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Aggregator Digital Distribution Services

A review of the terms and conditions of six of the most popular aggregators, to help musicians understand what they do and the business model they use. Prepared by P. Russell & Co on behalf of the MU.

Last updated: 18 August 2021

An aggregator allows musicians to get their tracks onto iTunes, Spotify, and similar services in return for a fee or commission. Musicians often wonder which aggregator they should choose for the digital distribution of their music, and sometimes need legal advice on the terms these aggregators offer to get track recordings online for download or streaming.

The MU Contract Advisory Service does not cover aggregators, nor do we cover the online generic terms that they or anyone else offer for services to musicians. Therefore, we have produced a review for MU members to facilitate a better understanding of the terms and conditions of six of the most popular aggregators. Please note that these reviews constitute generic and not legal advice.

How to use our aggregator digital distribution reviews

The reviews are designed to help musicians understand what the aggregators do and the business models they use, so that you can apply the examples we use to other aggregators if you need to.

All of the reviews should be read in conjunction with their main standard terms and conditions, available on the aggregators' websites. Most of them are hard to digest, some are not clearly written, and there are contradictory elements in parts. This may be down to the fact that it is still an evolving part of the industry. Our review represents an opinion arising from what’s in those terms.

We focus on the digital distribution side only, and not other services like publishing, or label, or synch placement. They are mostly separate services covered in any addenda the aggregator may have, and usually at extra cost. Where that additional service is present and mentioned in the terms and conditions, we reference it in the reviews for your reference.

Identified legal issues with the aggregators’ terms and conditions

For general clarification, here are some of the main issues our lawyers found arising from this review in a number of the aggregators’ terms and conditions:

  1. The contracts are presented to artists on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis and cannot be negotiated or changed by the artists or their representatives. The aggregators can make changes to the contracts during their term and even if these are against the artists’ interests, the artists have no choice but to accept any changes (or terminate the contract).
  2. Due to the lack of negotiation, these contracts (unlike the majority of contracts in the music industry) are in many areas, unreasonably biased in favour of the aggregators and often exclude to the greatest extent possible, all legal remedies for breach of contract by the aggregator.
  3. The artists have little choice other than to enter into such contracts because they are often the only way for artists to make their recordings available on the main digital music services worldwide.
  4. In some contracts, the rights are expressed to be non-exclusive – allowing artists to also use other digital aggregators, however in some cases the contracts are exclusive, meaning artists cannot use any other services to exploit their recordings on digital music services.
  5. Many of the contracts are badly drafted – for example in one of the contracts the definition of ‘Works” includes ‘any musical works or sound recordings’ and therefore although the contract is intended only for digital distribution of master recordings, it may instead acquire rights in the underlying songs, which is neither needed nor reasonable, and those rights are not paid for.
  6. The definition of ‘Term’ is inconsistent in some of the contracts, meaning it is not certain how long those contracts last nor how they can be ended. For example, in one contract, notice to terminate is both 1 day and 30 days.
  7. The royalty and accounting provisions are unclear (and there is no transparency) in a number of the contracts and it is therefore difficult for artists to understand the basis on which they will be paid and to calculate how much they will earn. 
  8. With certain aggregators, several different contracts apply to the artists’ recordings (and other rights) and the terms of such agreements are in conflict and contradictory.
  9. In the main, none of the aggregators take any responsibility for failure of third parties to stop exploiting the artists’ recordings after the end of the contract. In some they will not even send ‘take down’ notices. This means the artists’ recordings may continue to be exploited, but without the artist being paid and that can also make it difficult for the artist to arrange digital exploitation elsewhere.
  10. The aggregators take no responsibility for non-payment or failure to account by any digital service. The artists are unable to seek redress direct if an aggregator is not paid by any of their customers; the artists’ only contractual relationship is with the aggregator.

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