunes and within three or four hours it has been delivered. Then, iTunes makes it live on their shelf and the artist receives one hundred percent of the revenue from the sale of their music via a nonexclusive agreement that they can cancel at anytime. It is our job to serve the musician, help them succeed, but never make money off their success. In 2009, the TuneCore artists generated over 30 million dollars in revenue from the sale of their music, all of which goes back directly to the artists.
What is the idea behind TuneCore?
The TuneCore model is about allowing the musician to succeed under their own terms. We want to be there to serve. We don’t make money when the music sells and that is the most important thing to me. I just thought it was wrong. When you go back five years ago before we launched, you had digital stores with unlimited shelf space and you had unlimited inventory that would replicate on demand. So, you didn’t need to have this huge infrastructure to deal with the distribution into the music stores where people are going to buy the music. You didn’t have any physical inventory to be picked, packed and shipped. You didn’t have people that were running around the country literally fighting to gain access to the shelf space. All you had to do was deliver a file, a music file, from point A to point B in order to get the music on the shelf.
Many of the digital stores like iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody and eMusic don’t do deals directly with artists just because they don’t have the administration infrastructure, the customer support and so on for then. So, they tend to go to music companies and get the music. So, if you’ve got that contract with iTunes, it’s kind of a golden ticket. In my opinion, what was happening was that artists were getting screwed, to be perfectly blunt. They were being required to give up their rights and they were being required to give up their revenue from the sale of their music in return for somebody simply delivering a digital file via the Internet. That just didn’t feel right to me. So, I called a friend and we launched TuneCore. Here we are four and a half years later. It’s also about providing streaming media players, free UPCs and barcodes, ISRC codes and as a TuneCore artist if you sell a certain number of songs you get guaranteed gigs through Live Nation and House of Blues, Ernie Ball Guitar Strings endorsements, physical distribution at the Guitar Center or free art and the list goes on and on and on. It’s kind of the philosophy I have. You don’t take advantage of somebody because you can.
There is no extra cost for that?
We provide barcodes, UPCs and IRSC codes as part of the service. The reason we do that is because we can. The reason that it is free is because it should be. Artists should not be getting screwed by gatekeepers. It’s the philosophy of this company. It’s been kind of cool. An artist named Drake used TuneCore, an unsigned artist, and sold over 300,000 songs in 11 days. It is nuts. Now, he has been signed by Universal. Never Shout Never, an amazing band out of the Midwest, Chris uploaded three EPs. Each EP was four or five songs. Those EPs over the course of six months went on to sell over 500,000 songs. He got all of the money from that. It shows the power of what you can accomplish on your own now. From the marketing and promotions side, we’ve probably had about a thousand TuneCore artists featured, to some degree, on iTunes, Amazon, Nokia or some of the other online stores we work with.
The music market is really changing. How does this affect the artists?
The really cool part is, now, as a musician, you have direct access to the media outlets. People used to go to radio, print magazines and television to discover and learn about music. Now, they are going online. They’re going to Twitter. They’re going to Facebook. They’re going to MySpace. They’re going to Pure Volume. They’re going to Pandora or Last.FM and all of these places allow everyone to have access to them. What’s happening is you have the democratization, in my mind, of an industry. In other words, everything can be on the shelf and everything can be discovered. In doing so, you’re letting the general population of the world decide what does and doesn’t have value as opposed to a guy at a record label or programming director at a radio station. You used to have these two gatekeepers.
First, the A&R guy at the record label had to decide that you had value, sign you to the label, and market and promote you and hope to God it sold and if does then the label made money. Then, the media outlets, like MTV, you had a second editorial filter. The programming director at MTV would decide what videos did and didn’t get played. The general population of the world has only been exposed to a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the all the music created in the world. Of all the musicians out there, less than a percent of musicians have had the opportunity to have their music discovered and heard. It’s amazing what happens when you open the door. Things you’ve never heard of, like Kelly, a guy uploads a video to YouTube for a song called Shoes and he sells 2 million songs in the past year and a half. It’s stunning to see what has happened.
In a way, it would seem like you make the record labels job less risky and costly. Do you think that will have an impact on the record labels themselves?
You know it’s funny you bring that up. Currently, for those [reading], it is Tuesday, November 10th. Today, we launched websites for Universal Music Group; for Interscope Records, Island Def Jam, Republic and Motown. You hit the nail on the head, what we have done is entered into a deal with Universal Music Group. The purpose of the deal was to provide musicians with opportunities, options, and choices. So, you can now, as a musician, for the first time in the history of the world, go to Interscope or Republic Digital Distribution and have the association with a major record label to provide you with worldwide distribution, but you keep all of your rights and the revenues from the sale of your music.
