As Black Bandcamp enters its fifth month, we speak with one of the founders about its rapid growth and fiercely independent approach.
Black Bandcamp are independent of the online marketplace with which they partially share a name—they use the platform as a tool to celebrate Black underground music and encourage the broader community to buy music from Black artists and Black-owned labels. Despite this link to the for-profit entity, Black Bandcamp remains staunchly grassroots, intent on keeping the platform Black-owned and free from corporate financial entanglements. Running on a volunteer workforce and self-investments only, the project has expanded far beyond its spreadsheet days without shirking its values or integrity. For many in the industry, this DIY-minded approach, which puts genuine care for artists, the scene and the culture above all else, has been refreshing and invigorating. In turn, Black Bandcamp has earned consistent praise from a variety of artists, labels, listeners and Bandcamp itself.
As Black Bandcamp plans big things for the new year, we spoke with Delanancy about its journey so far, where they find themselves now and her hopes and fears for the industry's future after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
My name is Niks, and I'm from London via Bath, I lived in Bath for six years. Away from Black Bandcamp I DJ, actually this summer I was going to have some of my larger gigs, so I was meant to play Public Records in New York with Amelia Holt. I feel like that was the thing I was really looking forward to this summer because I've heard such good things about Public Records. I also curate panels and workshops and talks. Aside from that, I'm instrumental in running south-east London local community radio station RTM, working closely with PeaBody and TACO to support the creative community. I get pitched a lot of ideas that we support throughout the year from young radio hosts. Young people are really curious in the audio space. So a couple of projects I'm working on are, one on the history of Soundsystem culture in the UK and [one on] the history of pirate radio in Black British culture.
How has Coronavirus impacted these projects?
Everything's moved online now. I also have a monthly residency on Noods, so that's one of the things I'm used to going into the studio and recording physically, but now I'm doing it live from home. Then a lot of meetings and teaching and masterclass sessions and workshops have gone online. I think one of the biggest changes and positives from the pandemic is the increase in collaborations. I've done a lot more collaborations with people and platforms that I would never have necessarily. I guess, between May and September, most of us are very busy at events, and we only settle down in September and October to start thinking about proactive initiatives. But actually, if I think back on the past seven months, I've been continuously working on proactive collaborations and initiatives with people and platforms that I perhaps would not have worked with before. So that's one of the big differences and changes. It's been quite nice to do some of these things like panels virtually, giving me more time to think about the content and execute it in a cleaner style, as well as take a step back from that burnout in a physical sense.
Black Bandcamp was one such collaboration, right? Can you tell us a bit about the project's origin?
On the second of June, I believe, there were the BLM protests in London, and I think across Europe, and the UK, following the murder of George Floyd. Online you saw a lot of people, particularly in our underground scene, being vocal about the disservice the scene has done to Black communities. Bandcamp was and still are the only platform, because I'm very conscious of not pushing, or further showcasing major publications or corporations or entities, that's done something with a real purpose to support artists, particularly during the pandemic when everyone's running out of money. A group of us had been thinking for a while—individually—what can I be doing in my respective circle to support artists who are Black during this particular time?
We'd already been actively engaging in and utilizing Bandcamp Days on the first Friday of every month, so this Google Sheet started up between like five of us on the Wednesday, just a basic google sheet called Black Bandcamp, and we had about 30 artists on the list. So we were like, OK, let's share this amongst ourselves and within our respective communities. I'm quite instrumental in a few Facebook groups, including Identification Of Music, Rhythm Sister, Freerotation, The ITT and a couple others. I posted the sheet in those groups and on my Instagram on Wednesday night, and when I woke up on Thursday morning, the Facebook posts were averaging like 1000 likes, my Instagram post had 500 likes, and it had over 200 re-shares to Instagram stories at the time. Then I started getting tagged by people such as RA, Mixmag, DJ Mag, i-D Mag, Dazed & Confused, The Vinyl Factory, Pitchfork, you know big publications saying "please click this link for a crowdsourced list of Black artists." So many people were engaging the sheet that on that Bandcamp Day there were 395 people in it at once, and I was like OK, this is great, but also alarming, because if anything happens to this sheet, then that's everyone's hard work just gone.
