what this means for indie music lovers.
On Wednesday, the impartial digital music market/publication/streaming service/former startup Bandcamp made a startling announcement: It was “becoming a member of” the online game firm Epic Video games, maybe finest generally known as the maker of Fortnite and plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit in opposition to Apple’s app retailer and its dominance of digital gaming. In a assertion, Epic wrote that “Bandcamp will play an essential position in Epic’s imaginative and prescient to construct out a creator market ecosystem for content material, know-how, video games, artwork, music and extra.” Bandcamp co-founder Ethan Diamond defined in a weblog submit that his firm “will preserve working as a standalone market and music neighborhood,” and this new enterprise with Epic would “present the sources to carry much more profit to the artists, labels, and followers who use” Bandcamp. (Diamond will even stay its CEO.) In the end, each firms say, this transfer is in service of “constructing probably the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem on the planet.”
Quick reactions to Bandcamp sidling as much as Epic Video games had been blended and sometimes confused. Some observers on social media puzzled whether or not this was a partnership between the 2 firms or a wholesale acquisition of Bandcamp. Epic spokesperson Elka Appears confirmed to Slate over e-mail that “this was an acquisition of Bandcamp’s enterprise,” although the corporate is “not disclosing phrases of the deal/the way it happened.” The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle suspected on Twitter that Epic desires entry to Bandcamp’s information. The Way forward for Music Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for musicians, posted a cautiously skeptical Twitter thread in regards to the deal: It defined that Epic has been a irritating companion with regards to music licensing, compounded by the 40 % stake held by Chinese language company Tencent, which additionally has a stake in Spotify. Music historian Ted Gioia wrote in his Substack about how his firsthand experiences with huge enterprise mergers and acquisitions left him feeling pessimistic: “In quite a lot of cases, the buying firm destroyed the enterprise it purchased. Not instantly, nevertheless it occurred ultimately. … They usually had the most effective intentions. However when compelled to decide on, they did what was finest for the guardian firm, not the acquired enterprise.” He additional famous, “The prospect of failure will increase dramatically when the acquired firm is in a special business,” highlighting the eventual post-M&A failures of firms like RCA and Kodak.
What’s extra, Bandcamp has usually proclaimed independence as each its mission and ethos. It’s lengthy had a glowing repute because the uncommon—maybe solely—musician-friendly platform of the digital age. A 2020 Los Angeles Instances profile referred to the service because the “anti-Spotify,” noting that Bandcamp was “owned primarily by” CEO Ethan Diamond, co-founder and CTO Shawn Grunberger, and workers. Some indie musicians known as him their “final hope,” Diamond added, and so they reportedly instructed him, “The world of right-minded musicians is relying on you. No stress.” Bandcamp giving itself up now to a serious company that’s already acquired plenty of different inventive firms may effectively be thought-about “a promote out transfer,” as one music enterprise determine put it.
It’s price Bandcamp’s improvement and pedestal within the fashionable music financial system—which, notably, is a much smaller one than Epic’s within the online game business—to know why skeptics are talking out. As an alternative of partnering with the massive three main labels to supply thousands and thousands of songs without spending a dime or low-cost, whereas compensating musicians with literal penny fractions in flip, Bandcamp made honest artist remuneration and shut connection between creators and followers its M.O. from its 2008 launch. Although it was initially powered by one spherical of enterprise capital funding, the platform claims that it’s not solely been impartial of such investments since then, but in addition has been worthwhile since 2012, even whereas doubling down on a seemingly counterintuitive enterprise technique.
As free and low-priced subscription-based streaming ate up the once-hot MP3 market, Bandcamp saved promoting high-quality digital recordsdata, taking solely a ten–15 % reduce of income per sale whereas Apple made a minimum of 30 % of the cash for every iTunes buy. Different streamers use costly exclusives from huge stars as subscription incentives, however Bandcamp has saved its focus slender: Through the years, it’s introduced impartial artists, label-free stars, and recreation rating composers to its interface and cultivated small however loyal fan bases. As CD gross sales plunged from their ’90s peak within the mid- to late 2000s, the platform discovered success permitting artists to promote cassette tapes (sure), discs, and data, presaging the still-booming vinyl resurgence. When Spotify did away with its messaging providers in 2017 and obscured liner notes and credit from quick view, Bandcamp gave customers choices to advocate and share their favourite acts, whereas leaving sufficient room on every music and album web page for artists to jot down out their lyrics, notes, and credit as they wished.
Subscription-based streaming stays dominant, nevertheless. Websites like 8tracks and eMusic, which respectively allowed customers to share curated playlists freely and purchase digital downloads, have light from view—but Bandcamp has grown and thrived since its 2008 launch. It now hosts the catalogs of legendary impartial labels like Sub Pop, runs the net journal Bandcamp Every day, presents retail providers for artist merch, and even manages its personal file retailer and vinyl-pressing plant. It even retains a public tally of how a lot cash it’s given to artists in whole, in addition to which albums and songs have been bought nevertheless many instances. The pandemic inadvertently boosted Bandcamp’s clout, as artists struggling on account of canceled excursions touted Bandcamp because the extra artist-friendly various to different streaming providers’ measly payouts. “Bandcamp Fridays,” the once-a-month occasion the place Bandcamp would direct all funds to musicians with out taking its personal reduce, turned a much-hyped event on social media; the corporate additionally staged particular days to forgo its income parts in favor of supporting transgender rights and the NAACP Authorized Protection Fund.
