How I Learned to Love Streaming & Why Bandcamp Should Too
Disclaimer and TLDR: I love progressive rock and long improvisational jams à la Phish and the Grateful Dead, and I never want Springsteen concerts to end, so you’re in for a bit of a journey here if you are game for it. If not, here’s the crux of my argument: I think Bandcamp’s mission and business model is exactly right for this moment when artists (in particular independent artists) have been financially and emotionally hurt by the pandemic and related economic impact. I also think Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond and company could actually achieve the promise stated by Spotify’s Daniel Ek to help “one million artists to be able to live off their art” by embracing a true streaming service as a complement to their current artist-centric and consumer-friendly business model.
Though I’ve spent my entire career working squarely in (or adjacent to) the technology sector, I’ve never been an early adopter. I was one of the last in my social circle to “go mobile” (not in the Pete Townshend sense). I traded a first generation iPad I won in a raffle for a used bike. I still subscribe to the print edition of The Washington Post. I could go on all day…
That same reluctance to embrace new tech has applied to my attitude toward music as well. As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, my music delivery systems evolved with the times, but always centered the album as a physical artifact. I had a short stack of vinyl, which started when my neighbor gave me “Thriller” for my third birthday, and a respectable cassette collection. But my music library expanded exponentially when I started buying compact discs in middle school. Each week I spent nearly all of my allowance on albums at The Wall music store in Freehold Raceway Mall, saving just enough for some food court Taco Bell over which my friends and I would discuss our latest purchases. Most nights I’d fall asleep with some progressive rock blaring through my headphones, which were precariously connected to my boombox on the floor next to my bed (what, you didn’t think I had something as cutting edge as a disc man at this point, did you?). I sometimes awoke with the cable wrapped tightly around my neck. One bad nightmare and the coroner would have been wondering if another late night spin of Yes’s “Tormato” was really worth it.
As I’m sure has been said many times, owning an album — even a bad one (I’m looking at you Tormato) — makes you appreciate it more. Don’t Kill The Whale is a dumb, but great song in the tradition of Octopus’s Garden in my book. But you wouldn’t think that unless you bought that album for a criminal $16 and listened to it until you could find something to appreciate. This is one of many things that Bandcamp and its CEO Ethan Diamond have gotten right: investing in the music leads to a greater appreciation of it, which in turn leads to a deeper connection to the artist and their community of fans.
Investing in the music leads to a greater appreciation of it, which in turn leads to a deeper connection to the artist and their community of fans.
As of this writing, Bandcamp is reporting $586 million in total revenue for artists and $17 million in the last 30 days — pretty impressive for what is still a small (76 employees), privately-owned company that launched on the premise that fans will still pay fair prices for music in the midst of the “all content just wants to be free” streaming revolution. These figures mostly account for digital album and track sales, but also rising orders of physical albums and other merchandise. For all of these sales, artists retain 80–85% of the revenue, and throughout the pandemic Bandcamp has been consistently waving their own modest fees on #bandcampfridays. The company’s responsible growth and ethical practices have earned Bandcamp recent attention and praise from mainstream outlets such as NPR and the L.A. Times. And they’ve done all of this without really offering a streaming service.
I too was reluctant about streaming. I finally got over my attachment to physical albums around 2010 when I began cohabitating with my wife (a professional musician), and we combined our music collections. As a general rule, not buying every new album I desired was one easy way to reduce the never-ending, all American accumulation of stuff. We still have all of those CDs, and they still sound amazing through our stereo speakers. Over the last 10 years I’ve bought the occasional physical album — usually to support a fellow independent artist — but more often than not I’ve either bought albums digitally or just streamed them and found other ways to financially contribute to artists.
Over the last 10 years I’ve bought the occasional physical album — usually to support a fellow independent artist — but more often than not I’ve either bought albums digitally or just streamed them and found other ways to financially contribute to artists.
My streaming platform of choice is Amazon Music, but not because I necessarily favor it for any functional or ethical reason over Spotify or other options. For me it was the most affordable option ($7.99 per month with my Prime subscription) and Amazon pays artists at least as well (or poorly depending on your perspective) as the others. I had also accumulated a significant number of digital music purchases on Amazon, and it just seemed easier than shifting to another platform. During the pandemic, I’ve gotten great use and enjoyment out of streaming. One project I’ve been working on is going through artists’ entire catalogues (especially where there’s a gap in my knowledge) and making playlists of my favorite deep cuts. At present, I could wax poetic about The Kinks for longer than you’d care to listen.
In general, I don’t feel too guilty about only streaming — and not purchasing — music by successful artists, especially those who have had long careers. I figure most are living comfortably, and are making some decent streaming revenue as a supplement to their income due to their enduring popularity. (That said, I’m not ignorant about the fact that many legendary artists are in need of financial support and for whom there are a number of organizations doing good work). But for newer artists I admire who are perhaps a few popularity notches below Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, I worry that streaming revenue alone will not keep them, their families, their band members, and their crews whole in this challenging season of no touring and no clear end in sight. That’s where Bandcamp in particular has stepped up, and I believe it has the moral compass and growing reputation to do even more in the future.
While Bandcamp allows streaming on its platform, it is not a true streaming service in my opinion for the following reasons:
- It only allows the streaming of one album or track at a time, beyond its own curated playlists.
- It does not allow users to create and share their own playlists for others to discover and stream.
- It does not charge users — and therefore does not compensate artists — for streaming.
I believe Bandcamp could offer a streaming service with a business model that is as straightforward and artist-friendly as its current offerings. These bullet points are just intended to be the beginning of a conversation, but here’s my proposal:
- $5 per month, $50 annually or “pay more if you want” for unlimited streaming. In true Bandcamp fashion, the cost would be competitive, reasonable, and flexible. Those who don’t subscribe could still stream a limited number of songs per month (there is a limit currently before Bandcamp prompts you to purchase the track you’ve been streaming incessantly, you scoundrel).
- The same fair 80/20 split in favor of artists. All of the subscription money is pooled with 80% paid out to artists quarterly and Bandcamp taking a reasonable 20% cut of the revenue.
- Payments doled out in an equitable way based on the total number of complete streams. Bandcamp already tracks and provides near real-time data to artists with detailed analytics about their streaming performance. So, the underlying data is already there.
- Option for artists to opt out of payments. Artists who don’t wish to be compensated for streams of their music can privately opt out and contribute their revenue back to the overall pool. This option is one step toward ensuring that those who most need it receive the bulk of the payments.
Last month, I realized just how much I missed my fellow independent music creators and performers — friends whose music, shows, and camaraderie I’ve counted on to lift me up over the years. I decided to create a quick playlist of 10 tunes entitled I Miss My Friends (August 2020).
I’m grateful that I was able to curate and share this music on Spotify, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to create and share a public playlist on Amazon Music. But I wish I could have done so on Bandcamp and put perhaps more than a few fractions of a cent into the pockets of those who have dedicated unknown hours to their craft. Maybe someday, that will be possible.