The rise and rise of Bandcamp
Fatalism about the music industry comes easily. News of nightclubs, DIY venues, and independent labels closing is commonplace, and streaming platforms are arguing in court for their right to squeeze artists, producers, and songwriters for every penny they can. Many artists and labels argue that streaming algorithms are skewed towards derivativeness over artistry, with talented creators feeling like they’re falling between the cracks of the industry.
Among this, Bandcamp is a ray of light: a commercially viable template for how a progressive music service can operate. Founded in 2008 by a group of software developers, the Bandcamp ethos is of artistic control and autonomy, in a business environment where both concepts are in short supply. The website gives artists their own store to sell their music, in physical and digital formats, and a journalistic platform to tell their story.
Alex Koenig produces music as Nmesh and is an active Bandcamp user. He runs six accounts on the site, one for each of his aliases. “I recall seeing the [Bandcamp] name pop up more and more in the music community in the early 2010s,” he says, “so when I finally decided [that] I was long overdue in making my back catalogue available [online], I took to Bandcamp. I have near total control of how I want to run my online store – setting my own price tags, adjusting it for sales, pre-sale options, shipping costs – and customization is a huge perk.”
That the site can function as a discography archive and an international marketplace appeals greatly to Koenig. “I uploaded 10 years-worth of music that had never before been available digitally,” he explains. “I started to see some actual money trickle in, and my CD overstock was finally starting to move; but most importantly, I was able to make a decade of previously unheard work available to ears across the globe.” Both Bandcamp and their transaction system Paypal receive a cut from each sale processed through the site, roughly 20% collectively, with the “music rights owner” – whether that’s a combination of artist, producer, label, and distributor, or just the artist independently – earning the other 80%.
This system stands in stark contrast to other services. When an mp3 is sold on iTunes for £0.99, 50% of that £0.99 is immediately paid to Apple, and after the additional cuts for labels, distribution companies, and songwriting credits, the artist royalty might be worth less than £0.05. Bandcamp allows artists to circumvent the traditional middle-men of labels and distribution companies. They can create, promote, and distribute their music to a global audience with independence.
Bergsonist is an independent artist who uses Bandcamp. “Once you have a big following, Bandcamp is very handy,” she says. “You don’t need any press releases or vacuous publicity to support the releases. It’s definitely a model that should inspire other people to create alternative ways of distributing music. I always set my releases at $10,” she says, clarifying how she tweaks price controls to her preferences, “which after Bandcamp and PayPal’s cuts, I think is reasonable. Because I tend to see my albums as units, as singular entities, I love having the option of not allowing people to buy individual tracks. I also love that Bandcamp automatically notify all of your followers; which I think is amazing. Basically, it acts like a newsletter. If your product is good and you have a loyal growing fan base, then you don’t need to worry.”