By 2021, 13 years after its launch, Bandcamp was extra acknowledged and beloved than ever. That’s to not say it has been freed from criticism. Some artists turned sad with the pressures and incentives of the Bandcamp Friday mannequin; different observers had been suspicious of the corporate’s vertical integration into vinyl and merchandise; some have identified that Bandcamp doesn’t usually pay out royalties particularly to songwriters, or without spending a dime streams on its interface (which it solely permits a restricted variety of, earlier than forcing clients to make purchases); nonetheless extra have decried the platform’s janky interface on each desktop and cell. However the truth that a platform actually did appear to deal with artists pretty, versus exploiting them just like the labels and streaming providers had been accused of doing for years, made Bandcamp an icon. It couldn’t hope to repair the inequitable nature of the music business by itself—nevertheless it didn’t plan to, both. Bandcamp merely made itself an obtainable, workable various when many others failed to take action.
However with Bandcamp’s VC and startup-culture background (the corporate is, naturally, based mostly within the Bay Space), assumptions that it will go the route so many comparable companies have—pursuing fixed and speedy progress, making itself engaging to acquisition, cashing out at its peak earlier than ceding future management to the megaconsolidated tech business—weren’t unwarranted. When the L.A. Instances requested Ethan Diamond in late 2020 whether or not he would think about a “sale or partnership,” he responded, “We’d solely think about partnerships with firms that we imagine serve artists in the beginning.”
Epic Video games, then, could appear a wierd selection in that regard. Max Oakland, a musician and impartial online game designer, tweeted that “Epic is such a foul firm,” pointing to reporting on how the sport firm mistreats its workers, forces builders into exclusives, buys (and subsequently abandons) in style properties like Gears of Battle, and has a horrible UX on its Epic Video games Retailer. Sure, Epic’s flagship product Fortnite has intersected with in style music—its controversial increase of BlocBoy JB’s dances, the Travis Scott hologram—so it might make sense to see these sectors mix additional. (Epic’s spokesperson instructed Slate that there was “no relation” between its determination and Twitch’s enterprise fashions, and that there’s “no connection to cryptocurrency/blockchain,” in case you had been questioning.) However contemplating that Epic has didn’t compensate creators whose dance strikes are appropriated on Fortnite, it’s pure to be cautious.
“Bandcamp was the final bastion of true independence in music,” Ron Knox, a senior researcher on the Institute for Native Self-Reliance and occasional Slate contributor, instructed Slate in an interview. His main issues are in regards to the prospect of weaponizing additional consolidation as a way of battling Massive Tech’s monopolization of gaming and music, particularly with regards to a platform that was already simple to make use of: Bandcamp, he says, “was a reasonably rattling free and open market. If you happen to’re a band, you may simply add your music, have it stay on there, and it may be promoted in any variety of methods.” Nevertheless, once you’re an organization like Epic, and you’ve got “full and unfettered management of a platform” like Bandcamp, you’ve gotten the ability to make any sorts of adjustments you need. The massive query, Knox says, is that if Epic will proceed to encourage Bandcamp’s independence, or regularly encroach upon its practices.
Cautious optimism lingers. Jaime Brooks, a longtime digital musician who’s carried out beneath the stage names Elite Gymnastics and Default Genders, thinks the Epic-Bandcamp acquisition could possibly be a possibility for artists to entry new sources of income and direct channels with followers. Extra importantly, Brooks views it as a manner for indie musicians and indie recreation builders to see one another as friends, for the reason that technological and enterprise and cultural shifts which have hit the gaming business over time—overproduction, labor points, hassle with digital marketplaces, mergers of massive firms, the missing compensation from subscription-based digital gaming, crypto and the Metaverse, racism and sexism—have additionally reshaped the music business. And Epic and Bandcamp have a typical foe in Apple: Epic’s authorized fights in opposition to Apple’s domination of digital commerce may make the corporate a possible ally for Bandcamp and its musicians, offered there’s absolute transparency of their enterprise dealings (which hasn’t been the case simply but). The explanation Epic took the tech large to courtroom within the first place was as a result of it didn’t need to be compelled to supply the steep 30 % cuts of its in-game Fortnite income to Apple and Google. In the same manner, the app retailer additionally hinders Bandcamp’s gross sales and accessibility potential, Brooks instructed me: The corporate’s apps could also be compelled to offer potential income cuts to PayPal and digital app marketplaces, and thus, they aren’t a important supply of income. Bandcamp’s iOS app doesn’t permit purchases in any respect, the truth is. Most funds, then, come from desktop customers. But, as Brooks says, “folks sitting down at their computer systems is a distinct segment viewers, and we will’t broaden past that if the cell app is proscribed—we’re reducing ourselves off from that enormous digital viewers” of primarily cell clients who could uncover songs on TikTok or different apps.
However, it’s not as if Brooks is proud of Epic’s transfer. “As a small, unaffiliated artist, I’m formally in opposition to consolidation,” they instructed me. “VC cash and its expectations damage a number of completely functioning companies, and musicians want a functioning enterprise. Bandcamp was worthwhile. It didn’t want this. Now it’s enjoying with hearth, and if one thing goes fallacious, it’s artists like me who’ll get burned.”
Nobody is aware of for sure what the way forward for Bandcamp will likely be beneath its new guardian firm. If you happen to aren’t certain when you ought to fear, you want solely look to current examples of enormous tech firms swallowing up smaller inventive platforms: Twitter purchased and shut down Vine; Verizon steadily gutted HuffPost’s workers; and Fb misrepresented and inflated its video-streaming metrics, forcing publishers to make a financially disastrous “pivot to video.” So what’s the best-case state of affairs for Epic and Bandcamp? “Epic is available in with information and methods to enhance Bandcamp, together with the flexibility to make extra cell purchases, the flexibility to create playlists, extra choices for customers to create and share music, and a approach to join much more deeply with audiences,” Knox suggests. Nonetheless, historical past reveals us there’s loads of motive to count on the worst.