Essay: Bandcamp and the music industry of tomorrow

Adam Harper explores Bandcamp's outer reaches.


Words by: Charlie Jones

It probably won’t come as news to you that the digitisation of music and its migration on to the Internet has been one of the biggest challenges to the traditional music industry – and indeed to music-making in general – in a long time. The paradigm shift is quite possibly the most significant to have faced music since the invention of recorded music itself over a century ago, and together with the personal computer it smashes the familiar hierarchies and materialities of musical production at practically every level. And in the same way that the unique compositional possibilities of recording technology itself were only widely accessible and explored in the last quarter of the twentieth century (electronic music, prog rock, dub, disco, hip hop, EDM, electronica), it may be decades before the uniqueness of tomorrow’s online music-making landscape is really found and put to use.

The consequences and opportunities, both industrial and financial, of this paradigm shift were succinctly illustrated in a recent cartoon by The Oatmeal. It depicts a listener and an artist who are repeatedly separated by various techno-industrial intermediaries – first a bloated and overbearing major record company who demands $17.99 for a purchase, then a peer-to-peer file-sharing network (Napster) that removes any financial transaction at all (thus robbing the musician of 23 cents), and then, representing the present, there appears a string of four smaller intermediaries (iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and YouTube), each making their own peculiar demands, while the bloated record company wanders off to sell extortionate concert tickets. In the final panel, The Oatmeal imagines an ideal future scenario in which the artist sells directly to the listener, with the inflated demands of the record company a distant memory. In recent months I’ve been increasingly frequenting a website that, I tentatively think, has begun to approach the model in the final panel: Bandcamp.

Bandcamp streams artists’ music and allows listeners to non-exclusively download it in any high-quality DRM-less format for free or, via PayPal, at any price. It began in 2008 and it’s growing fast – hosting nearly 5 million tracks on over 600,000 releases at the time of writing. It’s free for artists to sign up to and has an interface as basic, easy and customizable as any good blogging platform, even down to encoding the metadata (i.e. artist, album, artwork info) in the files, and there’s not an advert in sight. Artists can monitor details about their listeners, sales, and embeds too. Bandcamp currently has an enticingly independent and underground feel – you won’t find bland major artists topping the site’s popularity charts or depressing you in banners on the homepage. And in case you’re one of the many music fans with doubts about such new technological structures, Bandcamp also allows artists to sell physical releases (see for example this cassette label ) and merchandise, it preserves a sense of geography with the popularly used location tags, it allows for record labels and the tastes and communities they construct, and it isn’t even melting away the traditional longer formats of the album or the EP. In fact, as the main page proclaims, albums outsell individual tracks 5 to 1 on the site (“in the rest of the music buying world, tracks outsell albums 16 to 1”). This is probably because the prices are often so reasonable – typically somewhere between $3 and $7 US, but ‘name your price’ payment, sometimes with minimum amounts set, is also common. And unlike a conventional record label, Bandcamp wield no creative input or influence over their artists at all – anything that you care to put in a sound-file and post up there (albeit within the bounds of legality), can go on the site and find its audience.

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Now of course, this is not the Utopian dream it might initially appear to be. Many users will no doubt find the chummy, Innocent-smoothie warmth and lologram humour of the site’s blog and help pages refreshing, but I often find it patronizing, arrogant and slightly suspicious. Even if it’s gratifyingly absent from the artist pages, there’s a whiff of Californian, entrepreneurial techno-utopianism about the site’s management that might put more politically conscious undergrounders off. Then there’s the name of the site, which overwhelmingly suggests twee indie music, to say nothing of the fact that you don’t need a traditional ‘band’ to make music for it. There’s the way they break down everything into the traditional basic genres when you begin to browse. There isn’t any way to show videos, networks, or gig information without taking the user off the site (although you could say the site only having a single purpose is a blessing). And of course, Bandcamp ultimately won’t do anything for free. Even if it is one of the most reasonable deals around (compare it with the iTunes Music Store’s 30%), Bandcamp take a 15% cut from digital sales and 10% from merch, and that’s before processing fees. Artists can’t even host their music for free after 200 downloads, although labels like Aural Sects get around this by putting Mediafire links to their free albums on the respective album pages. A track is not allowed to be over half an hour long unless you’ve already made at least $20 through the site, which is a little deplorable. Annoyingly, batch uploading of files is only possible with $10-a-month premium subscription – and they do ask for large wav files – as is syncing with Google Analytics. Downloads listeners pay for expire after about a week (I haven’t been able to find out whether the artists or Bandcamp decide this), so you have to pay again if you lose the files or want a different format, which seems a bit penny-pinching.

