Guest post by Marci Meth
The prominent French intellectual property attorney looked me straight in the eye and told me it would be impossible. I liked the idea of trying to do the impossible, so when I walked out of her office, I decided I would try to create my own record label and produce its first album.
I did go down quite a few rabbit holes while producing The Wild Song, but the quest for digital distribution proved sheer madness.
In terms of digital distribution for an “indie artist,” the main options are TuneCore and CDBaby. There are actually many others, and if you are interested in a complete list, you can consult Ari Herstand’s comparative digital distribution chart here.
I decided to work with TuneCore because TuneCore is one of the rare distributors that will deliver a digital booklet to iTunes. My friend Patrick Guérin and I spent months translating all of Britten’s songs and Yeats’ poetry on the album into French for the booklet, and Sanni Sorma also spent months designing it. I couldn’t let all of that work go to waste. TuneCore it was.
One of the first things TuneCore asks you to do is put your album in a category. I scanned the categories, but I couldn’t find “classical.” That’s odd, I thought. I did a Google search and found out TuneCore does not distribute classical music. I couldn’t believe it. One of the two biggest digital distributors won’t deliver a classical album to iTunes or any other digital platform. I knew there were very few classical artists who produced and distributed their own work, but I was shocked to learn why. The system doesn’t allow it.
I had to find a solution, so I studied the other album categories. The Wild Song alternates between Britten’s folksong arrangements, poetry by Yeats recited by Simon Russell Beale, and electronic music by the Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna. It didn’t fit into any of their proposed categories. Since 90% of the album is either spoken or sung, I decided upon “vocal.” That seemed like the best compromise.
I uploaded all of the “metadata” for the album into TuneCore’s system. This includes the music itself, which must be uploaded in a specified compressed format, but also includes information about the music and performers on each track. I spent an entire day doing it. When all of the data was uploaded, TuneCore asks you to select the platforms where the album will be distributed. I clicked on iTunes and after a week of waiting, The Wild Song was approved for distribution to iTunes and was set for pre-order. What a relief, I thought.
I also wanted the album to be distributed to Amazon Digital Download, but I learned that when TuneCore delivers an album to Amazon Music, the album is automatically included in Amazon’s streaming service. I didn’t want the album on any streaming service (more about that here: https://bit.ly/2RIDr3r), so that meant I couldn’t use TuneCore to distribute the album to Amazon. I needed another distributor…
CD Baby, on the other hand, will deliver an album to Amazon Digital Download without sending it to Amazon’s streaming service. They will also distribute a “classical” album. Fabulous, I thought. I will send The Wild Song to Amazon via CD Baby. I uploaded all of the metadata to CD Baby’s site (another two days of work—CD Baby’s system is much slower than TuneCore’s…) and chose Amazon Digital Download as the only platform for delivery. Thus began the conversation with the Cheshire Cat of digital distributors.
“We cannot deliver your album to Amazon in the Classical category,” they told me. “You cannot have a lyricist on a classical album.”
“Why not?” I said. “Mozart had a lyricist.” I persisted: “The physical album is already on Amazon in the classical category. I have a physical distributor.”
“Physical distribution is different,” said CD Baby. “They don’t have the same data restrictions. Change the genre of your album to folk and resubmit it for distribution. That will solve the problem.”
The Wild Song is not a folk album, but I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere in this land of illusion by arguing for logic. I changed the genre to folk and resubmitted the album to the CD Baby inspection team. It was refused.
“You will have to change the cover art on your album if you want it to be accepted in the folk genre,” they said. Your name must be bigger than Benjamin Britten’s and Mychael Danna’s.”
I laughed. “I’m sorry. That’s impossible,” I said. “That would be like making my name bigger than Mozart’s on an album cover. It shows a lack of respect for the composers.”
After spending a total of about five hours on the phone with CD Baby over the course of several conversations, a very kind man named Colson began to lobby the powers that be at CD Baby on my behalf. Colson convinced the distribution committee to accept The Wild Song in the classical genre and allow me to keep the original cover art. They required that I list WB Yeats as a composer on the tracks with his poetry.
“I will do that because you are asking me to do so,” I said. “But please know that WB Yeats was a great Irish poet and not a composer.”
A few days later, thanks to Colson, the album was sent to Amazon as a digital download in the classical category. CD Baby clarified that they would never be able to send The Wild Song to any other digital platform in the future. The exception that was made was uniquely for Amazon.
The current digital distribution system was designed for the needs of indie pop musicians. The metadata for classical music requires more specific formatting and the system we have now cannot accommodate it. There are new streaming sites for classical music which obviously have systems that can accommodate the metadata classical music requires. However, independent classical musicians need a distributor which can deliver our metadata to these platforms. When will we have a digital distributor for independent classical musicians?
Alice is waiting for it.
Marci Meth, soprano & creative, producer of The Wild Song
Music by Benjamin Britten & Mychael Danna, poetry by WB Yeats. Marci Meth (soprano), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Simon Russell Beale (reader)
The Wild Song is available here: smarturl.it/modern-poetics
For more information about metadata and classical music: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/23/business/media/stream-classical-music-spotify.html