Digital Distribution and More: a Discussion with Spencer Mussellam


Spencer has been immersed in the business of independent music for more than 30 years. As an artist, tour manager, FOH engineer, album producer, artist manager, or marketing and label manager, Spencer’s experience provides him a uniquely broad perspective which serves him well as advocate for indie artists. We got the opportunity to pick his brains and discuss digital distribution and more.

Sam: Tell us about yourself.

Spencer: I'm originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario. My career started on the live music side, working with bands and doing tour management. Many years ago, I switched from the live side to the recorded side, working in distribution for Cargo Records. After that I started working with D.E.P (Distribution Exclusive Pindhoff) for many years, and then finally starting working with Believe Digital and working on the digital side of distribution. That’s where I'm at today.

Sam: Do you think physical distribution is still relevant in this day and age?

Spencer: Yes, physical distribution still represents a significant portion of income, but some of the larger artists skew the numbers higher. It might not be as significant for newer artists.

Sam: Would you recommend that emerging artists completely ditch the CD and just focus on digital distribution?

Spencer: It really depends on your means. If budgets are tighter (as they are with indie musicians) you can skip it and record at home. There is lots of free software that people can use on their home computer to get music recorded. If you don't need the physical format, you can certainly save yourself a bunch of money.

Sam: Let's dig into the digital distribution side of things. What is Believe Digital's core function?

Spencer: There's a great number of functions at Believe Digital. It’s primarily a digital aggregator, which means we take music from artists or labels and distribute it to online retailers for download and streaming worldwide.

Sam: Who are you working with?

Spencer: It's all independent. We work with everyone, from small independent labels to larger artists. For example, our video team works closely with the legacy rock group Queen to handle all their video distribution, right down to many artists who are just coming out on the scene.

Sam: What are the benefits of using your service?

Spencer: We represent distribution in 240 countries and territories, including hundreds of online stores. We deliver to all the major stores, and because we’re active with offices in over 30 countries, we also have the ability to push out to many regional specialty stores. We have a great deal in the Pacific area and in China, and many other areas that are quite frankly tough to get into in any depth.

Sam: Believe Digital bought TuneCore. Should indie artists talk to you [Believe] first, or just go straight to TuneCore?

Spencer: It depends on what's going on. TuneCore is a great service. it's one of the best self-service setups out there. The really good thing with us is that we now have the ability to see what's going on in TuneCore and know when the situation is right and makes sense to move up on to the Believe platform. We have the ability to let you know when it’s time to do so.

Sam: I read an article in FYI Music News that said digital albums sales are down, but streaming is way up. People are still trying to fight this evolutionary phase of music consumption. What are your thoughts?

Spencer: My personal feeling is that video streams are the number-one place where people are consuming music right now. That's an area of streaming that shouldn't be ignored – putting your audio content up onto video sites. Not just digital videos, but your audio content, your video channels. It seems to me that some people stream music, and some people download it. You'll be cutting off a certain segment of people who can enjoy your music. If you don't follow the best practice and take advantage of what's offered by the streaming services, you'll lose out.

Sam: Is it economically beneficial? The argument is that if it's half a penny a stream, it can cannibalize your digital sales. From an economic standpoint, people are saying that it's not worth it because it's going to be only half a penny a stream. In the long term, they say, they’d rather sell a digital download than a stream.

Spencer: There are people who just want to stream, and you can't ignore them. I think the conversion rates are increasing at a much faster rate now. People are joining subscription services and the premium paid services, which means the rate of payment is going up.

Sam: Are we in a new area where we're going to have more revenues with micro-pennies rather than dollars?

Spencer: You have to look at it like this in the long term. With a download, someone downloads it, and that's it. It's going to be many years before it's downloaded again, if ever, by the same person. With streaming, if you look at 5 or 6 years’ worth of data on any given track, the person streams it many times and you get paid for every stream. You're going to end up making more money per track per person over that period than you would on a single download.

Sam: Digital distribution and digital monetization has become very complicated, and a lot of people are lost. I know TuneCore is a service for indies, and Believe is probably a more mature service for somebody who has a little bit more traction. But your [Believe] platform provides in-depth analysis and tracking tools. Is this right?

Spencer: Yeah, our system is totally transparent. We show you all your daily statistics, all your sales. On any given day, you can go and see on any ISRC code [International Standard Recording Code] what transactions involving your tracks have been made around the world. At the end of the month you have your royalty statements, so you can really analyze where you're going with your music.

Sam: A technical point … what's important to make sure that the tracking of all these revenues is important? What do emerging artists need to know about how the digital distribution world works?

Spencer: It's pretty simple. Keep records and details, be very clear on what we call metadata. You should you have all your author and composer information, all your publishing information kept in a very distinct way, so that when you apply an ISRC it will marry up to that track

Sam: What's a ISRC code?

Spencer: It's an internationally recognized code that you attach to your songs. When your music is mastered, you can have the code embedded on the disc that they give to you when you're done, or it can just be written on there. For example, when a distributor like BelieveDigital ingests your music, our platform will apply that code to each track, and that identifies that track anywhere in the world where it is pushed around digitally. Socan will use it as an identifier. It's a little different than a UPC code, which identifies the overall recording.

Sam: If i distributed some of my own stuff using Distro Kid, which is similar, and then I want to take down my music and go with you, how easy would it be?

Spencer: These platforms they have a service menu that allows you to go and request a takedown. When anything has a request for takedown, it usually takes 48-72 hours for the changes to take effect. It could be a week or two for some of the smaller stores, because they don't cycle through their information as often some of the larger stores (depending on your agreement with the particular service).

Sam: Let's say I want to go with Believe Digital because they'll provide me with better data. Can one collect more money because those distribution companies make bad distribution deals?

Spencer: We do have very good platform deals, and our collecting mechanisms are great. We've got a very good depth of distribution and great retail partners

Sam: That's a very good point. You might distribute something to Apple's iTunes Canada, but it might not be available for sale in any other territory.

Spencer: Right. People are very global, and artists are surprised when they get their statements. They say, “I had no idea somebody was listening to me in this country or this territory!” It’s good to ensure exactly where you are going to be distributed.

Sam: So, with your platform, you'll get all that data to make better decisions.

Spencer: Yes, all the data that you need so you can figure out how you're gonna use it. If you're using social media, it helps boost your sales. You can take advantage of where you're getting some traction.

Sam: Any other advice you'd like to give to artists? Are there common mistakes you see them making that you could give them a heads-up on?

Spencer: Work on being knowledgeable about your local industry. For example, I often see mistakes when people need to fill in metadata, such as author and composer info. They don’t know that the author is the person who writes the lyrics and that the composer is the one who writes the music. Just keep the basics together.

Sam: How can people contact you?

Spencer: We have a great web subscription service, so people can go to http://www.believedigital.ca/. Just contact us – send us an email. We read these every week, and it's all sorted into territories. It gives the opportunity to put in your social media links and your listening links – any type of information you can put in there. Be as detailed as possible!


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