Matt McDermott speaks with Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond, HAUS Of ALTR head MoMa Ready and journalist Miles Bowe on the online record store that's changing underground music.
It's "Bandcamp Day," one of the four days over the course of the pandemic when the Bay Area-based start-up has waived their 15% cut, giving artists and labels much-needed support during a period where live gigs—traditionally the bulk of an independent artist's income—have totally dried up.
In the middle of Bandcamp's homepage, a ticker displays what's selling in real time. Album art thumbnails whirr across the screen. Someone grabs an LP from Paysage d'Hiver, the Swiss black metal band. It quickly flies off the screen, replaced by Kush Jones' Strictly 4 My CDJZ. Then an album from the venerated Chicago experimentalist Kevin Drumm, who has launched a Bandcamp subscription service.
It feels endless and anarchic, a riposte to the algorithmically determined monoculture behind everything from the Spotify Recommended section to ghost kitchen-reheated delivery food. Bandcamp, and the half-billion dollars it has paid to artists since its inception in 2008, is real.
I've spent the past 20 years immersed in music culture, starting out as a teenager downloading files off Napster in the suburbs, graduating to high-speed college dorm room connections and illegal P2P sites like Kazaa and Audiogalaxy. Then community radio, used-record emporiums and obscuro-blogs like Mutant Sounds. Then the advent of YouTube. I watched the bottom fall out of the recorded music industry from various vantage points, whether behind my monitor or manning the counter at a record store.
Still, I struggle to compare Bandcamp's Web 4.0 underground bazaar to anything previously seen. A stretch might be the Double Nickles Collective, a co-op store in Tempe, Arizona that allows vendors and labels to block out small corners of a strip-mall outlet. The tape label Ascetic House once set up their wares and various occult items in Double Nickels' storage closet. The experimental musician Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies) occasionally sets up shop on the sidewalk, selling musical esoterica from India, Morocco and his own Arizona hardcore punk and experimental past. That's all in addition to a handful of vendors inhabiting odd corners of the shop floor, stores within a store stocked to suit their tastes. Bandcamp is a radically decentralized online record store mirroring Double Nickels' music nerd's paradise.
Miles Bowe, a veteran music journalist whose ability to mine compelling experimental music via deep dives on Bandcamp verges on an art form, agrees. "I really started writing about [Bandcamp] around 2015. That was when I was at FACT and started doing the column there." Bowe now publishes a monthly column, Acid Test, on Bandcamp's in-house editorial wing, Bandcamp Daily. "It reminded me of that feeling of digging around on the internet and finding all this stuff. There was also this feeling of going to a record store where the artwork actually matters and every site you go on is almost like a little corner that this person can decorate as they want."
Sites like Discogs have long sought to recreate the excitement of the blind-buy or random flea-market vinyl find, as well as the idea of an "online collection," but no one's nailed it quite the way Bandcamp has. If I told my younger self that in 2020 there would be a site that allowed you to directly support artists with any amount of money, a platform that also demonstrated a clear commitment not only to strapped musicians and labels, but also progressive causes like the Transgender Law Center, the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense fund, it would have sounded like some far-fetched ideal.
This is down to the simplicity of Bandcamp's concept. "The short version is that we're an online record store and music community," says Bandcamp cofounder Ethan Diamond over Zoom from San Francisco. Diamond sold his previous start-up, Oddpost, to Yahoo! in 2004. After watching a band he liked struggle to hock their MP3s via their website, he came up with an idea to mimic self-publishing platforms like Blogger, offering musicians a no-frills "white-label service" marketplace.
"11 years ago when we started, we took a few million dollars in investment," Diamond says. "But the company is controlled by us—by me and my cofounder—and we've been profitable since 2012. That focus on profitability, the reason that's so important to us, is because that's given us the freedom to pursue our mission of supporting artists in a very sustainable, long-term way. So really 2012, that was one of the biggest milestones in the company's history. Without that, we'd be in a pretty tough position."
While a recent Guardian piece called Bandcamp the "heroes of streaming" (you can listen to many albums in full via Bandcamp's charmingly clunky web player), Diamond is quick to establish the differences between Bandcamp and the venture-capital fueled, barely-profitable model of streaming giants like Spotify.
"I think of streaming services these days as passive radio discovery," Diamond says. "What we're doing is quite different. Half the business is physical goods. Streaming services absolutely make sense as a replacement for radio, but just like radio, that only works for a small handful of the biggest artists and major labels. For most independent artists who we talk to, streaming is mostly generating spare change."
Diamond reemphasizes Bandcamp's emphasis on physical—"vinyl, cassettes, CDs, T-shirts and what have you"—a selection of which appear at their recently established storefront and venue in Oakland. Bandcamp comprises 70 employees spread across Oakland, Brooklyn, Montreal, British Columbia, the British Isles, Pittsburgh, Vermont, Paris, Melbourne, and Tokyo. Its editorial wing, Bandcamp Daily, is based in Brooklyn, while its technical nerve center is housed in the Bay Area. Diamond goes on to extol what he calls a "friction" that's key to the site's successful model.
