SZA, Indie Labels + Distribution Deals with Major Labels


What is a music distribution deal? Why would an artist and his or her independent label sign a distribution deal? Is this a good thing for SZA and TDE?

Those are the questions I've asked myself recently about SZA's new deal with RCA.


A few months ago, I wrote about some of the possible reasons behind SZA’s album delay. While some of the reasons that I mentioned could have been correct, it was announced that she signed a deal with RCA for her album, Ctrl, that will be released sometime this summer. Since she is still signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, it's safe to assume that SZA’s deal with RCA is one mainly for distribution, a deal similar to the deals that Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q have with Interscope.

I've been interested in learning more about music distribution deals since I have read of indie labels like TDE and Jamla doing them in recent years. But, because I learned this via research for a previous post on black-owned labels, I'm familiar that this concept is not a new thing. Many small and indie labels have had distribution deals with major labels. Artists like The Isley Brothers distributed some of their music from T-Neck Records (that were recorded in the late sixties, early seventies) via labels like Buddah Records, which was owned by and distributed music via Sony Music Entertainment. Roc-A-Fella distributed Reasonable Doubt via Priority Records, a label that once distributed via Universal Music Group. In the case of Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, both TDE artists have distribution deals with Interscope Records, which is possible because Interscope is owned by Universal Music Group.

So what is a distribution deal? According to an article from The Balance, a manufacturing and distribution deal is where the distributor pays for the manufacturing costs of releasing an album. It’s known to be specific to the distribution of physical albums, but it’s also applied to digital distribution. Now when some people think of a music distributor, they don't think of a major label. But, the three major labels, which are Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group, have distribution capabilities within their labels, which makes deals like these possible.


But why would an indie label and their artist(s) sign a distribution deal with a major label? 

An indie label will sign a distribution deal for some of the reasons why an artist may sign to a major label: because of the money, influence, and experience that the distribution label has in releasing something on a bigger level compared to the indie label.

Of course, there are positives and negatives to signing a deal like this, such as the ones discussed in the article I mentioned earlier. In the case of SZA, there are more positives than negatives. TDE has done a lot in building her career thus far. However, with her growing (and demanding) fanbase as well as her sound (which can be very different from her TDE label mates), a label like RCA could do wonders in helping her, in conjunction with TDE, become an even bigger and more well-known artist than she already is. Also, TDE sells the physical copies of their artist's albums -- other than the ones distributed via major labels -- via their website, which doesn't do as many numbers compared to the streaming and digital downloads. The backing of RCA would do a lot for her in physical sales and in the mass marketing of the album. Plus, RCA Records is owned by Sony, one of the three major labels, which means they have the manpower and influence to do big things.

But, we also can't forget about the negatives. The major negative that I have, other than ownership of the artist's work, is the relationship that an artist has with their label. With the alleged issues that Tinashe has or had with RCA in terms of her music being released, a lack of attention, and control (or ctrl) – which people occasionally mention in reference to SZA's relationship with TDE – is something that is a cause for concern. This may not be an issue because of the entities involved in the deal, but it's something that will sit in the back of my mind.

We don't know what the details are of SZA's deal. I'm also concerned that there will be a change in direction of her sound and her look. But with the things that she and TDE have done, the deal should enhance all of what they have done in the past. I believe that there will be more good things coming from her deal. One thing is that I can look forward to a new album from her this summer. Until then, I'll vibe out to "Love Galore."

To learn more about the legal aspects of music distribution deals, I'd suggest reading this detailed post from Legally Speaking about the different deals a label may make.