The Growth Of Bandcamp
I have been a Bandcamp buyer for over a decade. While DL music was not always my cup of tea, the fact remains that there are now many things I might want to own that will not make the leap to physical formats. In the decimation of the physical music industry, now drunk on the costs [low] and control [as high as possible] of streaming, Bandcamp has come to stand as a beacon of fair play in the world of music.
Apple have had a DL store since 2003. I have bought the occasional DL from them. The DRM they hobbled the files with initially dampened my enthusiasm. They grew to a point where they could leverage their clout with the labels to finally get the DRM removed, and they upped their bitrate to more acceptable levels. They grew that store via their hardware sales, and they went from the Little DL store that could to the 800 lb gorilla of DL music sales as first the iPod and then the iPhone dominated the mobile computing device space.
Through it all they maintained one particularly onerous trait. The cost for selling in their store was always 30% of the selling price. Based on the traditional label slice of the pie when it came to physical product. Not so cool when there are no brick + mortar/manufacturing/shipping channels in the mix! I have always maintained that the fair thing to do would be as the iTunes Store scaled to dominate the market segment, would have been to have reduced the royalty they extracted from sellers as the overall market became immense. But that never happened!
I would occasionally buy a release, or more likely, a single strategic track that represented a fraction of the cost of buying a physical release for that one rare track I needed for “the collection.” A single track that I might want would be $0.99, or later on, $1.29. Plus tax of course. If I bought the CD that had it, I might be looking at $25 after shipping. Ouch. I’m not made of money. So I could see the niche that the iTunes Store might play in my world, even as I recognized that it was less than ideal.
Then there were the titles that were DL only. They certainly happened and if I wanted to hear them it was their way or the highway. But about a dozen years ago I became aware of the Bandcamp platform. I could also buy DLs from Bandcamp, and their pricing policy wasn’t the monolithic $1.29 per track that iTunes largely adhered to. True, there are conceivably $0.69 tracks for sale in iTunes, but to date, I have only ever bought one of these. They are very scarce on the ground. But Bandcamp also allowed for paying above the posted cost of anything from the vendor. And many was the time that I paid double of the cost of what I thought had been underpriced by the artist.
The Bandcamp model left the price up to the seller, which sounded like the thing to do, in my opinion. And the overhead tribute that Bandcamp extracted was a far more fair 15%. Once the infrastructure is designed and built, it should scale efficiently. The best thing about Bandcamp was from a buyer’s perspective that once a title was purchased, one could DL it in numerous formats to fit any need. Anything from medium bitrate MP3 to FLAC or OggVorbis [for the open source true believers] and culminating in your choice of uncompressed CD quality files in WAV or AIFF formats.
So while Bandcamp had many pluses on their side of the fence, it was that ability to cater to every buyer’s personal needs as to what they received from the store that made them the unbeatable vendor of DL files for me. And DLs were just the beginning. As Bandcamp matured, the platform was equally viable for the distribution of physical formats like CDs and vinyl [not to mention cassettes] as well, as these formats experienced niche resurgence in recent years as the hipster pushback against streaming [which has zero appeal to me] had happened in the last decade. Even as streaming has pretty much conquered the world of music distribution for people who just can’t be bothered to maintain and curate a collection!
One of the ultimate beauties of the Bandcamp platform was that no matter what format you bought off of it, the music was always simultaneously available as a DL as well! I recently bought a LP that had no CD release, but the purchase gave me access to CD quality files at no extra charge. If the hellworld of 2022 won’t give me a CD, Bandcamp allowed for the next best thing.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite Bandcamp Fridays; the first Friday of a month where the platform responded to the pandemic biting deep into artists ability to perform live by dropping their 15% royalty from the sale. An important gesture when the only way to make money from music in this dystopia where no one wants to buy it anymore, and streaming platforms [which are partially owned by the labels] pay whatever pittance they wish to the copyright owners! [note: not always the same as the “artists.”]
The market responded to this by music fans copiously buying on Bandcamp Fridays since they want to see these artists keep their heads above water. And Bandcamp ceded a little bit back to insure that their artist base, who define them, could maintain viability in difficult times. No matter what angle I would look at Bandcamp, it always came out smelling like a rose. Whenever I bought from Bandcamp, I would pause and appreciate how much more healthy this marketplace was compared to all of the others left in the music distribution channel.
But Bandcamp were like any technological platform, in that the seeds of doom were intrinsic in their very origins, with venture capitalists having provided the money needed to make it happen. In that respect, Capitalism is geared like any loan sharking operation. Money is given now for profit to be had later. At the chosen time of the debt holder. Sooner or later it becomes time to pay The Man.
For Bandcamp, that time was March 2nd, 2022 when it was announced that they were now a wholly owned subsidiary of Epic Games. A videogame company.
