Thursday, June 25, 2020

Good vibrations: how Bandcamp became the heroes of streaming | The Guardian

When Ethan Diamond founded Bandcamp in 2008, he imagined it an alternative to MySpace: an easy-to-use website where bands could interact with fans and sell music. Bandcamp would take care of the fiddly stuff – transcoding music into different formats, payments, analytics – and take a 15% cut of every sale. Five thousand miles away from Oakland, California, another startup millionaire was launching his own music service in Stockholm, one that would give listeners access to everything ever recorded. Spotify would be “better than piracy”, thought its 23-year-old creator, Daniel Ek.

In the decade afterwards, the music industry remade itself in Spotify’s image. Streaming services – including YouTube, Apple Music, Deezer and Tidal – signalled that the era of ownership was over. Who would want dusty vinyl or external hard drives if they could have all the music they wanted on their phone or laptop for a low subscription price? The result of this shift, as musicians from Taylor Swift to Thom Yorke to Joanna Newsom have complained, has been paltry payouts for artists and a consolidation of power among tech companies. Spotify has rarely turned a net profit, but it has 130 million paid subscribers and managed to scrape together $100m for a recent deal to host podcaster Joe Rogan exclusively.

‘Artists have to come first’ … Ethan Diamond, founder of Bandcamp. Photograph: Richard Morgenstein

Meanwhile, Bandcamp has become the rarest of Silicon Valley stories: a slow-burn success. The early years of the site were defined by outsiderdom – video game soundtracks, internet-born genres such as vaporwave and seapunk, music for the “furries” subculture of people who dress as animals – and you can still find pretty much anything, from pirate metal to eco-grime. As well as downloads, about half of Bandcamp’s sales are for physical items – vinyl, CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, posters, USB sticks, even MiniDiscs. “The growth of the company has been almost comically steady. For 11 years it’s a line like this,” says Diamond, holding his hand out at a gentle incline. “This year will be the first year where there’s a noticeable change in the growth rate, and that is because of the pandemic and the awareness that has been raised around the need for fans to directly support artists.”

When Covid-19 hit, Bandcamp announced it would waive its usual 15% fee for one day in order to support artists affected by the shutdown of live music. On 20 March, fans bought 800,000 records on Bandcamp in 24 hours, totalling $4.3m of music and merchandise – 15 times more than a typical Friday. Bandcamp announced three more fee-waiver days. On 1 May, fans splurged $7.1m; millions more were spent on 5 June, with another waiver day coming up on 3 July. “I had no idea what to expect, but the whole thing was inspiring,” Diamond says. “A lot of the independent labels waived their fees as well. Sometimes, besides just passing the money on to their artists, they gave to food banks and other organisations. Those independent labels aren’t big, mega-funded corporations; they’re small businesses, and that was amazing to see.”

Miles Opland, head of Bristol-based experimental dub label Bokeh Versions, got together with his Avon Terror Corps collective to donate sales from a “name your price” compilation to homeless charities in his city. Along with sales from his own label, he ended up giving £2,000. “It was really important for our community to feel like we could get together and do something, even though we were all stuck in our houses separately,” he says. “With Spotify, it wouldn’t be possible to do any fundraising because everything is so siloed off. I have no way to communicate with anyone who streams our music. I don’t have a way to post messages.”

Bandcamp’s Oakland offices. Photograph: Richard Morgenstein

In contrast, Bandcamp is all about interaction – fans are invited to leave reviews, share their collections and send and receive messages from artists they follow. “People feel like their money is going somewhere, and not getting lost in this big black box of royalty nightmares,” says Opland.

Spotify has now introduced a “tip jar” on artist pages, encouraging listeners to directly donate to artists or to coronavirus relief efforts. Diamond doesn’t know if Spotify’s gesture was influenced by Bandcamp. “Regarding other services’ similar efforts, I support anything that helps get artists paid,” he says carefully. 

The idea of ownership is crucial to Bandcamp’s success, thinks Diamond, because of the connection that is made when money changes hands. “By doing that it makes [fans] feel like they’re part of that music’s creation,” he says. This is in stark contrast to streaming, an experience that is led by the listener’s needs, in theory – unlimited music at rock-bottom prices – but actually turns the listeners themselves into the product, by harvesting their data and selling it to advertisers.

