2020, Summer 1
It's always fascinating when a decision that you've made, totally independently, turns out to be part of a wider trend. It's a sobering reminder that we're ultimately all part of a predictable demographic, fitting into our own little niches.
A few months ago I took the leap of using Bandcamp as my primary source of music, and I thought I'd sing it's praises and talk about my concerns. Because I'm now far from being the only one – Bandcamp has only recently transformed itself from the quirky DIY music platform for your crazy aunt's mixtapes, to being entrusted by thousands as an oasis of support for artists and the grassroots of the industry.
Bandcamp has successfully seized this year's political headlines, from wavering their 10% cut on certain Fridays to help ease finances of artists unable to perform in lockdown, to donating their profits to the Black Lives Matter movement. The platform has now attracted giants — Bjork just recently uploaded her entire discography, donating all proceeds to BLM, and even the late hip hop monolith 2Pac has landed on the platform.
Whether it's a shift in the way our culture has started thinking, or all to the credit of Bandcamp marketting themselves, suddenly the warm fuzzy feeling of dropping $10 on an album that you know $9 of which will go to the artist (or, if their often-independent label) is looking rather appealing. I've seen mentioned more than once, 'if it's not on Bandcamp, it doesn't exist'.
But why now? Didn't we already try this with the online music stores of the 2000s? Wasn't the consensus that subscription streaming services like Spotify the solution to the the industry's anxiety about piracy, and the consumer's anxiety about digital right's management? (ie. Bruce Willis's iTunes collection will tragically die with him).
There's a report that often gets posted around comparing how much artists get payed per stream on each of the streaming services. It's always a clumsy calculation that concludes that they're all pretty terrible, not one pays more than a 100th of a penny to the artist per stream, often a lot lower. My records suggested I listen to, on average, about 60 songs a day. For a bit of rudimentary maths that would come to a 6th of a penny being paid to artists of the roughly 25p I was paying a day for the service, and that's if I'm assuming the best case scenario.
So, what exactly am I paying for with that 24.4p? You can probably put it down to three things – access, convenience, recommendations.
Perhaps one of the biggest selling points for these services is their ability to create automatic playlists, and suggest new music for you to hear based on highly competitive algorithms that analyse your listening history. I've heard many people say it's almost spooky how Spotify 'just gets them', and that's great. And there's a good number of songs that I wouldn't have heard without these algorithms, but across all the services I tried, none were able to compete with actively seeking out new music – reading articles, reviews, interviews, engaging with forums and communities. More often than not, these algorithms suggest similar music to what you've already heard, but more often than not I want to hear something new and exciting – the algorithms never provided that.
Convenience is a little hard to argue against. With these services, almost everything is all in one place. If a new album drops, you've got instance access to it. But just how much more convenient is it? I remember when I started using streaming how great it felt that everything I would want to hear was a few clicks away, but the reality is it was only ever a few extra clicks on top of that.
Access is the final biggy – would I still be able to hear all the music I enjoy, and – perhaps more importantly – a large body of new music that I may or may not enjoy – without a subscription. And that's perhaps the biggest lesson I've learnt from ditching my subscription – I wasn't paying for access. At least, not most of the time.
It stunned me, going through my favourite albums, how many of them were actually available on Bandcamp completely free of charge – under a 'Name your price' option. If not that, then almost all had their entire album to listen on their Bandcamp page for free, without advertisements. If it wasn't on Bandcamp, as a lot of hip hop artists aren't, almost every major recent Hip Hop album is on SoundCloud, completely free to the listener. Failing that, thanks to YouTube music, millions of album are available as playlists from just a quick search.
Access is no biggy – if we're judging by our previous numbers, it's no wonder artists and labels aren't fussed about restricting access when they're earning less than a penny for an entire album streamed. The short of it: the industry is different now, streaming services have effected how all music is consumed, I was just too busy inside that cave to have noticed.
And sure, streaming on Bandcamp isn't the most glamorous experience – there's no volume control, you can't create playlists, and the free streams are only 128kbps, but it's all about 'try before you buy'. You have to give a little to get a little. If I was spending £10 a month for streaming, then I can certainly afford to pick up an album each month and support the artists that I love. The return is invaluable – a complete DRM free album download at CD quality, should you want it. And it's yours – it won't disappear should you stop rustling up a subscription fee.
Or so that's the theory – which brings me to my concerns. It's easy to forget in this digital landscape that buying something digitally means you're only purchasing the rights. Just as Microsoft shut it's online bookstore down and took everyone's books with it, so too might Bandcamp vanish into thin-air – stranger things have happened.
But, with it's all its recent success, it's hard not to be sceptical about what kind of game they're playing. It's almost all-too-common these days – operate at a loss, be the 'coolest' company on the block, obtain a chunk of the market share, and then sell yourself to the highest bidder. Their better interests for independent musicians could all be a longer term strategy, soon to get bought with the promise of the parent company: 'We're only providing stability and funding to keep a great thing going', and in the coming years — one too fingers in the pie.
But what's better right now than Bandcamp? Buying CDs from Amazon? Even if my music collection vanishes, I'll still have the files, I can feel safe in knowing my money had the best chance of finding its way back to the musician. Because that's how media works now – 'ownership' hardly exists, and even if it did it wouldn't be worth any more than your own definition of what 'to own' something means.
Bandcamp's model, possibly alongside streaming possibly not, might just be the future of how money circulates through the creative industries. Itch.io, the video game platform that operates almost identically to bandcamp, is making similar quakes through the community as eyes cast over them for their charity BLM bundle, raising over $5 million. It's allowing more people to see that the game's industry needn't be gated, and that some of the best games out there can be self developed and self published.
I've never been happier with how I consume my music, even if it is just a flash-in-the-pan. I've stumbled into the world of pay-to-support, and I don't see myself going back anytime soon.