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22 July 2021

Can Bandcamp save the music business?

When one Spotify stream has an average value of £0.004, Bandcamp is seen as the saviour of indie music with its artists-first philosophy.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

William Doyle first uploaded music to Bandcamp in November 2016. He had previously released two electronic albums on the major indie label XL under the name East India Youth, but decided to call time on the project. Doyle uploaded an instrumental album, The Dream Derealised, under his own name, and chose to donate all the money he earned from it to the mental health charity Mind. “It was a nice, positive first use of Bandcamp,” Doyle told me. “There’d always been a rigmarole to putting things out before. So it felt good to be instantly like, ‘I’ve made this music, I’m going to upload it, and then it’s available to everyone’.”

Bandcamp reminded Doyle of MySpace, the social networking service that, in the mid-Noughties, was instrumental in launching the careers of many musicians, providing an easy way for them to connect to listeners. “It makes you feel like you’re actually communicating with people and not just chasing abstract metrics,” said Doyle, who has continued to use Bandcamp to share his alternative art-pop, listing albums and EPs available for download.

Bandcamp – which was founded in 2008 and has its headquarters in Oakland, California – is an online marketplace for artists and labels. “We’ve built our business around a model that puts the artist first,” its mission statement reads. Bandcamp takes 10-15 per cent per sale, and payment processor fees are typically between 1 and 5 per cent of each purchase, leaving the artist or label with an average of 82 per cent per sale. An artist who has a track listed at $1 – or approximately £0.72 – will receive about £0.59 for each sale. At a time when one Spotify stream has an average value of £0.004, it’s easy to see why Bandcamp has come to be known as the saviour of indie music. Could it help make the whole industry more equitable?

“Humans are what make Bandcamp tick,” said London-based Ben Jacobs, who releases avant-garde electronica as Max Tundra. On streaming platforms such as Spotify, it’s “just left to algorithms”. An editorial arm of Bandcamp highlights new releases and acts as a well-thought-out discovery tool, complete with distinctive illustrations. It is also renowned for its openness: there are extensive explanations regarding how artists are paid on its website. Jacobs described the platform as “very transparent under the hood”: “You’ll get a monthly email from Bandcamp saying how much you made, and every time there’s a sale it says ‘this is our cut’, whereas with the streaming platforms it’s much more opaque.”

Over the last year, Bandcamp has donated huge amounts to worthy causes. Following recent campaigns to support the American Civil Liberties Union and the Transgender Law Center, on Juneteenth 2020, Bandcamp gave its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Meanwhile Spotify’s equivalent gesture was quite literally empty: it added 8 minutes, 46 seconds of silence – the length of time that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck – to some of its playlists.) Bandcamp’s initiative encouraged labels with a presence on the platform to follow suit; many pledged to donate their share of profits to radical justice organisations. The initiative took place again on Juneteenth 2021.

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When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Bandcamp announced it would waive its usual revenue share for one day to support artists who had been badly affected by the sudden shutdown of live music events. On 20 March 2020, Bandcamp users spent $4.3 million on the site, 15 times the amount expected on a typical Friday. “The results from the first Bandcamp Friday were inspiring, with fans going above and beyond to support the artists they love,” said Bandcamp COO Josh Kim. “We saw artists share all over social media that fans were helping them cover rent, mortgages, groceries, medications, and so much more.” The site realised it was on to a good thing – artists had prepared special releases to mark the date, whipping up a huge amount of excitement in indie music communities – and so carried on: on the first Friday of every month since, Bandcamp has waived its share of artists’ earnings. Kim said that over the course of 13 Bandcamp Fridays, fans have paid artists more than $56m. The site has pledged to continue this initiative throughout 2021, as live music continues to be severely disrupted by the pandemic.

But can Bandcamp Friday last forever? “It felt special at the start,” said Doyle, who spent 20 March 2020 sharing recommendations of what to buy from Bandcamp on Instagram, “but now it feels like there’s too much stuff.” Doyle made almost enough money from one single day of sales to cover his rent for a month, but, he said, “now people are almost dreading how much stuff gets put up on Bandcamp in preparation for Bandcamp Friday. I guess it shows you how dire the whole ecosystem is in terms of making money out of being in the music industry right now, that any opportunity is pounced on with such extreme vigour.” 

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Jacobs too enjoyed the first Bandcamp Friday, uploading new music to mark the event, but since then, he has been reluctant to upload new songs “for the sake of it”. He likens the monthly fee-free day to Record Store Day, an annual event that was once an effective way to support independent shops, and is now so oversaturated with major label releases that it feels for the most part unhelpful. “I think it’s a really generous initiative on Bandcamp’s part, and it’s worked out well for them,” Jacobs said. “But there’s a danger of your stuff getting lost in the melee. The royalty cut is so generous on Bandcamp compared to anywhere else, it sort of doesn’t matter when you put your record out.”

