Any attempt to deliver better audio to consumers (making our work more effective to buyers) is welcomed with open arms by this quality-minded audio engineer. While I'm not entirely convinced that Apple is as concerned with audio as I am, I found iTunes' new section “Mastered For iTunes” (along with the audio tools, encoders and guidelines that accompany it) to be a step in the right direction. However, my hopes of easy data submission, improved file standards and better music quality for all are being dashed by the “aggregators,” the digital gatekeepers of the new music biz.
If you work with artists on major and significant indie labels, then those labels ensure that song file submissions to all the web music portals (iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, eMusic, etc.) are done according to spec. For the rest of us — with clients on smaller or no labels — an aggregator (TuneCore, ReverbNation, CD Baby, etc.) corrals all the data, distributes it all to the various web outlets and collects a fee. These fees, and their structures, differ from one aggregator to another, but are generally reasonable and represent a low barrier to entry for those with music to market.
The only problem lies in the inability to get songs on iTunes that utilize the benefits of the new iTunes Plus format, or the more stringent “Mastered For iTunes” category, through an aggregator. The Plus format allows file submissions in .WAV or AIFF that are 24-bit and up to 192 kHz, and MFi has more exacting requirements on the source audio, yet I cannot findone single aggregator who can accept audio in these standards. TuneCore only accepts 16-bit/44.1 kHz WAV submissions. Same thing at CD Baby. ReverbNation can't do it yet, and contend they hope to offer it soon, though they do have “Mega Song Storage” for less than $1 day, allowing up to 100 MB per song for very long songs and/or very high quality files (reverbnation.com/band-promotion/megasongstorage). I even tried mega-aggregator IODA (Independent Online Distribution Alliance), which has more stringent standards and serves more successful artists, but they never replied with an answer.
I’ve discovered it's not so hard to become an aggregator and work directly with Apple for your iTunes submissions. Technical requirements are minimal (OS X 10.5.8 and up, 512 MB RAM, QuickTime 7.0.3 and up, 20 GB drive space, web connection at 1 MB/sec and up); content requirements are reasonable (20 albums or more to be distributed, UPCs/EANs/JANs for all products and ISRCs for all tracks); and legal requirements are simple (U.S. Tax ID, iTunes store account with credit card on file and payments require earning thresholds to be crossed). The catch? “Note: Meeting these requirements and submitting an application does not guarantee that Apple will work directly with you. You may still be referred to an Apple-approved aggregator.”
You can get an ISRC code with administrator rights; for $75, it will cover all the artists you represent (at usisrc.com). You can get UPC barcodes; they are all over the net for widely varying prices, as low as $6.50 each for the adventurous (two to try are qualityupc.comor speedybarcodes.com). Furthermore, as an aggregator, you could sweeten the pie as a member of the iTunes Affiliate Marketing program; by placing iTunes links on your website you can get rewarded for visitors, subscribers and sales.
I don't have anything against the aggregators who have largely done right by my clients and I. However, in these tight times — where we're all working extra hard to make a buck — we need every market advantage we can get, such as the sweetest-sounding tracks at the world's most popular record store. My clients and I need aggregators to stay modern, to adopt improving standards, and to provide the best services currently available. After all, there is no room for sluggish behavior in the rapidly evolving digital age.
Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Catalyst Recording. catalystrecording.com