However, what you now have is a direct line into that record label. They’re going to be able to see, if you want them to (it’s at your discretion), what you’re selling and where you are selling it. If you’re doing well, they can offer a handout and say, “Gee, you know we’d like to try and do more for you.” Then, it’s up to you as the musician, artist or band to say yes, to say no, to negotiate a deal or to not negotiate a deal. There are no strings and there is nothing attached. You’re letting the general population determine what does and does not have value. For the bands that are doing well, my goal is to provide them with additional opportunities. One of the best mechanisms out there to help market and promote a band is a record label.
How many users does TuneCore have?
There is well over a quarter million accounts. There is between 200-300 releases every single day. The TuneCore artist consists of everything from The Walkmen, Jay-Z, Aretha Franklin, Jason Mraz, Soulja Boy, Keith Richards, Beck to tens of thousands of artists you might not have heard of. They are all part of the TuneCore community. It was kind of cool when Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails decided to use us for distribution. They paid us the same flat 35 dollars as everybody else. It’s funny. I think the hardest part was that it sounds to good to be true. It took about 8 months, I believe, before Trent took the step to use us and it was only, I think, because I knew some of the people he knew. It seems that they’ve never been happier.
How does the artist go about starting this process?
It is really easy. Literally, all you need is at least one song. If you have one song, or even spoken word, a comedy album, on your computer or CD, that’s it. You go to TuneCore.com and upload at least that one song as a WAV. Once you have done that, you can upload artwork if you have it. If you don’t, we make it for you, for free. If you have a UPC you can enter it. If not, we’ll make it for you for free. Then you just enter the name of the band, the name of the album and select the stores you want it to go to. That’s it. Within 3-4 hours, it has been delivered to everybody around the world to all the stores you’ve picked.
How long before the song/album goes live in the stores?
Each online store has a different go live time. In the old school model, think about if you had a big box of CDs and you shipped them Tower Records. Those CDs would arrive and sit in the backroom. Somebody at the record shop has to open the box, take out the CDs, create a bin cart, bring them out onto the floor and put them onto the shelf. That could happen the next day or a week or two weeks later. It’s not exactly like that with the digital stores but each digital store has its own different rhythm.
With iTunes, we here at TuneCore deliver your music, your album cover and all of your information to them within about 3 to 4 hours. After you click that done button and pay that upfront free, 3-4 hours and it’s in iTunes sort of backroom. Then, it has to be put through a process that Apple calls polishing. That’s where they actually look at the album cover art, each one manually gets looked at by Apple to make sure it’s not pornographic, to make sure someone isn’t claiming to be The Beatles or that it doesn’t say ‘DVD’ on it, things of that respect. After it does that, it sort of goes through this process where they make it the final step format for the iTunes store. So, it used to take, with iTunes specifically, 4-6 weeks for that music to go live, when we first launched four years ago. Now, I’m pleased to say, that through TuneCore, it is one of the fastest go live times out there. Usually, in less than fourteen days, your music is live on the iTunes shelf. I’m trying to get that time even faster. With some of the other digital stores, for example Amazon or eMusic, sometimes you’re music can go live within a couple of days.
Where can people go for more information?
On the homepage of TuneCore.com, if you just go down to the footer, there is an FAQ. It goes on for about 36 pages with probably too much information but I felt it was important to provide everybody all the information they could want.
We also actually have these free downloadable pdf booklets. Tips on how to market and sell yourself online or how to sell more music which provide these sort of concrete things you can do like going into iTunes and create an iMix, put in three of your own songs and nine songs by more popular bands in the same genre. That way, when people like those more popular bands, they discover you. Rate your own music. Write your own reviews. Those albums with reviews in iTunes sell 33% more than albums that do not have reviews. Understand search engines and how to name your songs. Think about doing cover versions from time to time. For example, the Christmas season is coming and Christmas music sells really really well. So, it’s a good time to do “Jingle Bells” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” People search for that within iTunes and then they discover you sitting there right next to Bing Crosby. Then, they discover more of your music.
Do the artists keep the rights to their music?
TuneCore does not make any money on your music sales. The only thing you need to have when you come to TuneCore.com is control of the rights to your master recordings. You click an agreement that says I agree and what you are warranting and representing is that you control the rights of these master recordings. That you haven’t taken a Led Zeppelin album and you’re trying to upload it and that you will be responsible for paying anyone any royalties that is owed off the sale of that music. That’s not my role. My role is to go out, provide you the distribution points, collect that money for you, provide you clean easy accounting with the ability to withdraw your money at will, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but if you owe your base player some of that money you’re going to have to give it to him!