Digital Music Midterms 

Grading a few of today's most popular online music vendors.

There's little argument anymore: The most effective way to distribute your music is online. But if you're an artist who has slaved away to tour, fund, record, and polish your music, the proliferation of online vendors is enough to make your head spin. And since the digital music landscape is withstanding constant erosion (by new companies, technologies, and legalities), now is as good a time as ever to dig into what works for musicians — and find out where the money is.

There are different facets to a digital music startup, and each site has its strengths and weaknesses. Some boast a well-conceived business model, and some hardly have a business model at all; some promote personable and direct artist-fan interaction, while others keep the musician out of it. At the same time, social capital can be nearly as valuable (or even more valuable in the long run) than a few bucks here and there. For this reason, it's a good idea to maintain multiple accounts; a Facebook page has become the undeniable go-to tool for social outreach — but yields no direct money. But spreading yourself too thin by registering with every website or service is also a bad idea. So for those that need a crash course, here are some of today's major players, roughly graded by how they will (or won't) help you. (Only sites that offer on-demand listening are included.)

iTunes: Financial: B-; Social: D+; Access: C

Maybe it's not a surprise that the world's leading music store is actually pretty mediocre from an artist's perspective. Having cornered the hardware market (and thus file formats), Apple has become the first place that the average Joe goes to purchase a specific track. Access to music is limited, though; thirty-second previews hardly afford music discovery, and the quirky registration process means many musicians don't distribute on the site. Apple takes a 30-percent cut, which isn't bad if you're self-released (and own all the rights), but artists signed to bigger labels often receive a miniscule portion of the revenue.

Facebook: Financial: D; Social: A; Access: B+

In terms of connectivity and integration, The Social Network succeeds in all the places where Apple fails (remember Ping? Didn't think so). Not only does a Facebook page allow an artist to tap into the biggest network of potential listeners, but it also allows for direct communication and fully supports a number of streaming services. Though it had a strong partnership with Spotify, the site doesn't discriminate: Nearly every other popular streaming service will display on the page seamlessly. The drawback is that there is no decent way to sell your music, so you'll have to find a different way to make money.

Soundcloud: Financial: D; Social: A-; Access: B

Soundcloud is, like Facebook, a vibrant social network with hordes of users — dedicated almost completely to music. Even cleaner and more fun to click around, the site has been able to get by without annoying advertisements, and boasts sleek widgets with highly dependable streaming audio. But infrastructure improvements could be made to better support browsing. And access to music varies, from teaser snippets to full albums, depending on what the artist/label wants (there's a limit on what you can upload without a paid account). Like Facebook, though, Soundcloud doesn't facilitate any money exchange.

Spotify: Financial: C-; Social: B+; Access: A

If all you want is for people to hear your music, with no restrictions, then Spotify is the service for you. With its ability to show full discographies (including rare tracks), Spotify has hit an all-time high with users. It's well integrated with Facebook and has its own unique social features, like an inbox where users can send and receive tracks. Don't get too excited about the payout, though. Grizzly Bear, one of today's biggest indie acts, recently ranted about Spotify on Twitter, attributing 1,000 song plays to about $1 of income (and that's split between all five members). The band actually commended YouTube for at least showing users' play counts.

Another caveat: Spotify and similar competing services such as Rdio and Berkeley-based MOG remain largely a mystery in terms of financial benefit to the artist. But Digital Music News estimates per-play revenue for DIY acts to be below $0.01 across all of these services.

Bandcamp: Financial: A; Social: D; Access: A-

Bandcamp is an oasis in a desert of tricky sand traps. With a PayPal account, artists can receive payments directly from their fans, with no middleman. The site takes a 10- to 15-percent cut of sales, depending on whether they're for digital or physical merchandise, and gives discounts to high-volume sales. The transparency of Bandcamp's policies comes through in its design: minimal, flexible, and utilitarian, uncluttered by advertisements or even an obvious company logo. Artists can upload specific tracks or entire discographies, which are collated neatly on their profile. But the site is still isolated socially: Minus location and genre tags (and a nascent "discover" feature), there are very few ways to connect with and browse pages. If you've got the fanbase, though, this is where to go to manage sales.

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