The meaning of “direct” and why it matters

A few things have happened in US politics this week. Also: Dischord put their catalog up on Bandcamp to much celebration. I’m about to be a buzzkill so I’m going to say some nice stuff about Bandcamp first.

When Bandcamp first opened up shop it was a revelation about how an artist can reach an audience. To this day they have features, community, and support that run circles around other digital outlets. They’ve outlasted waves of competing startups and, frankly, I’m glad they have. But there’s one jarring bit about the conversation around Bandcamp that I need to be very blunt about:

Buying on Bandcamp is not the same as directly supporting an artist.

In a lot of cases it’s the best you can do. And caring about supporting artists? THE BEST. But over time we’ve started buying into the marketing and equating Bandcamp with “direct” while talking about Apple and others as third-party stores. Apple takes 30% of a sale. Bandcamp takes 10–15% plus fees — with a nice system that lowers the commission permanently after a sales threshold. The Bandcamp deal is definitely better and they have community tools to encourage a network effect to make up for a smaller overall user base compared to iTunes.

Bandcamp is a good deal. But it’s not direct. They take their cut of the transaction, host your files, and own your data.

I don’t want to sound negative about Bandcamp. They’re a business like any other. What they do is good for artists. When I started seeing people cheering about the Dischord catalog I had questions.

You see, Dischord already sells their catalog on their own website. They built a digital sales platform themselves, embraced the open web, and set up shop. The Fugazi Archive is amazing and a serious accomplishment for a label of any size, let alone one staffed by a handful of people. I hold Dischord as a personal inspiration, for how art can engage us but also for how a small business can engage the web. Buying a record from dischord.com is as direct as it comes.

So I privately asked friends why they were so excited. They talked about the better browsing experience on Bandcamp and being able to pay over the ask. With every answer came something more intangible, explained as Bandcamp being a more direct form of support for artists.

Appreciating convenience is fine. Listener convenience is great! But confusing that convenience for a more direct form of artist support does a disservice to the very real need for more direct support of artists in this industry. Dischord put their music in a new store hoping to attract new customers. That’s smart. It was also probably necessary because people weren’t flocking to a label site to buy music direct from the people who put it out.

I’m thrilled to see people happy about buying music—especially music that has meant so much to me personally over the years. That said, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure all artists can sell music directly and under their own control without a startup or company sitting between them and their audience.

I’ve written in the past about why open is the answer to this. It’s still true. Artists need open technology they can build their businesses on top of. Without trusted open solutions artists will never get better than the second cut of any sale they make online.

I hope Bandcamp keeps innovating in ways that make the web more accessible to artists. I hope they continue to show that there are viable alternatives in the music startup world to all-you-can-stream services. But please: rethink your idea of what “direct” means.

When you get excited about a new release check the artist site first and see if they have a preferred outlet. It might be Bandcamp. It might be iTunes. It might also be a store they spent time and money building.

No matter what, direct support always begins with the artist.