What is going on with Bandcamp?
I was informed of a surprising article from Pitchfork from my father. It was titled: “Is Bandcamp as We Know It Over?”. I read with some shock that Bandcamp had been sold again, from Epic to an unknown (to me at least) startup called SongTradr. What an awful ‘Web 3.0’ name. But my concerns over the future of Bandcamp started with the original sale to Epic. It made zero sense to me. Let’s travel back in time a bit.
Bandcamp was formed in 2007 by Ethan Diamond, Shawn Grunberger, Joe Holt and Neal Tucker to allow the upload of music by independent musicians and labels, expanding to physical media, merchandise and more. It allowed almost anyone who produces music a platform with which to promote, share and distribute music. Bandcamp took a small, but fair percentage in terms of fees for costs. It was highly lucrative. In the years I’ve used it, the design has practically remained the same, something I love about it.
It was especially good that they never ‘sold out’, by which I mean other platforms like Soundcloud who started heavily restricting uploads, adding advertising, failing to deal with bots and spam accounts. Bandcamp was a serious platform that was as much functional as it was clean of all the cruft that those other platforms seems to have creep into their respective ecosystems.
It was open, DRM-free, allowed the sharing and ability to listen to music like you would visiting a good music store.
Imagine my shock when an email dropped into my inbox, stating that Bandcamp had been purchased by Epic. At first, I thought this was a joke. A spoof email. But it was true.
Today, we are thrilled to announce that Bandcamp will become part of Epic Games. Bandcamp is an online music store and community where fans can discover, connect with, and directly support the independent musicians they love.
Bandcamp even issued their own statement too:
I’m excited to announce that Bandcamp is joining Epic Games, who you may know as the makers of Fortnite and Unreal Engine, and champions for a fair and open Internet.
This was my first, and continuing question. Neither statement really answered this question. Bandcamp was (and still is) a music distribution platform. Epic is a game company, responsible for Unreal, Fortnite and its own game distribution platform. There isn’t really a connection I could see that made sense. Even in their statement, Bandcamp said:
And while over the years we’ve heard from other companies who wanted us to join them, we’ve always felt that doing so would only be exciting if they strongly believed in our mission, were aligned with our values, and not only wanted to see Bandcamp continue, but also wanted to provide the resources to bring a lot more benefit to the artists, labels, and fans who use the site. Epic ticks all those boxes.
How did Epic tick these boxes? The only way I saw Epic using music was as assets for their Unreal engine, and that would mean integration into the marketplace for that particular niche. Something that seemed constrained and limited compared to the more open and broad scope that Bandcamp claimed to be advocating.
But Epic were also suitably vague on the reasons for actually purchasing Bandcamp:
Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.
Again, the lack of details meant to me it made no sense. It was a pointless purchase. Even Pitchfork commented on this issue in the article:
Roughly 19 months ago, however, Bandcamp’s founders sold the company to Epic Games, the software developer behind Fortnite. It didn’t bode well. What did a video-game company need with a music retailer like Bandcamp? How could it possibly make use of it, much less make it better?
Epic aren’t exactly in my good books anyway – when they launched their own distribution platform (requiring yet another game launcher to be installed), they tied up developers into exclusive distribution contracts, requiring exclusivity for 12 months before allowing a game to reach other platforms – hardly the “fair and open” platforms that they touted in the statement regarding Bandcamp’s purchase. They would then poach gamers with “free games” tied to the Epic distribution platform as well. At worst, I began to expect that Epic would change the way music could be distributed using Bandcamp’s platform.
It’s not like musicians on Bandcamp are beholden to contracts, licenses or any such thing. In fact, music uploaded and distributed via Bandcamp can be used under the Creative Commons license, so it would be suitable to purchase and import to your Unreal projects regardless of Epic’s involvement.
It still made no sense. However, Bandcamp didn’t change, and the format remained the same. I expected Epic to stomp their big feet all over the platform, adding their own branding, ‘refreshing’ the site, adding pointless features and generally ensuring some enshittification would ensue. But it didn’t happen. The status quo continued and I was happy with that.
In fact, I completely forgot Epic actually owned Bandcamp for some time. Which was a good thing.
It only took 18 months before Epic sold Bandcamp to Songtradr, for an undisclosed sum. “Songtradr, which describes itself as a music licensing platform and marketplace company, framed the acquisition as an opportunity for Bandcamp artists to secure licensing deals, including with Epic Games itself, which will continue to collaborate with Bandcamp on projects like Fortnite Radio. ” [Source].
The deal was promoted by Steve Allison (Epic vice president and general manager of the Epic Games store): ‘Steve Allison said the sale to Songtradr would “make it easier for independent artists to connect with creators and developers looking to license their music and enable Epic to focus on its core metaverse, games, and tools efforts.”’
