To put it lightly, the recording industry is in flux. More accurately, it’s in total chaos, seemingly unable to cope with major formatting shifts in the digital age.
While vinyl remarkably keeps chugging along on its way back to becoming a billion dollar industry, streaming sites like Spotify, Apple, Google Play and Tidal all offer basically the same thing at the same price, gouging artists in the process. SoundCloud struggles to monetize, and without investment stands a serious chance of going under. Somehow, cassette tapes have made an unexpected return, and Chance the Rapper has earned seven Grammy nominations for an album you can’t actually buy.
Basically, almost everyone is struggling like hell to make sense of the it all. Then there's Bandcamp.
Having released its figures for 2016, Bandcamp grew almost everywhere the rest of the industry didn’t, with double-digit upticks in digital album, track and merchandise sales—and a 48 percent increase in vinyl sales.
Much of the industry’s downfall is due (along with illegal downloads) to the popularity of sites like Spotify, whose per-stream payments to artists are laughably low. Spotify actually decreased its average per-play pay, dropping 16 percent from just 0.00521 back in 2014.
Other services like Apple and Google Play pay artists a little more. But Spotify’s huge market share almost gives it a monopoly over streaming revenue. Their slice of the pie accounts for nearly 70 percent of streaming profits, with nine other sites vying for almost all the rest.
All that power in the hands of a few isn’t healthy for the music industry, and artists and labels will continue to struggle under this model.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. Image via
Though as Bandcamp’s website states, their business model is based around fair and transparent compensation for artists, paying on average 80-85 percent directly to artists daily.
That’s put good money directly in the pockets of music creators and suppliers at a time when most every other mode is failing them.
So is Bandcamp’s success ushering a new era for music sales? Is it a “savior of independent music,” as some believe?
“As far as digital goes, Bandcamp is the best place to buy if you want the biggest chunk to go to the artist,” Tim Zawada, owner of Star Creature Universal Vibrations records, says. His label primarily uses Bandcamp for its digital sales.
He thinks the “artist first” model feels the most sustainable in the long term, and believes fans who discover an artist through Spotify and want to show support should head to the artist’s Bandcamp page, or “cop a record at a local shop,” he says.
It’s sound advice. Though the majority of music fans are still unlikely to ditch easy, low cost digital music streaming sites no matter how unfairly they treat artists.
But for anyone inclined to pay for music, sites like Bandcamp provide a pretty clear alternative. And as the social networking aspect of Bandcamp continues growing, we may see more radical shifts in how music consumption is perceived.
“It's a social network with critical mass built around music discovery,” Zawada says about Bandcamp. “There are a lot of ways to discover music, but Bandcamp is unique in the way that it builds and encourages these connections. I buy and discover a lot of music on Bandcamp by going down wormholes of related label/artist pages and browsing through collections.”
There are plenty of other great ways to support creators, of course. “Buying merch at a show usually sees the biggest chunk go direct to the artist,” Zawada notes.
And shopping at local record stores or directly from labels via their own websites (or physically) are still solid options.
OYE Records in Berlin. Image via
For all its successes, Bandcamp isn’t quite the perfect alternative for DJs yet. Social integration aside, the search and discover functionalities aren’t as intuitive as, say, Juno, a site that’s built for and directly marketed to DJs. This makes it difficult to tell just how much dance music is on Bandcamp, and tricky to know just which direction to head in sometimes when browsing. And not everyone has jumped on board yet, meaning some back catalogues are still quite limited—not to mention the lack of BPM annotation, waveform visuals and track-scroll functionality.
Basically, Bandcamp has its limitations like any other online music retailer.
“[Not everyone] can upload anything up there and automatically see the sales start to roll in though,” Zawada says. “There is still a decent amount of traditional building, promoting, marketing, and networking that needs to happen outside of Bandcamp.”
This is especially true as fans continuously consume more music through streaming than they’d ever be afford purchase by purchase. With so much available, it’s very hard to convince people to buy your music. That’s something everyone will continue struggling with in the digital age.
Regardless, as much of the rest of the music industry continues putting profits and ease of use above the interests of artists, Bandcamp’s success proves there is another way, shifting the balance of power back to where it belongs.
Chandler Shortlidge a senior editor at Pulse. Follow him is on Twitter.