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Despite all this, Bandcamp is by far the least worst music-industrial intermediary I’ve come across so far, and it’s currently shaping up to be a big force in underground and local music. The music I’ve been finding on there is regularly of high quality in terms of style, design and production, and it’s even cutting-edge in places. I find exploring the music on the site pretty exhilarating – because of Bandcamp’s almost-entirely-hands-off attitude to the creativity in and around the music (they just offer artists a blank slate, largely) you never quite know what to expect, and the sense of encountering relatively unknown artists on your own terms (and theirs) brings with it a rare and encouraging degree of authenticity. I most often end up on the site when someone links to a music page, and from there you can browse the artists’ or the label’s other releases. There’s something quite empowering about finding interesting music in this purer, more open way, without the middleman of a review, an article, a press release or a bit of blog coverage. In fact, you could say it allows the old systems and paraphenalias of music journalism to give way to a more immediate and more democratic communion with the music, a music criticism that arises from sharing and discussion, and that builds its own values rather than perpetuates those of a whole music-industrial and music-journalistic hierarchy. Radically, the Bandcamp format allows music to operate even further away from pre-conceived and industry-pushed notions of what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in music than ever before.

If you’re feeling adventurous you can explore the site without starting from any external links at all. Most releases come with a number of tags through which you can do this, signifying genre, geographical location and other details. This is beneficial in that it provides pathways and connections between the music and may even build towards new genres, but there are some drawbacks. If they’re going to get more visits, it’s in artists’ interests to list genres among their tags, something many of them won’t want to do, and it promotes genre artificially. ‘Chillwave’, for example, is a very common tag on the site and a good way of finding music with that certain flavour, but how many artists will have mixed feelings about using the controversial label? Secondly, Bandcamp initially displays search results in order of popularity. This is a double-edged sword, because it means you’ll find something that is making waves and that is likely to be of relatively high quality quite quickly, but it’ll also likely be somewhat less enterprising in style because of it. In one case, combining this with a dubious label has results that you might say are distorting: bizarrely, if you click on the ‘experimental’ tag, the listed releases are almost entirely full of albums that soundtrack the web culture phenomenon Homestuck, which as you listen are not really what you’d normally expect of ‘experimental’ music. The enormous popularity of these albums blots out any others for which the ‘experimental’ tag might be more appropriate. But then, if Bandcamp had intervened to control the ‘correct’ application of tags themselves, a little of the musicians’ freedom and autonomy would have been surrendered to the power of someone else to impose structures on their music.

Much of Bandcamp’s vast library appears to be identikit indie and hip-hop (both rap and beats), but there’s also lots of metal, punk and folk on there, even a healthy dose of New Age. This is the sort of thing you’ll find if you search by location and pick a few of the most popular releases – an interesting way of rolling the dice, and one that shows you just how much decent quality music there is on the site. To give you some idea, here are some initial findings from a quick browsing session, with each location having yielded many dozens of results at the least. In the city of Raleigh, in the US state of North Carolina, I found genial synth-pop not unlike that of John Maus, a skilled math rock band, some characterful Crystal-Stilts-style indie pop, and some lightly weird hip hop . In the tiny East Coast state of Delaware I found polished hardcore metal, playful lo-fi pop and thoughtful alternative hip hop with a husky voice . In search of something a little more frontier, I visited Alaska (8bit-enhanced indie disco , complex electronic industrial and a brief, bizarre tribute to the Discovery Channel’s annual ‘Shark Week’) and Hawaii (dream-pop , classy nineties-style beats , and some gorgeous Hawaiian folk guitar instrumentals). In the Canadian city of Winnipeg I found some retro-electronic disco-funk, some heart-meltingly sentimental computer game music , and ah, here’s the latest (and regrettably pervy) EP by Winnipeg’s famous IDM envelope-pusher, Aaron Funk aka Venetian Snares. Back home in the UK, where fewer locations are currently represented, I swung by Nottingham to find some half-decent UK hip hop, ambient drone and hardcore punk on cassette . Most of these releases were pretty generic – I use this word mostly in the sense that they fit comfortably within established genres – but they were all albums I could imagine happily sitting down with, if my limited time, funds and current tastes didn’t make them a relatively low priority.

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This need to be a bit discerning brings me to a something lots of people have been wary about when it comes to searching for and encountering music this way: what you might call ‘Internet Panic’. This would be the oft-expressed fear that surfing the Internet throws so much different stuff at you that is good but not that good, in such a small space of time and with so many possible pathways, that your brain gets fried and you become unable to make proper choices or find anything of proper quality, and, like, none of it’s really real anyway, it’s just an endless meaningless soup of mediocrity and distractions with no values or compass and these internet kids, they don’t understand what real quality and attention is, and… you get the idea. This is an appropriate response for people who’ve adapted to a slightly slower and less plentiful musical landscape, but really the world of Bandcamp only differs from a late-twentieth-century music-exploration trip by a matter of degree. You go in with a vague idea of the sort of thing you might be interested in and not interested in, and see where these take you – the online landscape is unprecedented in its breadth and richness but to conclude that this dissolves any sense of focus, preference, aesthetics and quality to the point where most of the music has to be written off is an overreaction. You don’t walk into HMV worrying that you’ll never pick out something good or interesting enough from everything they have on display, at least not if you’re in tune with the modern listening habits of Western culture, and places like Bandcamp are just the next step, not the step too far.

