DISTRO: A Music Subscription Service for the DIY Set

Image courtesy of DISTRO

You’ve just badly bruised your ass after being unceremoniously dumped on the floor during an ill-fated crowdsurf. Your clothes are soaked with someone else’s beer. Your hair, clothes and skin reek of someone else’s smoke (various ilks). You’re half-sloshed, but wholly high on the stunning show that just went down at this abandoned barn/warehouse/decaying hotel. How do you show your appreciation to the sweat-strained neighborhood demigods shambling off the makeshift stage? If you’re a denizen of the DIY music scene, you’ll probably slap a tenner down on the merch table for a CD or cassette and sputter your respects. Sadly, the old “I’ll buy the album on iTunes when I get home” deal doesn’t work when the band you’re seeing doesn’t really truck with distributers. It’s lucky that you’re even at this show; otherwise, you probably wouldn’t even be able to take home your new favorite album.

A new non-profit music subscription service called DISTRO aims to serve those fans who can’t make it to the show (or who maybe forgot to bring $10 for a CD) by replicating the experience of DYI showgoing online: showcasing awesome bands and letting you pay them directly for their wares.

The service is the brainchild of musician/videographer/lawyer Kyle Marler, who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the beta version of the offering. As of right now, the alpha is basically a barebones site where users can listen to a few tracks, but the beta would be a fully fledged subscription service and mobile app. Like with Spotify and the rest, users will be able to search for bands and listen to their tunes in a dedicated player/app (or cache for offline listening on other services), with one major difference: there’s no middleman to take a cut of money made. Basically, bands upload their music to the service and set a price to subscribe to their content. Fans can then choose which bands they want to keep up with, subscribing to them like one subscribes to a magazine. Subscription fees will go right to the band.

Marler came up with the idea for DISTRO while living abroad in Vietnam. “I was making music with some amazing musicians from all over the world, and I wanted to share it with my friends back in the States and earn a couple extra đồng,” he says. “It wasn’t until fall of 2010 when I needed an escape from the mind-vice of law school that I acted to execute on the idea.”

While there are currently several music subscriptions on the market — Spotify, Rdio, etc — Marler saw a need for one that was truly non-profit, one that works directly with bands and makes sure they’re paid what they deserve. In order to get their music on most services, bands have to go through a distributer like TuneCore or CD Baby — enrollment in which costs money — and, recently, bands of all levels of fame have been questioning whether or not the payoff is even worth it. That question is still widely up for debate, since adoption of these services is relatively new phenomenon.

To ensure that bands get the most money possible, Marler plans to fund the service through donations and private investments. He will only charge bands if it takes off (in order to keep DISTRO running), and even then, the fee will be small. “This will likely be 3% to 5% and far less than the 30% withheld by Google Music, iTunes, etc,” he says.

In many ways, however, DISTRO is not meant to take off with the mainstream, but to serve a pretty select group of people who constantly crave new music — tastemakers, if you will. The Board of Directors that Marler has enlisted reflects that desire: Todd Patrick, Joe Ahearn and Jordan Michael, who are all extremely active members of the New York all-ages/DIY scene. All three book shows (carefully curated lineups of up-and-coming bands) at unusual, not-quite-legal venues in the city and are on the staff of Showpaper, a free paper that lists gigs of that variety. Marler also works at the publication.

“I would compare the current system of Internet music distribution to a bizarro 1990s if all that existed were Virgin Megastores and Barnes and Nobles, and even though they had great selections and relatively good coverage of underground releases – they were still overpriced and lame,” says Patrick, who offers up show listings via his “Todd P” website and email listserv. “Today’s digital outlets are the same. I’m confident that if the savvy indie ‘DIY’ music fan had a smart, technologically advanced ‘independent record store’ option from which to buy digital download music on the Internet, they would start paying for music and supporting musicians financially in greater numbers than they do today.”

According to Joe Ahearn, there is a real need for that kind of service among the denizens of the indie scene. Although zines, cassettes and other tangible items abound in that realm — Showpaper itself is print-only — the web is very much tied up in the dissemination of music. “Kids might be starting tape labels left and right, but they’re posting each new release on Soundcloud and scanning the covers to their blog at the same time,” he says. A concept like DISTRO would make it easier for interested parties to find and consume that culture, all in one place.

Right now, however, DISTRO is just that — a concept. Marler and Co. still have several thousand dollars to go before funding is complete. If they do hit that goal, however, Marler plans to unveil DISTRO 2.0 on July 4. “We’d love to coincide this launch with special, exclusive music offerings on the platform, with a wide range of participating bands,” he says. Given the folks participating in the project and their connections in the underground music world, that offering promises to be pretty damn intriguing.

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