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Distrokid Review: It’s about what I expected

Note: DistroKid replied to a few points! See below.

Note 2: This review is from 2018, but should still be accurate.

I was skeptical about DistroKid, the music distribution service that’s quickly making a name for itself. The guy behind it likes to tout the fact that the founders of his main competitors have endorsed his service. Any kind of high profile recommendation makes me immediately suspicious. The fact that the website is nearly devoid of details did not help.

But…

It’s okay. I signed up. Paid my $19.99. Found out the basic plan didn’t include some things I wanted, like setting prices and release dates. You get a grace period where you can get a refund and upgrade, so it’s not too bad, but I do wish they’d mention that up front.

Uploading your music for distribution to stores is pretty straightforward. You select how many tracks you want, upload to each slot and fill out details, add your cover, choose your stores, and send it on. This is where we hit the first problem.

Their uploader is…bad. It works, as long as your connection is reliable. Mine wasn’t at the time. If your connection goes out during upload, it just stops and never retries. It doesn’t save any of your information, so you have to put it all in again. Blech. What is this, 2004?

Aside from that, it’s about what I expected. They have a referral program. I sold one subscription within 20 clicks, so either I got lucky or they’ve done a lot of work refining their sales copy. It’s one of the few affiliate programs that won’t make you feel like slime. Payments take too long. Months is just not reasonable in 2018.

Spotify and Google Play were the first to get my music up. iTunes came next. Tidal was extremely late: emails telling me they got my music up came in six months after I submitted it. All the publicly shared music sales reports I’ve found show a steep dropoff after iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify, so it barely matters.

DistroKid does what it says it’ll do on the sales page: sends your music to the stores, gets you paid. Simple. However, I cancelled my account once I got my last payout. Patreon is working better for me: make music, post it to people paying monthly, repeat. I make almost as much in a month here as I did in almost a year on DistroKid.

While my DistroKid account is inactive, you can still get a 7% discount with my referral link.

Update: DistroKid responded when I posted the review on Twitter.

  • Tidal wasn’t late getting music in the store. The email I got was from when DistroKid turned on a new thing to get updates from Tidal, so I just never got a notification before.
  • The uploader is a direct connection to AWS. I understand they want to limit how much they hold on to before sending it off to the stores, but at least saving all the metadata would be handy. Upload problems probably aren’t all that common, so it may just not be worth the engineering effort.
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What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

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Leveling up my music theory

If you told me in 2010 that I would start 2020 working on a sonata in notation, I would definitely ignore you. I’d tell you there’s no way I could do it. All those lines! Who can remember it all? What even is a sonata? Ridiculous.

Well.

Gay Babies Doing Fine Anyway (bass clef lines)

Always Checking Email, Gaily (bass clef spaces)

Every Good Bean Deserves Foxes (treble clef lines)

Foxes Are Cute Eeeeeeee (treble clef spaces)

I’ll need to figure the others out, but this will take me far.

I got this Udemy music composition and film scoring course bundle on sale and it quickly improved my music. The film scoring part will be especially helpful. I’ve wanted to get into making theme music forever, but it’s hard to piece together a real understanding from random blog posts and videos. The author also gives steep discounts to people who buy it, and I really dig his style, so that opens up a lot of potential expansion on a limited income.

As I watched the videos and put the things I learned to work, so many things I was on the brink of understanding clicked. For example: the diatonic chord progression. This is where notation helps a lot. I had trouble understanding the relation between chords and scales with a piano roll. I could see their shape, but I didn’t understand chord notes are just scale notes separated by three keys (as in piano). I kind of got this when I realized I could fold keys (as in scales) in Ableton Live and see there’s an equal number of spaces between notes in chords, but I still didn’t get 7ths, or chords that are diminished and augmented.

MuseScore’s piano roll view helpfully shows the relation:

Every single one of those can be the root of a chord. I recognize the shapes on the roll, but now I understand them in the notation. They have the same shapes on notation even if one note lands on a flat or sharp—usually black keys.

That also finally helped me understand what key signatures and relative keys are about. Since the shapes stay the same, you only need to know which notes get a flat or sharp. G major and E minor are the same notes (for example), but they start from different places. So if I want to memorize the scales and modes (and I do), I don’t need to start by memorizing every note in each one. I can just remember which keys are flatted and sharped, which keys share notes, and let the memorization unfold on its own while I jam on my keyboard. And since chords look the same, always, you only need to know which notes are flatted or sharped by looking at the key signature.

This also led to me getting the circle of fifths. You go to keys adjacent to the one you’re writing in to find off-key chords—the chord/chords that the two keys don’t share—to add a little life to your progression. I use an app called Piano Companion Pro that shows you all available chords in a key and even lets you build progressions to export as MIDI files. I don’t export; I set whole notes in MuseScore, type out all the root notes, then build the chords on it. Ctrl and an arrow key will move it up or down an octave if it’s too high or low. It’s faster than moving exported MIDI files around.

I’m not even halfway through the videos as I write this. More to come in the new year! Stay tuned, and get on the Patreon goodness for discounts.