Rather than exploring charmingly adequate genre bands, I’ve been trying, discriminately, to find artists and labels on the site that sound like they have something unusual and up-to-date to say, just as so many other people would. I hope to share some of my finds in due course (many of them are in the mix I did for the Rose Quartz blog, above), but it suffices to say that there’s a great deal of interesting work going on in Bandcamp’s own alt-pop underbelly. The labels that have piqued my own interest in this regard, working in a bizarre, nascent world variously somewhere between beats, dance, witch house, chillwave, lo-fi and psychedelia, include Fluorescent Records, Sewage Tapes, Crystal Magic, Beer on the Rug, Nightcore Records, Aural Sects, Coral Records, Dopefish Family, Baku Shad-Do, Friends of Friends, and #Feelings. Bandcamp has just begun to appear in some of the channels I use to find music (i.e. some of the smaller blogs), and if it continues to grow, its artists will start to compete for musical significance with those who reach their audience through the traditional major channels: those of conventional shops, conventional labels, conventional distributors, and the music magazines and websites they associate with. If something amazing gets released on Bandcamp tomorrow, you might not hear about it through the magazines and sites that are still focusing only on those traditional channels. Bandcamp is like an alternative universe, existing almost outside of the current system of music discourse, but it could be gaining traction and it cannot be ignored for much longer. It could happen in the underground first: I reckon it’s a real possibility that over the next five years, the most significant underground releases (‘albums of the year’, if you have to put it that way), will be released on Bandcamp. Within ten or more years, there could even be a similar percentage of Western artists putting their music on Bandcamp to that of westerners using Facebook.

Given how much power, control and share of the revenue artists have on Bandcamp compared with the conventional system, this is a bit of an exciting prospect. But I’m not saying it wouldn’t present its own dangers. Bandcamp could always become MySpace, once teeming with new music but now a bizarre ghost ship of spam and yesterday’s artists. Or, more disturbingly, it could become Facebook. Like Bandcamp is now, Facebook used to be fun if you were there when it was just a few friends and few in-jokes, but now it’s a chilling corporate monopoly harvesting your data, incorporating everything and everyone, not truly bringing you closer to anyone, that advertises at you and squeezes profit from you, but which you hardly feel brave enough to dispense with. If it becomes a lot more popular, as it could, Bandcamp must retain its independent, hands-off values and artist-focused appeal and not squander them for power and profit. It’s easy to imagine, maybe depressingly inevitable, that the Bandcamp management’s eyes will become dollar signs as bigger and bigger artists and more and more listeners take notice, causing them to cut back on the site’s simplicities and freedoms – its non-exclusivity, its flexible copyright arrangements on which the artists have the final word, its lack of even music-related advertisement and its relatively non-proscriptive approach to artist and release information. What’s more, since huge numbers of artists on the site use samples of other artists’ music, the majority of which probably aren’t cleared, Bandcamp could become subject to legal challenges unless it one day incorporates plagiarism-detecting algorithms that could shut down and foreclose equally huge areas of music-making on the site, such as its hip hop.

More broadly, it could persuasively be argued that the removal of the conventional record company from the equation also removes a significant amount of the latter’s time, expertise and division of labour from the equation, thus putting more (possibly too much) pressure on the artists, both creatively and administratively. Other than the comparative freedom from the record companies’ imposed constraints and interventions it affords – but which an artist could equally find helpful – there’s no real comeback to this concern. The world of musical production regularly trades quality for convenience as it moves forward – the sound quality of CDs versus mp3s being a recent example. The artist’s obligation to be her/his own record company could be framed as just another example of late capitalism’s lamentable trend of heaping ever greater personal responsibilities onto its subjects. Besides, at what could well be only around a hundred Bandcamp sales per release, each yielding only a few dollars, it wouldn’t be possible for many prospective artists to find the time and resources necessary to make that music outside of the dayjobs they’d also need, let alone devote comfortable careers to it. As is already happening in many areas, music-making would become the preserve of teenagers and the already rich.

Ideally, perhaps, Bandcamp would not be a private enterprise, but funded by national or international arts-council-like bodies. The racks and racks of hard-discs that a Bandcamp-like system rents out could be common property, free for anyone’s use no matter how big the files or how many downloads they get, with all or practically all the proceeds going straight to the artists, and with the running of the site being democratic, even directly so, all because we as a society believe in the inherent value of musical culture independently from market concerns. Perhaps there would even be specialists employed to help get the best out of the system (whatever that might be), replacing what the record companies used to offer. These are the sorts of silly, ‘unrealistic’ Utopian visions we must dare to call for, but until they can become a reality, Bandcamp might – just might – be a step in the right direction.

Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making is available through Zero. Joshua Armitage is a London-based illustrator, whose work can be found on his website.

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