Some Questions for Bandcamp

a.k.a. A wide-ranging interview with EU/UK Label & Artist Representative Aly Gillani and Editorial Director J. Edward Keyes.

Last year, Bandcamp became the toast of the music internet. The LA Times dubbed them the “anti-Spotify,” and that idea was hammered home in a comparative NPR article penned by none other than Damon Krukowski, a musician and writer who also happens to be one of the industry’s most persistent and vocal critics. The Guardian touted Bandcamp as the “heroes of streaming” (despite the fact that the sales-oriented platform isn’t actually focused on streaming), Resident Advisor detailed how the company was “helping artists to beat the odds,” and even Billboard gushed over their “artist first” philosophy. (And yes, this is just a partial rundown of laudatory coverage.)

Bandcamp was founded back in 2008, and while the company had steadily gained momentum in the years that followed, there’s no question that the pandemic was a total game-changer for the platform. Worldwide lockdown and the sudden disappearance of gigs made it abundantly clear just how precarious things had become for most independent artists, and the tiny trickles of income coming from the streaming giants weren’t going to keep many musicians afloat. Of course, Bandcamp wasn’t really going to “save” the vast majority of independent artists either, but the platform’s focus on sales—and more importantly, its quick implementation of the Bandcamp Fridays initiative, where the company waives its usual 10-15% fee on one Friday each month—provided a stark contrast to the efforts of tech behemoths like Spotify, Apple and Amazon, whose model was paying out only fractions of a penny per stream.

Those companies have regularly struggled (or outright failed) to make money with streaming—in the case of Apple Music, it’s generally seen as one of several loss leaders for the corporation’s other, more profitable products—but Bandcamp has been profitable since 2012. Its leadership says all the right things about supporting artists, and backs them up with its business model, which is not only straightforward, but refreshingly free of the influence of venture capital. The platform’s editorial arm, Bandcamp Daily, happily eschews the easy clicks of writing about mainstream acts and delivering hot takes, and the company doesn’t shy away from social justice issues either, launching a Juneteenth fundraiser in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd. (An annual event, it sees the company donating 100% of its fees from sales on that day to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.)

Taken together, all these things make it easy to see Bandcamp as the music industry’s “good guys,” and in 2020, music fans (at least some of them) clearly bought into the idea. Last year saw a major uptick in sales on the platform—in the above-referenced LA Times article, CEO Ethan Diamond mentioned that year-over-year sales had increased 122%—and that surge seems to have continued into 2021. During the past year, the company has further extended its reach, launching a major expansion of its in-house Vinyl Pressing Service (which is built around crowdfunding), and also rolled out Bandcamp Live, a ticketed livestreaming service.

So, what’s the problem? In truth, it’s not clear that there is one, but as Bandcamp has grown (and arguably become the preeminent online destination for purchasing independent music), some grumbles of discontent have emerged. Record stores, many of which were already struggling, have seen a portion of their sales swallowed up by Bandcamp. The sheer popularity of Bandcamp Fridays (and the industry’s move to capitalize on that) has also created a situation where it’s now often difficult for small independent artists (i.e. the very people the initiative was designed to help) to get noticed, let alone sell music on those days. Adding vinyl-pressing and livestream services to a sales platform that also includes its own editorial arm has prompted concerns about the dangers of vertical integration, and when it comes to said editorial, questions have been posed about whether content created for an online store is really music journalism, or just an elaborate form of marketing.

Most importantly, despite the fact that Bandcamp’s profits have clearly jumped, the site’s layout and interface—which has a certain lo-fi charm, but has always been a bit clunky—appears to be largely unchanged, limited by things like its subpar search functionality and music player. (The site’s payment process—and lack of options in that department—is another persistent cause of frustration.) If the company is now making more revenue than ever before, why is none of that money seemingly showing up in its product?

All that said, it’s easy to see why Bandcamp users are loyal to the platform, and in most cases, the praise heaped upon the company is well deserved. I myself have certainly done my fair share of celebrating their efforts, both here in the newsletter and in my work elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I’ve previously contributed to Bandcamp Daily as a freelancer, although my most recent piece for them was published in August 2020. I’m also involved in Buy Music Club, an online tool that’s unaffiliated with Bandcamp but allows people to create and share lists of their favorite music on the platform.) At the same time, Bandcamp’s increased profile brings an increased level of responsibility—and scrutiny—and while many potential issues and problems with the company have been raised and batted around on social media, they rarely seem to make it into interviews and conversations with the platform’s top brass.

Looking to have a more substantive discussion, I began reaching out to Bandcamp several weeks ago, and was eventually put in touch with Aly Gillani, the company’s Label & Artist Representative for Europe and the UK. (He’s been at the company since 2016, and has also been running his own independent label, First Word Records, since 2004.) Over the course of a long call last week, we discussed Bandcamp’s recent performance and the various initiatives it’s launched during the past two years, and while he did make sure to (repeatedly) highlight the company’s good intentions, Gillani also addressed many of the concerns outlined above, providing a bit of behind-the-scenes perspective along the way.

However, when it came to my inquires about editorial matters at Bandcamp, he deferred to Editorial Director J. Edward Keyes, who’s also been with the company since 2016. (For those curious about his resume, he’s written for Rolling Stone, SPIN, Pitchfork and tons of other publications, and previously held editorial posts at eMusic, Wondering Sound and Vice.) Keyes and I also hopped on a call last week, and he was eager to discuss Bandcamp Daily, along with its philosophy and integrity.

Taken together, these conversations provide a detailed view of where Bandcamp is at, and what motivates the folks who work there. The answers may not satisfy everyone (they never do), but to Bandcamp’s credit, few other platforms would even agree to engage in this kind of back and forth with a journalist.

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