I do not understand games
I’ve never been much of a game player. The very act of competition eluded me. When I lost a game, I didn’t care. When I won a game I felt bad for the loser and wondered why this had to happen at all? I had little interest in gaming of any kind as a child; preferring creative outlets like making my own toys and art. I still recognize that games made a certain sense for the young. Games and play allow for modeling of adult behaviors for developing mammals of all species. Dogs, chimps, and children all exhibit play behavior. But at a certain point, most animals put aside gaming and play as part of their maturation process. Except for we humans, who are loathe to grow up.
To say that I don’t care for video games is to put it mildly. While I was one of the first generations to play the damned things, I never got hooked on them in any way shape or form. It might have been in 1977 when my parents got me a Pong® knockoff unit on discount at Radio Shack. It wasn’t that interesting to me. In high school, I had friends who would feed endless quarters into those game units that you would sit in to play until their reflexes were conditioned to allow gameplay for hours on a single quarter. But they usually got the bum’s rush before that time by the now irate lowlife arcade owner!
I didn’t like the nerve-frying sensation of having spacecraft or aliens overrunning and destroying me. That was diametrically opposed to my ideas of pleasure. Video games just made me tense. In my senior year of high school there was a few months when my friends would go to the big arcade in the tourist trap section of Orlando’s International Drive and and spend a few hours playing video games at a huge arcade. My parents would give me five dollars to buy tokens and I went along for a while, until I realized that this money would be put to far better use buying records! The last time I played any video game was probably some time in early 1981. That door had shut.
This was the era of the Atari 2600 game system. In a few years the bubble would burst for the videogame industry but from the late 70s through to 1983, the growth of these electronic pests was enormous. At the same time the music industry suffered a huge contraction at the end of the 70s after a decade of stratospheric growth. This huge dropoff of sales was entirely concurrent with the growth of the videogame industry. As I had seen with my high school pals, there was one market they were interested in throwing their spare money at and it involved blasting at avatars on a video screen. It took the implosion of the videogame industry and the simultaneous rise of MTV at the same time before the music industry would be able to reverse its downward trend of ’77-’83.
The modern era of video games encompassed computers and new consoles that appeared after the name Atari was only a shadow of its former self. Modern video game hardware and graphics cards allowed for a huge quantum leap of visual sophistication from the crude 1-bit and 4-bit images I remembered from my youth in the decades that were now in my rear view mirror. I’m aware that everyone and their pet ferret play video games on their computers, tablets, and smartphones. Video game franchises are out grossing not only music but the movie industry as well. The biggest games commercially flatten all other forms of entertainment! The money needed to make these heavy hitters outstrips even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. And the biggest Hollywood blockbusters now resemble videogames with actors displaced on screen with CGI avatars wreaking a cacophonous symphony of destruction as hero and villain pulverize one another [and the next twelve city blocks]. But all of it caters to adolescent tastes that I have long since jettisoned. And I could care less. Except in this instance of Epic Games buying Bandcamp.
Who Are Epic Games?
They are located in Cary, North Carolina; adjacent to the “Research Triangle” area where most of the money is made in the state. They make video games and are apparently successful. They had some lawsuit against the Apple App store that I didn’t follow because…video games. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. I suspect that they are wanting to obtain the IT that allowed Bandcamp to facilitate a one-to-one relationship between users and vendors so effectively and to pivot that to the distribution of games, which is an even bigger market. And in doing so, cares not a whit as to the ultimate fate of the platform as a means of distributing music.
Which was its whole point. This reminds me of a similar tech sell out where the website LaLa in 2006 appeared to allow trading of CDs from member to member at a cost of $1.00. I was an enthusiastic user of LaLa.com and traded out discs I didn’t want and got some amazing very high value music in return! I loved LaLa.com in its first phase. But they quickly pivoted from that CD trading model I understood to something to do with proto-streaming and MP3 online digital lockers that I could never fathom [not that it mattered] and when Apple bought them in 2009 to hoover up their tech to bolster the iTunes store [and probably lay the groundwork for Apple Music streaming], it hardly mattered to me.
But Bandcamp are a mature platform that has gone from strength to strength by my reckoning. We all stand to lose a lot if it gets ground up and used for chum in some video game distribution plan. And Epic Games have some “interesting” history. The Chinese media giant Tencent invested enough in Epic a decade ago to control 48.4% of the company. Concurrent with that huge, barely minority stake in the company, a large swath of the Epic Games top brass left for greener pastures. The optics didn’t look good. The founder of Epic Games claimed that Tencent had no creative stake in what Epic developed as product, which is even more troubling to me as it points to purely interest in the data of those who play the company’s games.
Multiplayer game platforms are vast networks of data at lightspeed and look like a privacy tap on full open to my jaded eye. And it’s brain-boggling when coupled with the fact that Bandcamp has been blocked in China for slightly over a year now. All of this seems troubling to me and points to an outcome that could be nothing but terrible for the community of music that had been created in the Bandcamp ecosystem. If the platform will get the knife in one way or another, I’d like to hope that future planners and dreamers will look to Bandcamp’s deal with the devil, venture capital, as the mitigating factor they’d do well to find a workaround for the next time that someone plots to make a music ecosystem that was as mutually beneficial to all as Bandcamp was.