Bandcamp is Diamond’s second winning bet, launched after he sold his first company, an email service called Oddpost, to Yahoo in 2004. With his tousled hair and horn-rimmed glasses, he’s more stylish and genial than the stereotypical tech entrepreneur. He’s a genuine music lover, too – a former saxophone player who likes to browse the racks at Groove Merchant in San Francisco. In February last year, Bandcamp opened its own record store in Oakland to sell physical releases from the site. “We can’t have every record on Bandcamp,” says Diamond of the bricks-and-mortar space in Oakland, “because the inventory would be twice as big as the Tower Records in Tokyo, which is a nine-storey building – and that’s just to have one copy of each record.” 

This cornucopia is investigated on Bandcamp Daily, an editorial arm launched in 2016 to shine a light on the mind-boggling variety and volume of uploads to the site. With music magazines and websites battered by budget cuts and layoffs, the Daily has ended up as one of the few remaining outlets for serious writing about everything from sludge metal and power ambient to Black Appalachian banjoists and modern Māori music.

So is Bandcamp going to save the music industry? Absolutely not, according to musician and writer Damon Krukowski – and that’s for the best. He is suspicious of the desire to “scale up”, an impulse that is at the heart of Silicon Valley capitalism. “All the troubles with the internet, the direction it’s gone since its early idealistic days, have to do with this question of scale. Bandcamp won’t scale, in the sense that it’s not for everyone – and that to me is a positive. Thank God that the CEO is amused by his steady graph, because that’s sustainability. We take the term sustainability from the environment – the whole idea of scaling up is disastrous on a global scale.”

In recent years, Bandcamp has run fundraisers for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Law Center and the Voting Rights Project, and on Juneteenth – the commemoration of the end of slavery marked on 19 June – the site donated 100% of its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights organisation. Another $30,000 has been allocated each year to partner with organisations that campaign for racial justice; Björk has uploaded her catalogue to the site, and donated two days’ sales to Black Lives Matter UK. While many brands and corporations have offered inert symbols of “solidarity” with campaigners for social and racial justice – Spotify added 8 minutes 46 seconds of silence to select playlists, the length of time it took George Floyd to die under a police officer’s knee – Bandcamp’s fundraisers can’t be misconstrued as politically neutral. 

A Black Lives Matter protest this month … Bandcamp has announced it will fund the NAACP Legal Defense Fund amid the recent protests. Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA

Krukowski thinks the link between Bandcamp and progressive politics is logical. The direct connection between fans, artists and labels, whether it’s leaving a positive review or paying an extra few pounds because it’s your favourite artist, is about “being an agent, rather than a passive participant,” he says. “When you have not surrendered your agency, it makes perfectly natural sense to think, ‘What can I do with that agency to take some action?’”

Support for the fundraisers is widespread, but, with around half of Bandcamp’s sales coming from outside the US, the focus on American causes hasn’t gone unnoticed. One critical artist, who asked to remain anonymous, comes from a label that has put out hundreds of albums of ambient music and amassed a significant international fanbase. “As a non-American,” he says in an email, “I object to the idea that my music is used by Bandcamp to push what are essentially American political messages, regardless of whether I agree with the spirit of the message. I view it as a form of American cultural imperialism that is ignorant of the international user base.”

The artist has set up a separate webstore to underline what he sees as an unhealthy dominance of the underground music market. “Bandcamp should be a tool to help artists and labels achieve an end, not the cultural statement in itself. What began as a liberating force is starting to fester into a rigid dead end, stifling the creative freedom of artists by indirectly and facelessly demanding they comply with the cultural standards they dictate to us.”

Generally, support for Bandcamp among artists and fans is high. Independent record shops may be monitoring the situation with caution, but if people are willing to empty their wallets when their favourite artists are struggling, they’re probably also enthusiastic about supporting record shops. If they choose to spend £5 on a Bandcamp download that they could have for nothing, then those fans aren’t just a market – they’re a community.

More than once, Diamond makes the case that music “is essential for humanity. If you’re serious about that, then the welfare of artists is essential,” he says. “It can’t be that music is a commodity, or content to use to sell advertising or a subscription plan. Artists have to come first.” Bandcamp has become a lifeline for artists doing something different, cooking up new ideas with little regard for trends, scenes or playlists. The streaming services aren’t designed for music like that. “They’re never going to pick out the thing that’s different,” says Krakowski. “Freaks on the music scene do that, music writers do that, really skilful radio programmers do that. But the algorithm is never going to do that.”


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