Hmm. I smell bullshit. I mean, I don’t have much love for Epic (given their game platform shenanigans), but I allowed them some grace after not interfering with Bandcamp’s model at all really. I would wager that they saw tons of music that they thought could be exploited, their legal teams said “it’ll cost a lotta money” and Epic just went “What, you mean we can’t exploit all this music dirt cheap?”. I firmly believe that they had some intentions of doing some form of exploitation to allow all the music to be included into other arenas, and quite possibly without the original artist’s knowledge. It wouldn’t be the first time that artists (of any genre) have had their art used in places they never knowingly agreed to. One such current use case is the training models for AI – using existing artwork to help those systems learn, but having used other people’s art without their knowledge. This is currently being looked at from a legal stand point, and it’s a huge moral/ethical issue too. It’s one reason why I won’t touch anything AI in that regard at present – my only exception is AI/neural net models that use current local data I possess myself. Anyhoo, back on topic…
Now we hear that Songtradr has axed around 50% of the workforce, including much of customer support. That never ends well. Customer support is what keeps a companies reputation high. Pitchfork seems to agree here:
What does this mean for Bandcamp? For one, cutting costs by gutting customer support doesn’t seem like a very sustainable path for a platform that logs tens of thousands of transactions totaling more than half a million dollars of sales per day. The company claims to have been profitable since 2012, but even if Bandcamp was bleeding money, and making cuts was necessary to restore the bottom line, Songtradr’s opening moves don’t seem like the tactics of a company that understands what it has purchased.
The issue of what Songtradr will do with Bandcamp are also suitably obscure – [updated at end of this section below]. The business models are different. Bandcamp is a B2C company, that is, they are a business to consumer service. Songtradr is a B2B company, one who deals business to business. They are opposed to each other. Some corporations can succeed in both B2C and B2B – for example, Microsoft engages on a B2B level with Enterprise software and solutions, whilst offering the Windows platform and Onedrive as a B2C.
In the absence of a more detailed statement from Songtradr, we don’t know exactly what the company’s plans are for Bandcamp. Prospects don’t look good. To begin with, a business-to-consumer retailer like Bandcamp doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a B2B company like Songtradr. When it made the acquisition, Songtradr hinted vaguely at the possibility of synergy across the two platforms, noting that Bandcamp artists would be able to license their music to a wide variety of clients “and increase their earning capacity from Songtradr’s global licensing network.” But even here, the two companies’ philosophies appear fundamentally at odds. To Songtradr, which licenses mood music to advertisers and content creators, music is an add-on, an extra, a Pavlovian trigger to help brands sell more chalupas. To Bandcamp, music is unique, unrepeatable, the be-all and end-all—it’s everything.
Of course the problem is that it’s all too early to know exactly what Songtradr’s motives are for purchasing Bandcamp. Will they do anything with it? Will it just continue as-is, albeit with a depleted workforce and limited support? The issue of reduced staffing will be an inability to effectively provide new features, services to improve Bandcamp as a whole. They have promised the current crop of services will continue – Bandcamp Fridays, Bandcamp Daily and retaining it’s artist-first fee structure.
I’m sure they will be keen to start seeing a return on their investments though – especially since Songtradr’s earnings have flatlined for the last three years. So how exactly can they capitalise on the purchase of Bandcamp? And what will this mean to the many musicians who rely on the platform?
It seems that the site is at an apogee – a point before a fall due to growing enshittification from the new owners. Coined by Cory Doctorow, he wrote:
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.
However, in the case of Bandcamp, this enshittification will happen through it’s sale and resale to different handlers until one of them decides to alter the platform or strip it down, changing the nature of the platform either in one take or piece by piece (like Netflix’ recent batch of changes to its platform in an effort to halt it’s user base decline and loss of earnings). Fortunately we were spared this from it’s sale to Epic, however, the sale from Epic to Songtradr has a much more ominous tone given the nature of the latter’s business model.
Songtradr will also offer Bandcamp artists the ability and choice to have their music licensed to all forms of media including content creators, game and app developers and brands. This will enable artists to continue to own and control their music rights, and increase their earning capacity from Songtradr’s global licensing network.
It seems that Songtradr are planning to make changes to the licensing structure of Bandcamp, and this may also seem to have an impact on earning ability – either from direct sales on Bandcamp itself or through Songtradr’s own royalties platform. I’m really not liking this statement.
What are the alternatives?
Soundcloud could have been so great. It was a way to quickly share music, an innovation of pushing music and gaining near-instant feedback in a model similar to much of social media. But it fell victim to spam, bots, and an aggressively restrictive model that was practically forcing you to pay ever-increasing subscription fees to keep your back-catalogue on the platform.
There aren’t really any other platforms that can cater to the more obscure, underground and esoteric musicians out there. You’d have to be signed to a label, or handle distribution yourself to an ever-growing streaming market, which promises far less return on the scope of reach compared to the more artist-friendly model Bandcamp has.
Bandcamp has shown that the downloadable model of music distribution is far from dead in the streaming age. It’s not perfect, although pretty close. They provide a service that is basically a range of tools to allow independent musicians to provide their own platform and base to promote themselves, many of whom have made careers out of the niche that they occupy. I certainly would not be listening to much of the music I do today were it not for the platform I love called Bandcamp.
I still cannot comprehend what possessed the founders to sell Bandcamp. It still makes zero sense today, even in the light of their justification. History has now shown that nothing new came out of it, and I suppose nothing bad either. But subsequent sales of Bandcamp will reduce it’s perceived value in the marketplace (not the musicians and buyers value mind) thus reducing it’s worth and leaving some buyer to strip-mine it of it’s remaining “value” before discarding it on the scrap heap.
When that happens, the people who will lose out the most are the musicians and fans who will lose a marketplace like no other. It will be a sad day indeed when that happens.