"The friction that's created through the transaction makes the collection a lot more meaningful and therefore a better source of discovery," he says. "The quality of those collections, when you go to see, 'Hey, what did this person actually buy alongside this?' Rather than saying, 'Hey everybody, this is what I happen to be listening to right now.' Is that playing because they went to make a sandwich and the next track autoplayed? Or does this mean something to the person? And the best way to figure out if this means something to you, is, well, you listened to it a few times and you decided you needed to own it. You listened to it a few times and you decided, man, I want this artist to keep making this music so I'm directly supporting them."
In a world where most startups, even music startups, are attempting to onboard users to a "frictionless" network of mood-sensing algorithms, fulfillment centers and low-paid delivery employees, Diamond's language and general attitude sticks out like a sore thumb. I ask him if he has internalized the notion of selling out, in the classical '90s indie-rock sense. ("Well, uh yeah.") He gives a similarly blunt answer when I state that Bandcamp supports objectively left-leaning causes. (He smiles and says, "Right.")
But is it bad business to fight for the little guy? What prevents Bandcamp from prioritizing, say, the new Grimes album on the home page, the potential profit of a major release like Miss Anthropocene exponentially greater than, say, an excellent 100-press cassette by Texas experimental musician Claire Rousay?
"Eight years ago there was a big band, I can't name the band, but they were playing in Berkeley," Diamond says. "My cofounder Shawn and I got a call from someone. They said, 'Hey, do you want to come to the hotel room of the band's manager and pitch Bandcamp?' So we did that. We were in San Francisco, we got the BART train, commuted an hour, walked to the Claremont Hotel and went up to a suite. They were in there with their tea and five cellphones with a different member of every band calling at every moment, interrupting the meeting."
"At the end of this meeting, we talked for an hour, my impression was, OK, if we have three more meetings, we might get these guys to put up a free track to see what happens. And then I left, took BART home, got back to my desk with four hours of the day shot. During that time, 500 artists had signed up for the site while I was doing nothing. My immediate thought was, 'You know, this can't be what we do. This sort of white-glove service, it will never scale and it will always be a disservice to the greater community and the greater impact that we're trying to have here. Amongst those 500 artists that signed up, there may very well be one that's bigger than the one we tried to talk to and spent four hours on and couldn't really make happen."
The New York City-based artist MoMa Ready is quickly becoming one of those artists. On Juneteenth, amidst the anti-racist action spurred by the Black Lives Matter protests, Bandcamp gave its cut to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Thousands of artists followed suit. MoMa Ready, real name Wyatt Stevens, used the opportunity to drop the tenth release on his label HAUS Of ALTR, a landmark 27-track compilation featuring music from young black artists like Loraine James and AshTreJinkins.
"It was the fourth best-selling release of any genre on the website for the first 24 hours it was up," Stevens tells me. "We were able to raise $20,000, which is insanity for a Bandcamp release."
The label split these hefty proceeds between contributing artists, a group supporting Black trans folks (4THEGWORLS), a Black-focused festival (Afrotectopia) and an organization that gives modular synthesis education to Black youth (Afrorack).
"Bandcamp opened the floodgates for us," Stevens says. "Acemo and I are both people that don't like being told what to do. Being able to immediately provide context for our work, not have it be shelved because somebody may not be aware of how the vibe actually is in the realms that we make music, you know what I'm saying? You've got people that aren't necessarily aware of the cultural shifts happening, they don't have context for genres of music or whatever, they just like the way something sounds. That's not enough for Ace and I."
Since its launch in 2018, HAUS Of ALTR has catalyzed a youthful, diverse movement within dance music that's been fostered by the network of venues around Brooklyn and Queens. As the HOA010 compilation demonstrates, it now encompasses a movement of Black artists around the world.
Stevens isn't shy about criticising the dance music industry on social media, but he's an evangelist for Bandcamp. I'm curious why Bandcamp gets the nod as a platform worthy of supporting.
"The conversation is two-sided," he says. "It's not just some corporation dictating how shit should be. 15% is reasonable. That's how much a label asks to distribute your music. If I can make $700 off of 50,000 streams on a major streaming website which is fucking painful, that's not a lot of money. 50,000 streams? Alright, so 50,000 streams of a project on Bandcamp is $20,000. You know what I'm saying. So I'm like alright, fuck you."
HAUS of ALTR releases are on Spotify and Apple Music, but Bandcamp is where it's built a following, a community and a business. "We're very much about visibility because we're leaders and we have a general narrative. To be hard-nosed about underground culture doesn't really serve our general narrative. Our narrative is about overall awareness of dance music and Black dance music, so for us to undercut that for the sake of conservative underground, tote bag bullshit, I'm not about that really. I understand that streaming is what people use, but in terms of artists getting direct benefits from their art immediately, Bandcamp, I would say, is obviously the superior tool for that."
Stevens uses a distributor and often gets around to pressing vinyl, but not having to wait around for pressing plants, stores and labels has accelerated the aforementioned movement and spurred his creativity. Stevens predicts we'll start seeing genres and ideas change rapidly, within months, fostering intra-scene creativity in the way the ease and quickness of dubplate production fueled genre-defining clubs like DMZ.