Bandcamp is the platform of choice for musicians, it’s the one platform that puts them in control of how their music is priced and presented. Bandcamp does take a revenue share, but it is not exploitative – a flat 15% for digital downloads – so most of the money goes to the artists when a purchase is made. For the last few months during CoViD, Bandcamp has even waived its revenue share on Bandcamp Fridays (the first Friday each month) so that all the money goes to the artists. No other platform has their credibility when it comes to being artist-oriented.
Personally, I like owning the music I discover on Bandcamp. I like paying for an album knowing that the money goes to the artist. I like having a collection of music that is mine, that I’m invested in. Music used to be like that when we had physical formats, we would curate our record, tape, or CD collection. We would find an artist we loved and buy their back catalogue one piece at a time, when we could afford it. Bandcamp takes me back to that feeling, that connection of owning and curating a collection of music.
I love that Bandcamp is geared towards sales, not subscriptions and endless streaming. Their business model is built around sustainability for artists. And I love the concept of the album as the main focus. I’ve read so many articles saying “The album is dead” but I never wanted to believe it. An album is not just a bunch of songs, artists create albums as little worlds unto themselves, more than the sum of their parts.
The platform still allows you to stream music. You can listen before you buy. You can explore their catalogue by tag, by artist, by location, and check it all out one album at a time. And here’s a nice feature – artists can set limits on how many times a user can stream their tracks. When the user reaches that limit, they receive a nice message. I can’t remember it word for word, but it’s something like “You’ve listened to this song 10 times now, you seem to really like it. Are you sure you don’t want to buy it?” This little prompt to the user is respectful of the artist’s need to actually generate money with their creative output, otherwise they cannot continue. Consumers need to begin to wrap their heads around that concept.
Why is that concept so difficult to understand? Streaming services have given music consumers access to seemingly infinite music libraries in exchange for a small subscription fee or exposure to advertising. This has become the norm. And how was it achieved? By hacking capitalism – obscene amounts of venture capital is deployed on businesses that operate at a loss for years in order to build market dominance. This has had the effect of undermining and devaluing the contributions of artists. People now expect music to be free. Ultimately I believe that Spotify are slave traders, they have exploited musicians to an unforgivable degree, and they deserve to be boycotted, shamed, and abandoned by everyone who truly loves music. Until large numbers of people come around to this way of thinking, I can’t see it changing.
On the other hand, Bandcamp is FairTrade for music. This should count for something in the minds of consumers. Obviously I am biased, I love everything about Bandcamp, their philosophy, their way of doing things. But I have to admit, streaming platforms have a huge edge at the moment – that’s in music discovery and fulfilling the user’s expectations of not having to pay. Artists flock to Bandcamp for all the reasons I have mentioned here. But their non-artist user base is much smaller than it could be. I believe that there are a few steps Bandcamp could take to attract more users. I am reluctant to suggest changes to they way they do things, I don’t want to break the things that already make Bandcamp special, but I believe there are ways to make Bandcamp more appealing to users and have a bigger impact on the music industry as a whole. In a word… playlists.
Playlists on streaming platforms have become the primary mode of discovery. Consumers love sharing music in this way. Music blogs and music fans love to make these virtual mixtapes, they love sharing them in this format. And listeners like the variety of songs lovingly curated in this way. The album isn’t dead, it never will be, but the playlist isn’t unworthy of consideration. Since they are so ubiquitous and beloved, their complete absence from Bandcamp’s functionality is a severe disadvantage.
What playlist functionality would achieve is greater flexibility. Music blogs that are philosophically aligned with Bandcamp continue to use Spotify Playlists because of the convenience it affords them to share music with their readership. If Bandcamp could fulfil the same function, it would drive more people to the platform and it would allow artists to more easily make the choice to not release their music on other streaming platforms. At the moment, artists feel compelled to indulge Spotify on their terms simply because they will not be heard otherwise.
Okay, how would playlist functionality work in the artist-oriented Bandcamp model? How could you introduce playlists without destroying much of what makes Bandcamp special and unique? I would like to make a few suggestions.
1) Artists could opt out of playlists altogether, meaning their work could not be included in any playlists. Perhaps they could have fine-grain control – playlist options for individual songs or albums.
2) When creating a playlist, users could be limited to including only songs in their collections (where artists have allowed playlist inclusion). If the user has not bought the music or received download codes from the artist, they cannot include it.
3) Artist streaming caps would also apply to playlists. If a user has listened to a playlist multiple times, they would receive the “Want to buy?” prompts for individual songs when they reached the streaming caps.
4) Option to buy entire playlists could be open to users. This brings up the thorny issue of playlist pricing. There are a number of ways to approach this, I don’t have all the answers but it’s a conversation worth having. The artists could have some options here as well. And needless to say, when a user buys a playlist the money would go to the artists included on the playlist.
5) The Bandcamp embeddable music player would include the artwork and links to the album from which the song currently playing is taken. It would encourage listeners to directly engage with the artists in the playlist.
6) Playlist charts – Bandcamp could include the most-playlisted songs in special weekly and/or monthly playlists on Bandcamp’s main page, further exposing the artists who have been included.
These are just a few ideas. Obviously there are complications and technical challenges I haven’t even addressed. But like I said, I think this is a conversation worth having. I would love if Bandcamp saw the potential here to reach more people and get them engaged with the platform. More people should be exposed to the idea that supporting artists is not just possible, it’s joyful. People need to make it part of their own music-consuming habits. Having access to playlist functionality might help move the needle here.