When musician Zoe Keating published details of her 2013 earnings in February, most of the media coverage predictably focused on how little she was making from streaming services.
Keating made $38.2k from sales on Apple’s iTunes Store last year, then $25.6k from Bandcamp and $11.6k from Amazon. Her streaming income was much less: $3.3k from Pandora, $1.8k from Spotify and $1.2k from YouTube.
The real story here was more about how much Keating was making on Bandcamp, selling music direct to her fans. It was a reminder that for artists who have worked hard at fostering those relationships, Bandcamp can be a significant source of income.
Bandcamp is evolving beyond its roots as a D2F sales platform though: its website and mobile apps are showing how it has the potential to become a powerful new music discovery service too, where fans find, listen to and share emerging and established artists alike.
But first, that core business of sales. “The big number for us – our core metric – is how much fans are paying artists through the platform. We’re up to $3.1m every 30 days, and our total to date is now $70m,” Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond tells Music Ally.
“We’re about to hit 10m transactions through the site. And the other big stat is that every day, about 6,000 unique artists sell something through the site. In a month, it’s around 50,000, and last year we had about 160,000 artists selling one or more items through Bandcamp.”
Bandcamp’s community has become a social network of sorts, including “fan accounts” with profiles for every user that’s bought something, and explorable “collections” of their music, with their comments and mini-reviews if they’ve been posted.
“To me, the key piece of this is that it’s a social music discovery system, but it’s based on this concept of ownership, which is a high-friction concept in contrast to what was the hot thing a couple of years ago, which was frictionless sharing – watch a movie, play some music, and have that activity automatically go out to your friends and followers,” says Diamond.
“I always felt that idea was completely ridiculous. If somebody listens to a song, I don’t care! I don’t wanna know. If they click to Like it, that’s a little bit more interesting, but if somebody feels strongly enough about a record to spend money on it, or more importantly to support the artist that made it, and maybe write a little about why they like it, THEN I’m interested.”
The idea of music collections is, of course, as old as physical music itself, and carried through into the downloads era. It’s also making its way into the world of streaming music, with Rdio enabling its users to build virtual collections for some time now, and Spotify having recently added a similar feature.
Diamond isn’t convinced that this is the same thing, though. “It’s very hard to have this experience in a streaming service, where there’s no friction to collecting something. It’s meaningless. You have to have some form of friction there to make it meaningful,” he says.
Actually, Bandcamp isn’t anti-streaming. You’ve been able to stream music from artists’ Bandcamp profiles for a long time now, in order to try before buying. And alongside the social additions to the service – including the ability to follow other fans and artists – there’s a Music Feed feature showing what those people have been buying.
It makes Bandcamp a curated streaming music service, of sorts. “The feed plays from track to track: it kinda becomes a personalised radio station programmed by the people’s tastes you respect enough to actually follow,” is how Diamond puts it.
“We brought that into our mobile app relatively recently, and it becomes this rabbit-hole of music discovery that’s extremely fun to go down. Whenever I’m commuting I just put on the feed, and use it to quickly dig through stuff I would never otherwise encounter.”
Whereas Bandcamp was initially purely about buying – whether digitally, physically or frequently both – it’s becoming more about listening, with the company’s smartphone apps providing fans with access to their collections on the go.
“People are moving away from downloads, although there will always be people who want the high-quality file they can take offline,” says Diamond.
“What we’re seeing more and more is providing access with these fan accounts. Yes, you get a download, but what it’s really about – besides supporting the artist – is getting instant access from anywhere.”
He also claims that a recent study of around 50,000 Bandcamp users, examining their buying habits before and after getting fan accounts, found that once they got an account, their spending doubled – a sign that the social features and music feed are having a real impact on artist income.
“The fundamental fact that Bandcamp is based on is that fans want to support the artists they love, and our job is to support that connection by giving fans easy ways to express their support,” he says.
“We’ve even toyed with the idea of instead of having ‘buy now’, maybe we should test what would happen if it just says ‘support’ – here’s what you get if you support the artist…”
It remains a surprise to Sandbox that streaming music firms – Spotify, Beats Music, Deezer and the rest – haven’t been beating a path to Bandcamp’s door to find a way of building stronger links from their own services to its community of supporters.
Spotify’s merchandise deal with Topspin was a step in the right direction, but there is a lot more scope for these companies to forge links with the likes of Bandcamp, PledgeMusic, Kickstarter, BandPage and other startups that have genuine goodwill with musicians.
“I would love to have that happen: I know Spotify did a deal with Topspin to buy merchandise, but limiting it to merch is unfortunate. It does seem like an obvious thing for them to do,” says Diamond.
However, he has some sharp words for the streaming services too. “It’s really interesting that you don’t hear from more artists talking about how much they love that model,” he says.
“You hear it from executives at the top level of the companies who stand to make millions from the artists’ work. You don’t hear about a lot of cover children for the model. That’s a warranted debate that’s going on: what’s good for musicians in streaming?”
As Music Ally sees it, though, the biggest opportunity for Bandcamp may be less about a comparison with Spotify, and more about filling a potential gap being left by Facebook in being the platform to keep artists connected to their fans.
On Facebook, it’s no secret that “organic” (i.e. unpaid) reach of pages has been falling, leaving many artists and labels wondering why their posts are only seen by a small percentage of the fans who clicked on a Like button to receive them.
Conspiracy theories abound about Facebook pushing people to pay for ads, while the social network argues that with an average of 1,500 potential stories from friends and pages available any time a user checks their news feed, it has to find a way to boil that down to (again, on average) 300 of the most relevant updates.
It’s a familiar debate, but where could Bandcamp fit in? For those artists using the service, it could become a more reliable way to get their news and new music in front of their keenest fans. Especially if they then own the data on those social interactions.
“This is another thing we’re working on. I’ve experienced this pain first-and: we have a huge number of people who like us on Facebook, but when you do a post to 50,000-odd fans, only 500 actually see it,” says Diamond, although further details on what Bandcamp is working on are under wraps for now.
He’s clear on the data question though. “We have felt from the beginning that when you follow an artist on Bandcamp, that data – who’s following them – belongs to the artist. Zoe Keating can go into her Bandcamp account and get all of her emails whenever she wants. That’s not something we mess with at all.”
If Bandcamp has ambitions to become a true social music network – and don’t forget how many people have tried and failed – it has some work to do. For example, figuring out how to lower the barriers to let more fans in to its community who haven’t made a purchase yet.
In the meantime, Bandcamp has some ambitious plans to continue improving its apps, which will be made public in the months ahead.
The company is also part of a wider cultural shift that’s happening in the music industry, as artists realise that they’re not just powerless, passive observers of digital music trends. They can make their own luck, build their own tribes and hustle to build sustainable careers.
“All of the people who I’ve seen who are successful on Bandcamp, they’re not unified by any particular genre. The unifying factor is that they hustle a lot, both online and offline. They talk to their fans a lot, they’re constantly trying new things, and they make that direct connection available,” agrees Diamond.
“Where it’s not successful is where people say ‘I’m using this distributor, my music’s up on Spotify and iTunes, and hey I made this Bandcamp page and uploaded the music: why isn’t anything happening?’ The key is providing the opportunities for fans to really support you.”