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For years now, distribution has been a double-edged sword. For independent labels, having secure distribution has been the key to survival. At the same time, the "sale or return" rule has often been the death of small labels. Why? Because it's hard enough to sell records if the shops don't buy advance copies but it's worse when, because they haven't sold them, the shops not only return the copies and demand an immediate refund but they raise a surcharge as well. So labels end up paying for the privilege of selling no records!

Now, thanks to a shift in customer's buying habits, "sale or return" may soon be a thing of the past. Two particular changes are driving the new culture. One is the emergence of various on-line CD stores (i.e. CD Now, CD Baby, CD Wow, CD Zone etc.) offering albums at much friendlier prices. These stores simply ask for the numbers of copies they estimate that they need and pay the label per copy sold.

The other is the massive expansion in digital distribution of music to internet download stores (i.e. i-tunes, cd baby, mycokemusic etc.) where there is no "physical" product exchanging hands and a "download" cannot be returned once sold.

These two areas are the ones Labels Enabled has opted to focus on. And the stores we can get music distributed to still include the big name record shops like Virgin Megastores, HMV and Borders but via their on-line stores primarily.

The good news for the ambitious artist/label is that, provided there is a "physical" release available (i.e. a CD/Vinyl version of single or album) at the same time as the download tracks, the downloads count towards the official charts. And most of the UK-registered on-line CD shops are also "chart return" shops. Furthermore, once fans start purchasing copies in significant numbers from the Virgin Megastores/HMV/Borders on-line stores, those companies will be quick to put copies on the shelves of their High Street stores too.

So, however one looks at it, the new distribution networks offer attractive, low risk ways of breaking new acts and labels. Not that it ends there.

At the same time that this shift towards on-line purchasing (physical and digital) continues, there is a growing trend towards relying on on-line media to provide the support for and interest in new music that used to be a key role of the mainstream music press. What started out as a handful of "fan sites" has grown into an entire new area of the contemporary music media and one with an international character, most of the popular sites attracting visitors from across the globe.

Will the ultimate conclusion be the freedom and equality idealists imagine the internet delivering for musicians? Almost certainly not. Already the big guns are shifting large chunks of their operations on-line. And they have the money and marketing experience to provide lavish web sites, shrewd advertising, top-notch video clips, elaborate freebies etc. Anyone imagining that the internet will somehow put Universal Music Group and Joe Hopeful Records on a level playing field is simply not looking at the logistics.

Even so, the on-line/digital momentum offers a real opportunity for those brave and savvy enough to get in there now. And, with or without the support of the big labels, it offers the non-mainstream artist a means of reaching a worldwide audience the size of which he/she could only have dreamed of in a past era of pub gigs and local radio slots. For that alone we should all celebrate this much-needed change in the balance.

Article published with permission from Neil March, Director of music distribution company Labels Enabled.