The number of people signing up to Bandcamp quadrupled after it dropped its requirement for people to make a purchase before they could get a ‘fan account’ on the music site.

Until recently, the restriction meant that visitors to Bandcamp without one of those accounts were unable to use community features like following and wishlists.

“There was a good reason for creating it like this: to make sure the quality of the community was very high. The thinking was ‘hey, if you’re a buyer, you’re committed and engaged’. It’s not just someone liking every post on Facebook or Instagram,” Bandcamp COO Joshua Kim told Music Ally.

“Someone who put their money down to support an artist is serious about music, and that was who we wanted in our community. And that model has managed to grow our fan community to become huge and very robust.”

But Bandcamp knew from its analytics that there were also “tons and tons” of people coming to the site and trying to click on the community features they didn’t have access to, without success.

“Eventually, we decided that our community was large and defined enough, with the foundation of quality that we want, that we didn’t think that was going to change. We decided to bring all those people out there trying to use this functionality into the community,” said Kim.

“The goal was still to make sure they became quality members. We’ve been tracking that, and signups essentially increased by four times once we allowed more of those people to join, which is really cool. How long does it take for those people to become paying customers? So far we’re seeing double-digit conversion rates for signup-to-purchase within 30 days.”

2016 was a hellish year on many counts – one of which we’ll get to later in this piece – but for Bandcamp it was a year of strong growth. The company ended 2016 having distributed more than $200m to artists and labels using its platform, having hit the $150m milestone in April.

“Every aspect of Bandcamp’s business was up in 2016. Digital album sales grew 20%, tracks 23%, and merch 34%,” explained Bandcamp in a January blog post. “Growth in physical sales was led by vinyl, which was up 48%, and further boosted by CDs (up 14%) and cassettes (up 58%).” The company added more than 2,000 independent labels in 2016, as well as “hundreds of thousands” of artists.

Bandcamp is increasingly vocal about defining itself as an independent service against the competition offered not just by streaming, but by download stores like iTunes and e-commerce giants like Amazon.

“Those are your choices as a music buyer and as an artist selling your music. Apple, Google and Amazon. It feels like Bandcamp is one of the few places where you can sell music where our business is 100% focused on music,” said Kim.

“I love Amazon, I love Google, I use all their products, but I don’t think about their primary business being music. We’re really focused on providing an alternative that we know works. Artists and fans are really enthusiastic about using Bandcamp, and it’s profitable for us: we can be a self-sustaining business.”

“But the artists come first. For better or worse, a lot of other music services have varying priorities. Whether it’s growth versus profitability, or getting as big as possible. I think sometimes the artists’ interests are de-emphasised. We really don’t do that, and we think that’s important.”

Bandcamp’s pitch to the independent community also focuses on their ability to personalise their presence on the platform, with stores that have their own look and feel.

“Most of these pages don’t look the same. On other services, one artist’s album is set up exactly like another’s, and the album often isn’t even the focus,” said Kim.

That’s a clear reference to the growing prominence of playlists on streaming services like Spotify, which is fuelling concerns in some quarters of the industry that the emphasis is on the playlists as the ‘brands’ that fans love, rather than the artists.

“I think the artists’ presence is really the glue that holds our community together,” said Kim. “And this is now a large community of very serious music fans who want to buy records: physical formats, digital formats.”

Not always the obvious physical formats either. When Music Ally asked Kim what trends he’s noticed around what’s selling well on Bandcamp, he came up with something that certainly isn’t being offered by Apple or Spotify.

“To me personally, the most interesting thing is the cassettes. We’ve seen that format continue to grow over the past year. It’s a really good example of music that doubles as merch, because artists are taking a lot of care over these releases,” said Kim.

“I’ve been seeing these very personalised cassettes, because it’s a lot easier to personalise a cassette than an LP or even a CD. I look at a 50-run cassette with hand-drawn, hand-printed covers by the artist and limited numbering, and there is something I really love about that.”

“Cassettes continue to be a really big part of Bandcamp’s business and continue to grow. You make the same margin on a cassette when you sell it for $7 as from an LP selling at $20. And if fans are 15 year-old kids who can’t afford the vinyl – let alone the record player and speaker system – they can go and get one [a cassette player] from Urban Outfitters for 20 bucks.”

Bandcamp plans to put even more energy into helping its artists and labels sell merchandise in the coming months – including cassettes, vinyl and CDs, which as a panel at the recent AIM Indie-Con conference noted, are increasingly seen as ‘merch’ – while also building more community features for fans.

“Community engagement is going to be a big theme. This open fan signup has already had a huge impact on the community, and we will continue to do more things that will enrich that experience even further,” said Kim.

About that hellish 2016, though. The election of Donald Trump as US president – and the immigration executive order he signed once in power – led to Bandcamp’s decision to donate its share of all sales on its site on Friday 3 February to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

CEO Ethan Diamond explained why at the time: “Last week’s Executive Order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States is not simply immoral, it violates the very spirit and foundation of America,” he wrote.

“It is an unequivocal moral wrong, a cynical attempt to sow division among the American people, and is in direct opposition to the principles of a country where the tenet of religious freedom is written directly into the Constitution. This is not who we are, and it is not what we believe in.”

On 3 February, fans bought more than $1m of music on Bandcamp, 550% more than on a usual Friday. A number of labels and artists joined in, donating their share of these sales to the ACLU too. Kim said that the success of the campaign says something about the community.

“That was the most rewarding thing for me about it: seeing the community get activated, and seeing the shared interests of the community. We did see a small handful of individuals who were not happy with what we did, and we totally respect their right to not be happy with it, but the super-majority of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

“We worked to make Bandcamp a certain way: to abide by certain principles with our fair-trade music policy, and to focus on openness and fairness. And the community we’ve attracted feels that way as well, and is will to jump on board. It was great to feel so aligned with everybody from small artists from who-knows-where to labels like Merge Records. It was inspiring.”

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