Photo Credit: Gavin Whitner, Music Oomph @

Digital Distro - how to be an independent publisher in the digital age (and still pay the bills)

4 Dec 2015

3 min read

Header Photo Credit: Gavin Whitner, Music Oomph @

Creativity may thrive within constraints, but being an independent publisher is a minefield in today's digital world. In such a saturated market, how do get yourself noticed and how do you actually make money?

These are the questions last month’s Cultural Enterprise Office ‘Digital Distro’ event promised to answer (along with free wine and bingo - result!).

Chaired by Dougal Perman of Inner Ear and CEO Industry Associate, the panel represented an impressive snapshot of self-publishers in the book, gaming, film and music industries. Each with a different story to tell, they shared insights into the dilemmas and opportunities faced by digital content producers today:


John Lowis, aka Louis, one quarter of Scottish hip hop band, Hector Bizerk, reflected on the ‘tidal wave of uncertainty’ that has engulfed the music industry in the ‘why pay if it’s free?’ download era. While even major multi-billion dollar labels are still grappling with this issue there are no easy answers, but it’s not all doom and gloom for the indies as Louis explained.

Advice for musicians:

  • Do distribute your music on Bandcamp – it offers one of the few revenue models for independent musicians.
  • Dedicated fans will pay for your music. Build up a fanbase through live performance and social media. By selling exclusive non-digital releases at gigs, you can create hype around an event and offer loyal fans exclusive content that they are happy to pay for.
  • Don’t let yourself sink in the vast digital ‘sea of mediocrity’. The low barriers to entry for independent music publishers means that it's essential to offer great quality and reward audience loyalty.
  • The biggest mistake young bands make is to publish music before it’s ready for public consumption. There is a real value in holding back and perfecting your sound or you’ll be written off by music fans and critics before you’ve even started.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of forward planning and strategy but be prepared for your goals to change. If don’t have targets, you certainly won’t be moving towards hitting them.
  • Exclusivity and scarcity are valuable marketing tactics that are too often ignored. So, if you think you’ve written the number one hit song of the decade, DON”T PUT IT ON SOUNDCLOUD!


Ellen Tolsma, Producer of Marketing and Distribution at SCREENpmd, discussed the challenges faced by independent filmmakers who don’t have the big budgets and marketing cycles enjoyed by the major film studios. While the release model of ‘Cinema > DVD > TV > Digital’ allows traditional marketers to create hype around each iteration and make money each time, this is simply not an option for the indies. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t market your film effectively.

Advice for film-makers:

  • Treat social media and digital distribution platforms such as Distrify as mere *tools* – they don’t do the job for you. Have a plan and be clear what you want to get out of each online platform you use.
  • Distributing digital content is easy in itself – the hard part is building your audience and creating a loyal following.
  • Reward and nurture fans by offering exclusive content for your ‘core’ audiences. Allow options to ‘send to a friend’ and harness the power of your fans’ social influence. Old-fashioned newsletter sign-ups are useful too.
  • The old model of 100% exclusivity over distribution rights is no longer relevant – expect to work with different partners to promote and market new releases.
  • Use distribution platforms, chat rooms and social media to discover and connect with your followers. It’s often the case that your audience is not the audience you thought it was.
  • Invite your core fans to free test screenings and look around the room to see how they respond to content. Distribute questionnaires and encourage conversation online and off. People love to talk and give feedback.
  • Have confidence in your content. Just because there is a huge difference in budget between independent and mainstream films, doesn’t mean your film isn’t as good. The indie film Tangerine is a case in point. A massive hit at this year’s Sundance Film festival, it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S using an $8 app.


Paul Farley, CEO and founder of Dundee’s Tag Games believes that nobody - ‘not the big player nor the wee guy down the road’ - has the answer to the problems faced by the mobile gaming industry. Since the advent of Google Apps, anyone can spend $100 and publish gaming content. Most of it is *terrible* but the low barrier to entry is making it harder than ever for quality content to be found. With both Android and Apple now giving away gaming content for free, games are no longer treated as a product but a service.

Advice for mobile game developers:

  • Angry Birds is the exception to the rule. It’s very hard to make quality content that appeals to millions. You will short circuit if you try.
  • Tag sells games as a digital hobby rather than a service. Selling in-games extras to players is a way to monetise the product and deepen commitment.
  • With console games, consumers run the risk of wasting £50 trying out a game that they might not like. Free-to-play games allow players to check out products they may eventually be willing to pay for. For consumers, it’s always a trade off between money and time.
  • Like all independents, the Tag team has had to become retailers and marketers as well as content producers. For creative types, this can be enjoyable and natural – taking your creativity and applying it to another discipline
  • Street team promotions, forums and focus groups have become invaluable tools to gather audience insights and build fan loyalty.
  • In the past, only the best players ever saw the highest levels of expertise. Now, player retention is lower and games are easier as it’s no longer about being challenged or having skill.
  • The gaming industry is very risk averse and tends to copy whatever has already been successful in the marketplace. In this sense, there is plenty opportunity for disruption.
  • Endorsement is very effective – Kim Kardashian’s mobile app game has earned more cash for Glu Mobile than all their other apps combined - but it must be genuine or players will be turned off.
  • Get others to talk about you – not just yourself. A handful of loyal influential fans will become your evangelists and brands will value your social reach


According to Keith Charters, author turned distributor at Strident Publishing and CEO Industry Associate, e-readers are a classic disruptive technology but the market hasn’t gone the same way as music or gaming. There’s still a trade-off between digital and physical copies with readers using e-readers for holidays and travel while preferring hard copies at home.

Advice for book publishers:

  • The fiction market for young children hasn’t yet been disrupted - most books are still bought as physical entities
  • As the saying goes - writing books is easy, selling books is hard. You need to figure out how to tickle people’s interest and create the demand
  • One of the positives of digital books is that you can correct errors after a work has been published online. On the downside, you don’t proofread so closely the first time round.
  • Publishers offer consumers a form of quality control and reassurance. In the digital age, publishers are now making more of their own brands – this is the way the market is going.
  • Popular content which makes money doesn’t always equal ‘quality’. When you start writing for the market, that’s when content becomes banal.
  • Unlike music and gaming, book publishers only have data on how many books have been sold rather than read. Typically, the aggregators are the only ones to have the data. That’s why Penguin is starting to sell through its own platform and other publishers may follow.
  • Aggregators are simply fulfilment services. It’s important to accept that you're just a slice in the overall book-selling process.
  • A big change is still to come as book publishing still hasn’t fundamentally changed. It’s conceivable that e-book advertising will be the next disruption to the market.


I’m old enough to remember when the idea of independent online publication represented a utopian vision of change. The internet was celebrated as a truly democratic means for artists and audiences to connect without the need for a nasty, corporate middleman.

Nowadays, we know that it hasn’t exactly worked out this way. Online distribution platforms may have opened up access for content creators, but the consequence has been that creative entertainment markets are so saturated it’s increasingly difficult to be found. Dubious techniques such as buying 'likes' to show social approval and attract attention from the mainstream publishers are also to blame for the lack of quality control and confusion.

The key point is that no matter how brilliant your content is, the product is never enough. You need a brand, a marketing plan and an abundance of creative ideas to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Don't be discouraged though - if you keep working at it and stay positive you will find your audience and they will reward you.

As Louis said, people will always want music (or any creative content). Why shouldn't it be yours?

A full recording of Digital Distro's November 2015 event is available here...

#digitalmarketing #events #socialmedia #socialmediastrategy

Written by

Catherine Watson, Digital Marketer at 999 Design

Catherine Watson

Digital Marketer