Kim said Bandcamp has been keeping a close eye on the situation. “While we initially were concerned that having the [Bandcamp Friday] monthly for a full year might result in fans losing interest, that hasn’t happened at all. In fact, our Bandcamp Friday in May 2021 raised even more money for artists than the first Bandcamp Friday back in March 2020.” To him, the initiative is simply “an extension of what Bandcamp is about every day”. Fans don’t only buy from the platform on this particular day of the month: outside of Bandcamp Friday, site users have bought $161m worth of music and merchandise from artists and labels since last March. 

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Bandcamp’s regular payment infrastructure encourages generosity among music fans: artists and labels set a minimum price per item, but fans can pay more if they choose. “In a space where everything else is like, ‘Can you get it for the cheapest possible?’, that’s where I see the most value,” said Chloé van Bergen, the VP of operations at Secretly Group, which is home to the independent labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian, and artists including Dinosaur Jr and Phoebe Bridgers. Secretly Group’s roster – independent, alternative artists with a dedicated fanbase – is “very Bandcamp-friendly”, Van Bergen said, but the site accounts for a small proportion of the group’s overall sales: just 1.8 per cent of its digital income and approximately 4 per cent of its physical profit so far this year. “We believe in Bandcamp as an additional source of income for labels and artists, but it’d be a stretch to advocate for their model as a viable alternative to any of the existing revenue streams, which currently hold up the majority of the industry.”

For Van Bergen, Bandcamp is not comparable with streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. For one thing, the site appeals to a distinct type of music fan: “I don’t think it attracts the casual music listener, the type of consumer that has a Spotify Family account, for example, and casually listens to playlists.” This means Bandcamp has created a tight-knit community among the fans and artists who use the site regularly, and while major left-field artists such as Björk have uploaded their whole back-catalogue to the site, it seems unlikely that mainstream musicians such as Adele or Ariana Grande will be inclined to join up anytime soon.

There is another important, and troubling, difference: listeners can stream music for free on the site, and because Bandcamp is not a subscription service and does not run adverts, artists do not see any money unless a fan chooses to purchase a copy of a record after listening. This, Van Bergen said, is a “distinct flaw” for “a site that positions itself as pro-artist and anti-streaming”. “If the idea is that Bandcamp want to present itself as on a level playing field with other streaming companies, that could become a point of contention for artists choosing where to put their music.” Spotify may be criticised for handing such a pitiful share of a stream to artists, but it does at least always pay. 

Tom Macdonald, head of digital operations at Ninja Tune, an independent label that specialises in experimental electronic and dance music, doesn’t see this as a problem. “I can’t imagine many [listeners] are using Bandcamp as a pure streaming service,” he said. Besides, “the artist has the opportunity to limit the amount of streams of any track the fans can engage with, and the potential upsell plays a part. Not everyone that streams a track will buy, of course, but it’s not generally a platform anyone who doesn’t buy music will be using as their primary streaming device.”

Kim described Bandcamp as “complementary” to streaming platforms. “The model of paying artists per stream, based on a share of subscription fees, or money collected from advertisers, has already been shown to not work for the vast majority of artists,” he said. “So we’ll continue to operate in the way we do – making it easy for fans to listen to and discover artists and then directly support them through sales of digital and physical music. We’re confident that [this is] the best way to generate real revenue for the broadest possible range of artists.”

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Bandcamp is committed to downloads and physical products, a set-up that encourages music fans to consider the worth of what they choose to listen to. In an age where “music has been so devalued”, Jacobs said – where a streaming subscription worth £9.99 a month gives users access to most music ever recorded – this is increasingly rare. This focus, said Hannah Carlen, the director of marketing at Secretly Group, results in an “extreme loyalty” to the platform. “When we have artists with large customer bases on Bandcamp, we see fans return time and again for new releases, Bandcamp Friday, the works. Bandcamp is like any beloved indie record shop in that way, just with a larger footprint.”

Doyle pointed out that, for artists on a standard record deal, it doesn’t matter whether their album is bought via Bandcamp, a record shop or on Amazon; either way, they won’t see any of the earnings from it until they have recouped their advance. Many fans won’t realise this, but it doesn’t matter: the important thing is that the “consumer feel[s] like they are contributing to you directly”, he said, because that is what strengthens loyalty between fans and artists. “That’s the sort of thing streaming culture misses out on because you’re so geared towards the next play,” Doyle said. Bandcamp, meanwhile, offers a sense of community.

Bandcamp has strengthened the idea of the fan as not just a music consumer, but also an invested patron in an artist’s career progression,” said Van Bergen. “And in this day and age, any initiative that encourages kindness and giving should be worthy of recognition.” 

[see also: How a new campaign aims to fix a broken music industry]