Bandcamp’s Endless Summer

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

Sometime in early 2008, Ethan Diamond, co-founder of the webmail service that would later become Yahoo! Mail, tried to legally download his favorite band’s new album, and failed miserably.

Pages loaded at a glacial pace and the download never materialized, yet a later look at his credit card statement revealed he had been charged anyway. Seven years in the trenches of the software industry taught Diamond to know bad tech when he saw it, and as a casual musician himself, his greater concern was for the band and their would-be fans.

Even with all its flaws, a poorly-designed, poorly-maintained website was probably still the best option for a band eager to maintain control over its music and its distribution. But how many old fans had missed out on a new album because of experiences like Diamond’s? How many potential new fans were never gained because they didn’t have the patience he did? Diamond decided to do something about it, and in late 2008, along with partner Shawn Grunberger, he launched the site Bandcamp.com.

Of course, in 2008 the launching of a new music distribution/ promotion platform on the internet was not the cause for much news or celebration. Myspace, once ubiquitous as the tech-averse musician’s web-platform of choice, was already beginning its descent into comic irrelevancy, awash in a sea of copycat sites it helped create. New sites seemed to pop up on a near-daily basis, offering little more than bells and whistles buried under a slew of ads. All seemed to pimp the idea of ‘free’ until everything became, well, worthless.

What was unique about Bandcamp, however, was Diamond’s  ethos of supporting independent music financially, backed up by his extensive experience with browser-based software and web dynamics. Diamond quickly put 90% of his competition to shame, and ultimately, the story of Bandcamp’s success is one of execution as much as it is one of ideals.

What Bandcamp Does the Same or Better Than Everyone Else

Amanda Palmer knows how to bring in dough using common, widely available web platforms. We chronicled her legendary Kickstarter campaign back in June, but her mastery of web commerce also put Bandcamp on the, uh, cybermap, when in 2010, she managed to sell $15,000 worth of music and merchandise from her Bandcamp page in three minutes.

Would Palmer’s popularity have translated as well to another music distribution platform? Possibly. Would that platform be able to handle the ‘fan feeding frenzy’ surrounding her digital release, so that others wouldn’t have to endure what Diamond did the first time he tried to download his favorite band’s first release? Probably not.

The design and user interface of Bandcamp is a triumph of function over form. It is entirely browser-based (by contrast, both iTunes’ and Amazon’s music services require external applications to launch), ad-free (hello, once-mighty Myspace), and also free of the cumbersome Flash coding that dooms so many bands’ personal sites.

Bandcamp offers the hosting power of a personal site (there is a 600MB of data upload limit but no limit to the amount of tracks or albums that can be hosted) without any baseline hosting cost, and its only-recently-instituted revenue sharing model is commensurate with, or better than other online distributors. (Bandcamp takes 15% of digital sales and 10% of physical merch sales.The 15% commission on digital sales drops to 10% once the artist reaches $5,000 in sales.)

Beyond that, Bandcamp is governed by the simple economics of web traffic: put everything up front and on one page, avoid pop-ups, and keep mouse-clicks to a bare minimum. The end result: fans get their music with as little fuss as possible and musicians get paid for that music as fast as possible, as Bandcamp issues funds to connected accounts when  each sale is completed.

Bandcamp page for Hotels. individual songs, a full digital EP, and a vinyl 7″ can all be purchased on the same page

What Bandcamp Does Differently Than Every One Else

While a well-designed website can help artists avoid many of the pitfalls of e-commerce, Diamond recognized that for independent musicians to make a dollar and a dime in the online world, Bandcamp would have to offer them a little extra bump. Here are some unique features of Bandcamp’s distribution.

Physical merch sales alongside digital sales: And it’s not just the physical versions of the recorded music either. Just as easily as fans can purchase a digital download, they can order a shirt, button, limited edition vinyl package, or (in the case of Palmer) a hand-painted ukulele. Bandcamp takes funds for physical goods using the same mechanism it does for digital goods and leaves the delivery up to the artist.

