Bandcamp and Digital Music Services
Take a step back to the early-mid 2000s, and accessing music through a digital service provider seemed like more of a trend, or in some cases, a black market, that would be quick to pass. Yet over the decade and a half preceding today’s consumer environment, it became quickly apparent that listening to music via digital means would be preferential to buying or renting physical copies. The backlash from the music industry was extensive, as it was first unwilling to cater to a changing market, but servicing a digital market has become an industry in itself. Listeners have instant and unlimited access to music, whether through a proprietary service like Spotify that is largely controlled by record labels, or through self-managed retailers like SoundCloud or Bandcamp through which artists may personally manage their online content. The digital music boom has led to a diversified and niche-driven music industry that is more competitive to grab fans’ attention than ever before, as if a global record store was opened with nearly everyone’s music on its shelves.
Before 2008, bands that were embracing the digital ether to self-release music were left with only a few options. You could release music for free, on a likely poorly-designed website hosted by a third party service, or perhaps contact a web developer and fork out a significant amount of money to have a digital store. Even then, the coded infrastructure was unlikely to hold up against a rapidly changing development environment without consistent backend support. Cue Bandcamp, Ethan Diamond’s answer to bad digital commerce. Diamond was a developer for Oddpost, the webmail service that would become Yahoo! Mail. His inspiration for Bandcamp came directly from frustrated attempts to use bands’ poorly-designed and often broken websites to download purchased music from their stores (Baio). Bandcamp provides not only a platform for artists to self distribute, but also a service in its analytics and customizable pages. Its role in self distributed music is essential to the contemporary indie scene in the same way that zines and circulated demos were before internet media was accessible.
Bandcamp was officially founded in 2007, with Diamond bringing fellow Oddpost teammate Shawn Grunberger on board as a founding partner. With only two other programmers and engineers on the team, Bandcamp started with a modest group of four. Small team or not, Diamond and Grunberger’s startup was innovative enough to draw immediate attention. Even before the service was fully launched, Bandcamp URLs were topping Google search results for songs and musicians, attesting to the fact that its founders had truly struck gold (Baio). As of 2015, Andrew Flanagan reports on Billboard that Bandcamp had reached a milestone, paying out $100 million dollars to artists from direct sales. Today, that number exceeds $240 million (“Bandcamp”).
The company’s success is by no means surprising. From the start, Bandcamp was an excellent service for self managed and DIY musicians. Today its features have expanded into a robust arsenal of tools that allow artists to maximize engagement with their fanbase. One might even venture to say that Bandcamp was the catalyst for similar services such as SoundCloud, which was founded over a year later in 2008. Artists on Bandcamp can have clean URLs with a customizable and unique page, which immediately separates Diamond’s self-managed retail service from the rest. In addition to optional streaming on a band’s page, Bandcamp offers physical retail services and lossless audio downloads, more detailed analytics than its counterparts as well as, more recently, exclusive player embedding (Bryant). However, its most innovative feature to date comes in the form of personal subscription services, where artists can set a fee and create their own subscription-based model to release exclusive content to subscribers, who also get access to subscriber communities for each band they pay the monthly fee for (“Bandcamp”).
As of October 2017, Bandcamp has netted $5.9 million in the last thirty days (“Bandcamp”). It’s a long way from passing the $10,000 per month mark that Diamond was excited to pass during his 2008 interview with Andy Baio. Driving over thirty-six million paid transactions and 173 million downloads, Bandcamp has become “an indispensable tool for hundreds of thousands of artists and more than 3,000 labels” according to its website. The service’s pay-what-you-want feature certainly plays a part in album sales, as well. Half of the time, fans will choose to pay more than an album’s fixed or minimum price, and albums end up outselling tracks five to one (“Bandcamp”). Considering that the industry standard is tracks outselling albums by three times that amount, Bandcamp is truly unique.
For listeners and artists alike, Bandcamp is mostly a free service, aside from what fans might pay for albums, tracks, merchandise, or subscriptions. Bandcamp takes a fair 15% cut from artists’ sales, though the service handles all of its payments through PayPal, which takes its own cut on all transactions under twelve dollars. Artists have the option of paying a monthly fee of ten dollars for Bandcamp Pro, giving bands more control over how their content is accessed, as well as some deeper statistics and their own domain without the “artist.bandcamp.com” format. Labels can also utilize Bandcamp for labels by paying $20/mo for up to fifteen artists and $50/mo thereafter. Bandcamp’s label pages unify all of a label’s artist statistics and sales reports under one roof, while also automatically giving every artist on that label Bandcamp Pro.
Meanwhile, Bandcamp has been lauded as a “piracy killer” among bloggers and sites like metalsucks.net, backed up by some statistics in a post on Bandcamp Daily, the site’s meta blog. Diamond started tracking where on the Internet users were coming from before purchasing an album, and he discovered there was a fairly high rate of users coming directly from filesharing websites. He writes in that January 2012 post:
We see these sales as proof that Bandcamp can effectively compete with filesharing and other free distribution platforms by a) giving fans a clear, easy way to directly support the artist, and b) offering them a better user experience. Our favorite recent example of this was an $8 sale that started with the search “milosh flac -torrent.” So here was a fan looking for a Milosh record, wanted a high quality flac, but didn’t want to have to sift through a bunch of torrent sites. And that led them right to Bandcamp, and right to putting money in the artist’s pocket.
