“This one time at band camp…” goes the joke. For indie musicians, DIY bands, and those who love hunting for obscure music, Bandcamp is no mere joke. I’m of course talking about the music-hosting platform that has become so closely associated with the DIY music scene in America. Spend more than a few minutes walking through any given college campus, and you’re likely to pass at least a few youngins who have an album or five posted up on Bandcamp.
So what exactly is Bandcamp, and why should you care? Well, I asked myself this question many years ago when I first encountered the company, and since then I’ve learned a lot. I still have more to learn about Bandcamp, and as an amateur musician myself, I’m interested for both professional and personal reasons. But aside from that, I want to explore whether or not Bandcamp still lives up to the hype it generated in the mid-2010s. After all, in an age of hyper-saturation, I need to be selective with my time and attention, and a lot has changed since 2014.
So here I’ll be diving into Bandcamp with a critical eye, here to explain it from the bricks up. I’ll be examining whether or not it’s worth it’s salt. Is it an effective platform for discovering new tunes? And is it just for obscure artists to post their garage-band basement sludge EPs? What differentiates it from other similar platforms? Let’s find out.
How it Started
Formed in 2008 by Ethan Diamond and a team of programmers, the Oakland, California-based company began to grow in 2010 when artists like Amanda Palmer eschewed their record labels in favor of hosting them on Bandcamp and taking promo-responsibilities into their own hands. Indie game developers quickly followed suit, hosting their games’ soundtracks on the platform. Quickly, the DIY zeitgeist of this era found expression in Bandcamp’s model, and it quickly gained popularity throughout the music scene.
Soon enough it became the go-to platform for small-scale musicians to host, promote, and sell their albums and merch online. Since then, Bandcamp has solidified itself as a digital bastion of underground culture. While it doesn’t generate quite the same excitement it did during its salad days, it certainly has staying power, and likely will for some time to come.
How it Works
Bandcamp’s beauty lies in its fairness towards artists. As many of us know, musicians and artists are not given much respect in the economic sphere. Whether you consider the puny payments bands are given for their streaming royalties, the manner in which lesser-known artists are treated by the music industry itself, or any of the other mistreatment small artists receive, it becomes clear that something is out of balance.
Not that this is new, though: the timeless cliche of the starving artist is as old as civilization itself. However, today more than ever, with income inequality at a peak, musicians and other creatives bear the brunt of economic injustice more harshly than most professions. This is why Bandcamp’s model has won them such a loyal following with those in DIY and low-level music scenes.
While some have called it an “online record store”, I don’t know of any record stores that give you the option to pay for the record you leave with only if you feel like paying. This is Bandcamp’s greatest strength. As an artist, you have the option of offering your music as donation-based content (pay what you want) or paid-access only. While this freedom may seem inconsequential, it affords artists a level of control that they’ve been denied for time immemorial.
Bandcamp’s core belief, as it’s posted on their website, is that “music is an indispensable part of culture, and for that culture to thrive, artists—no matter the size of their audience—must be compensated fairly and transparently for their work. Without this belief, our mission would be meaningless, and it’s why we’ve built our business around a model that puts the artist first.” Nice. I like that.
So here’s how it works: when an artist posts their album or merchandise on their Bandcamp page, Bandcamp only makes money if the artist makes money. There are no hosting fees or membership fees. Bandcamp takes 15% of whatever money the artist makes on sales (or only 10% if an artist makes $5000+).
Let’s say your friend Tommy Longtooth offers his album for $10 on Bandcamp. For every album he sells, he’ll take home $8.50, and Bandcamp will keep $1.50. (Bandcamp’s cut includes the fees they have to pay credit merchants for payment processing, as well as their own cut.) Now, take Jenny Frogtongue, who decides she’ll post her album as a “pay what you want” offering. Bandcamp will only take a cut if somebody decides that they’ll pay Jenny x amount of money for her album.
So, to reiterate, Bandcamp only makes money if the artist makes money. What’s so strong about this model is that it incentivizes Bandcamp to help their artists make money. If you’re a struggling musician, this might be the first time you’ve ever heard of a large company doing such a thing. If you’re a music fan, you’ll also be happy to know that you’re dealing with a platform that takes care of its musicians. It’s a relief knowing that the money you pay for an album is actually going to the person who created it.
Bandcamp’s allure lies in the fact that it hosts so much yet-to-be-discovered talent. Sure, there are tens of thousands of uber-talented musicians out there with personal websites or Facebook pages, but how could you accidentally stumble upon those? Near impossible. With Bandcamp, you can browse through unknown bands, letting chance guide you along. Maybe four out of every five bands you listen to sound like the large intestine of an elephant. Don’t let that dissuade you, though; keep searching and you’re bound to find gold.
Design of the Website
Head to the website’s main landing page and you’ll see a pretty standard showcase banner featuring curated playlists, listening guides, and best-of lists. Beneath, you’ll see a randomly generated “Selling Now” list, where tracks that have just been purchased are displayed and updated in real-time. Scroll down and you’ll find Bandcamp Daily’s section, which, as the name implies, is updated daily. Here you’ll see album-of-the-day picks, op-ed articles, curated lists, and staff picks.
As I write this, I’m streaming Bandcamp Daily’s current pick for the album of the day. This one is called Batuco, the debut album by the Mexico City-based group, Son Rompe Pera, who is described as “a modern distillation of Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian folk”. 5 minutes in and I’ve found a new treasure.
Head to a few artist’s pages and you’ll see that they all look similar. I believe that continuity between profiles helps fans navigate the platform with ease. An artist does have the ability to customize their page to a certain degree, but the basic layout remains fixed, and I, for one, find this one of Bandcamp’s strengths. Each profile is sleek, streamlined, and free from clutter, which makes it easy to find exactly what I want when I discover a new artist.
Prime Video’s Weaknesses
The catch with having such an equitable platform is that it attracts masses of musicians. This creates an infinitude of content, and Bandcamp hasn’t done the best job managing this. One would hope that the Discover function would make it easy to browse through the catalog and find new bands, but in reality, the algorithm seems pretty weak. It works in a similar way to Pandora did in its heyday, in which it’ll recommend songs it thinks is similar to what you just listened to, but it often falls short of my standards.
Ironically, it seems that this can be mostly blamed on Bandcamp’s focus on their artists, rather than their fans. Perhaps a slight rebalancing would be in order. If Bandcamp managed to pay their artists the same rate they do now, while also creating a top-notch Discover system, it could really capture the loyalty of music-discoverers everywhere.