Only full songs can be streamed: While some bands may balk at this, Diamond is actually applying his business sense to their bottom line. In an early interview with Waxy.org, he asserts that the model for music purchasing is ‘listen-like-buy,’ and can’t be skirted. “So you need to let a fan hear the song if you’re going to get them to buy it… whether that’s buying the disc, the digital download or just coming to your next show. 30 seconds just isn’t enough time to make that sale.”

Free and Name-Your-Own-Price options: Diamond says that Bandcamp aims to be “neutral” on how much music should or shouldn’t cost, and puts pricing power in the hands of the musicians themselves. Radiohead used the name-your-own-price strategy to great effect with its release of In Rainbows in 2007, but many questioned whether or not that option would translate to lower-profile bands with smaller followings. Bandcamp is making the case that at least on some level, it does: A recent internal study by the site found that “40% of the time, fans pay more than the asking price for name-your-price albums”.

Multiple file formats for downloads: Bandcamp doesn’t allow MP3 uploads – only lossless formats like WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. The reason? Bandcamp turns around and converts your high-quality audio into a slew of other downloadable formats, including multiple MP3 formats, Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless, FLAC, and AAC. This satisfies a niche, but rabid base of audio-file-philes. But it may also hold another benefit for the artists (more on that in a bit).

Extensive metadata, SEO, and individual URLs for each song: Bandcamp digs deep into its bag of tricks to make sure bands and fans don’t have trouble finding each other. The service automatically adds metadata pulled from an artists’ page to each uploaded track, gives each track its own URL for easy access, and is surprisingly effective in its search engine optimization. Bandcamp results usually appear at or near the top of related Google searches.

Taming the Elephant in the Room?

The most speculative, and perhaps the most interesting benefit Bandcamp offers the independent musician may be in its potential to curb piracy. In a January blog post on the Bandcamp site, Diamond announced that Bandcamp had been tracking where its sales originated on the web, with some interesting findings:

[W]e’ve noticed something awesome: every day, fans are buying music that they specifically set out to get for free.

For example, just this morning someone paid $10 for an album after Googling “lelia broussard torrent.” A bit later, a fan plunked down $17 after searching for “murder by death, skeletons in the closet, mediafire.” Then a $15 sale came in from the search “maimouna youssef the blooming hulkshare.” Then a fan made a $12 purchase after clicking a link on music torrent tracker What.CD.

Then someone spent $10 after following a link on The Pirate Bay, next to the plea ‘They sell their album as a download on their website. You can even choose your format (mp3, ogg, flac, etc). Cmon, support this awesome band!’”

Is this good hard data that cements Bandcamp’s status as an industry leader, or just a few feel-good stories cherry-picked by their marketing department? However anecdotal the evidence may be, any proof that music piracy can be stopped by something other than the Hand of God or by Johnny Law is a step in the right direction. Remember Bandcamp’s multiple file formats that are available for download? That feature, coupled with Bandcamp’s effective SEO, ensures that at least a small percentage of people searching for the types of formats usually associated with illegal torrent downloads will end up at there instead of a piracy site.

More importantly, these examples illustrate that music piracy isn’t always a matter of music fans having a cesspool of godlessness and moral bankruptcy where their soul should be. In some cases, it can simply be a crime of convenience.

Visitors to Bandcamp pages find a clean and simple interface, where they can listen to every track by an artist before purchasing the music in any format they like, often at whatever price they choose. In addition to the sheer convenience, fans know that when they do buy, a large majority of their money goes directly to the artist (and fast).

An illegal torrent may still be cheaper (as in free), but not necessarily any easier to obtain. That could make all the difference in payment versus piracy.

With Bandcamp, Diamond hasn’t reinvented the wheel so much as greased it for better movement. As shown in the picture above, my band uses Bandcamp for most of our sales, and I have found that the trick is that there is no trick; it’s a maddeningly simple and transparent mechanism for distributing your music over the web. And the beauty in that simplicity is paying dividends for Bandcamp’s founders, participating artists, and fans alike.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Industry Trends, September 2012. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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