The quick takeaway is that Bandcamp provides such a convenient, user-friendly, and artist-supporting service that it can directly compete with illegal downloading of music. Looking at it more closely, it seems that Bandcamp might have actually tapped into something of greater importance: perhaps a major aspect filesharing is listeners who are suspicious of commercialism in music looking for low-budget convenience and higher quality audio, not necessarily because they want to steal from artists (Ratliff).
Bandcamp has more direct competition in SoundCloud, the Internet’s other beloved self-managed music provider, though their demographics appear to be relatively heterogenous. While SoundCloud may lack Bandcamp’s robust monetization, having only recently negotiated that streams on SoundCloud count towards album sales for specific labels, the site tends to cater to very different musical styles and aesthetics (Valholla). Where Ratliff questions in his NY Times article if Bandcamp is the “holy grail” of online stores, he also makes an important distinction: “some of the most consistently high-selling music on the site is video game soundtrack music…or the ambient hipster kitsch of about five years ago known as vaporwave. Some indie-rock artists…have been able to grow careers with Bandcamp.” SoundCloud has more renown for sparking the careers of SoundCloud rappers, DJs, and electronic producers than it has for indie rock.
Ratliff also calls Bandcamp a “strange categorical combination of Spotify, iTunes…, a big independent record store and a small band’s merch table after a gig.” It is one of the most fitting descriptions of Bandcamp to date. While Spotify may unintentionally cater to larger acts thanks to its curated playlists and, of course, influence from the Big Three each owning a portion of the company, Bandcamp scratches the streaming itch for niche music and smaller acts. Both platforms have some form of artist placement, whether through Spotify’s playlisting or Bandcamp Daily, where Diamond features musicians making waves on the site. Even in the up-and-coming vein of music, Spotify does have some “under the radar” playlists for virtually unknown acts. Still, if a listener wants to own music in some capacity that they hear on Spotify, they will have to look elsewhere as the service offers no help to that end, besides its legally dubious tethered downloads.
iTunes and, conjunctively, Apple Music, offer a decent blend of streaming and e-commerce unlike Spotify. In that sense, Apple offers a similar service to Bandcamp by melding streaming with a digital storefront, but unlike the Internet’s beloved indie platform, cannot offer much in the way of merchandise. While just about anyone can sell their music through iTunes, Apple lacks in what tools they offer to individual artists compared to Bandcamp. Considering that after Paypal’s own fees, Bandcamp and iTunes pay out about 70% revenue to artists on their service, one would think Bandcamp has the win in this showdown. It might by looking strictly at features, but clearly iTunes comes out on top by means of popularity and user loyalty (Ike).
In a survey of twelve college students, aged 19 to 26, it turns out that Spotify actually wins that contest. Spotify was the most preferred platform for streaming music, with two-thirds of respondents preferring it to other services, and every five out of six surveyed using it on a regular basis.
That fact should come as no surprise considering that college students stream music at least a quarter of the time, and Spotify is one of the most robust and well-marketed music streaming services available.
Something that might be surprising is that 75% of students actually pay for at least one subscription to any of the services mentioned in the study. Stereotypically broke college kids paying for music probably comes from services like Spotify offering deals for new subscribers with a .edu email address.
On the filesharing end of the survey, there seems to be a trend that could echo Ethan Diamond’s own discoveries about Bandcamp pulling listeners away from music piracy. There is an equal proportion of students who claim they do not illegally download music without also intending to later purchase it as there is students who buy music through iTunes or Bandcamp. The questions in the study were not targeted to determine an overlap between these two responses, so it can not be determined if these results are correlated, but it raises enough suspicion to merit further research.
With the study group, Bandcamp lags even behind SoundCloud and YouTube for streaming music, which could imply either that it has room to grow in that area or that the service is better off focusing on being an online storefront. Considering that Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud each have more streamlined and robust streaming via playlists and saving songs, Bandcamp could potentially expand its features to include better streaming and find success. The survey also found that less than half of the respondents use Bandcamp to buy merchandise and physical music from artists, and those students who do only use this feature rarely. In spite of the company’s recent success, it fared somewhat poorly among this group of college students.
The IFPI reports that exactly half of the recording industry’s global revenues in 2016 came from digital music sales, and the focus group mostly echoes that shift in the market away from physical formats. All of the participating students stream music for a significant portion of their listening experience and hold at least two accounts on a streaming service, paid or unpaid. It is clear at this point that, while physical sales cannot be completely ruled out, most people are accessing music via digital means.
Even though it had less-than-stellar performance in the focus group, Bandcamp does appear to have a bright future. Not only does it offer something unique from other digital providers, but has been growing in revenue each year and, according to Diamond, has been profitable for over six years. Will it find the massive success that the more popular streaming platforms are poised to receive? Unlikely. However, in an industry where digital consumption is quickly becoming the preferable norm, Bandcamp provides welcome relief from those hyper-commercialized providers like Spotify and Apple Music, and in that DIY-driven niche Diamond’s indie starchild will do nothing but thrive.