What is Bandcamp?

A couple of extracts from a fascinating interview on NPR between musician/journalist/Spotify antagonist Damon Krukowski and Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond.

Firstly, on whether Bandcamp is a streaming service:

No, I don’t think of this as a streaming service. I consider us a record store and a music community. The primary difference being that we’re a way to directly support the artists that you enjoy listening to. You know, half of the sales on Bandcamp at this point are for physical goods. … Digital has also seen really strong growth. And when you buy digital on Bandcamp, what you’re buying is access. So you can grab a download – you know, there are people who want to grab the high-quality file – but you can also stream through our app, unlimited once you’ve purchased the music. But yeah, I don’t think of us as a streaming service. Definitely.

And on whether it is a digital platform:

It definitely started as a digital platform. In 2007, when we started the company, streaming didn’t exist in the United States and our competition essentially was piracy. And the idea in 2007 primarily was that nobody was going to pay for music anymore. And it just seemed very obvious to me that if you like some music from one of your favorite artists, you should be able to support them directly. And so we built the platform to do that. My reference point for this was blogging services. In 2007, you had Blogger, Typepad, Movable Type, services that were essentially like white label services for writers – you could set up a site within minutes and tap this direct relationship with your readers. And it seemed crazy to me that if your artistic output happened to be music instead of words, you were just out of luck.

And the most promising thing that happened in the early days was we immediately saw people start to actually buy music, which was very exciting. I wasn’t sure that was going to happen! And then, one of the fun things that happened was we started to look at the search terms people were using that brought them to a Bandcamp artist’s site that led to a purchase. And several times per hour, we were seeing search terms like the name of an album or name of a track plus the word ‘torrent,’ or plus the word ‘Limewire’ or ‘Kazaa.’ You know, this was somebody whose intent initially was just to get the music – I don’t know if they were thinking ‘I’m pirating the music’ – but they were trying to get it for free. But when they saw that they could make a direct purchase to the artist, they wanted to do that. And that just warmed my heart. So that’s really what we were trying to do from the beginning, was just make it clear that this was a way to show your direct support for an artist.

The interview differentiates Bandcamp from streaming services, notably Spotify, who are increasingly The Bad Guys, with royalty rates of around $0.0038 per stream and a push for artists to churn out as much ‘audio content’ as possible. The best case I can make for Spotify is as a music discovery tool from which you can go off and buy albums, merch and tickets from the artists themselves. In truth I’ve stopped using it altogether. Much like Facebook and its associated products Instagram and WhatsApp, it’s gone from being useful, to not always being a force for good, to a point where I consider it actively harmful.

Contrast Bandcamp’s overall ethos and mission. In 2017 they raised money for American Civil Liberties Union. (This activity evolved into the popular series of Bandcamp Fridays.) They received a degree of pushback from a vocal minority of people imploring them to keep politics out of music. One commenter got it right, though:

The bands you like and the books you read and companies whose products you enjoy are all run by people who hold opinions on how the world should work and how other people should be treated. Some of them are going to make those views more specific than others, but everyone’s got their line-in-the-sand where they’re not going to be able to keep it to themselves any longer. In a world where everything is influenced by political decisions, ‘staying non-political’ actually means defaulting to the status-quo and endorsing what’s happening in the system – expecting people who sell you things to do that, no matter how harmful the system might be to them and things they care about, is unreasonable. This applies to you too, of course – you have every freedom to stop supporting Bandcamp and to explain why you don’t agree with them, but by doing so you are being just as ‘political’ as them – we all are, that’s the point. Pretending that you’re advocating some higher plane of art when you’re really just maintaining the status quo is dishonest and unhelpful. It’s not as if Bandcamp ever even pretended to be apolitical. Their entire business model is a reflection of their social and ethical convictions, which they happily explain every year when they publish their accounts.