Seeing everyone in there was really overwhelming. Even thinking about it now is just insane. Because I had people messaging me from all corners of the earth. Like Nairobi, Tokyo, saying like, "Oh, do you mind if I share this?" and I'm like, yes, please do share it!
On Friday, Bandcamp Day, it blew up to the point where Google Sheets couldn't handle the number of people, so it locked everyone out, including us. The next week I spoke to a few friends who were back-end and front-end developers, and I told them, I need this built into a website in the next week, 'cause two weeks later Bandcamp did the Juneteenth Bandcamp day where they donated all their earnings to the NAACP. I wanted to have it as a website so it would be more digestible for people, also the fact that so many people were engaging and using it, it needed to have a more robust background.
I hired a couple developers to make the website, and that's when we came up with other features like the random shuffle function, allowing people to search by genres, search by location, those are functions that Bandcamp itself doesn't have. So it actually makes it a lot easier to search for Black artists and Black-owned labels. In the case of Juneteenth and that Friday, we had like 7,000 users engaging with the site, and the CEO of Bandcamp and one of their head developers and social media leads reached out. We had a call, and they were just like, "This is amazing, what can we do to support?"
Now we have 2,800 artists, producers and labels on the site. To this day people are still submitting, right now we have like 1,000 submissions to go through, it just never goes down, which is awesome because it's a reminder of all the amazing Black creative talent in the world. It's been great for me to learn, I mean even as a Black woman, I still see everything from a British perspective in the end. I think a lot of us are guilty of just knowing a handful of Black artists from America and Europe and then being like "that box is ticked."
[Black Bandcamp] has come a long way, and there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of the website and what we're doing as a platform to ensure we're serving the Black diaspora as a whole. That's a trap I think a lot of big publications and DJs and brands have fallen into. It's easy to just stick to the Black people or Black-owned labels or producers that you know and push them. But what ends up happening is it's the same ten Black people who get recycled to be booked to play gigs to be asked to do things, when there's a whole world of us out there.
What did Bandcamp offer as support?
I worked with their developers, and they created an integrated invisible "Black Bandcamp" tag for the site. If I go on Black Bandcamp, click on Kerri Chandler, follow the link to his Bandcamp, and buy and listen to a couple things, it tracks that journey, so we're able to capture the impact we're having. They sent us some ridiculous stat stating that people visiting Bandcamp via Black Bandcamp stayed on the site longer, left less and looked at more pages for longer than average.
How do you feel about being tethered to a for-profit platform like Bandcamp?
It's interesting, because, as I mentioned earlier, I am not one for further showcasing any sort of corporation or, you know, massive platform or publication that doesn't need to be further showcased. But I think it comes down to monopolies because when you've got one entity that monopolizes a particular skill, it's difficult to escape. That being said, Bandcamp is one of the only music/streaming platforms that's done anything to support artists. I'm not some sort of Bandcamp spokesperson, but it's the truth. In fact, if you look up some of the others, which I won't mention, they're absolutely exploiting artists, it's disgusting.
It's a balance, you know, Bandcamp has half a million followers on Instagram. We're not there yet, so we can't start to dismantle entities, we have to utilize the ones that exist and are there to support us and work with us to support artists. It's obvious which entities have a genuine concern for artists and not. As far as I'm concerned, when I spoke to Bandcamp, that was their wish for Bandcamp Day, and therefore it was the only platform that we could use to share artists' links.
On the flip side, Bandcamp is a corporation, and they need to make money to survive. That's how they function, they make money every day. I think that's a different conversation, because I have my own opinions on organizations that monopolize a particular area, and Bandcamp is a platform that kind of looks like that. But it's the most ethical one. So can I slam them? I can't. It's a balance of meeting halfway, they are doing the most to support independent artists, and in fact, when they made the donations to the NAACP, again, I can't name another streaming platform that has done that. So yeah, it's quite a paradoxical binary, because we're saying "support artists directly," but we still have to use this platform that benefits from it. You know, we're not quite there yet, we're not in, like, a socialist society.
On our own team, we are very much volunteer-, community-lead and run, which I'd really like to emphasize. And if anyone has any ideas on how to skip the middleman organizations and corporations, I'm very open to that, because that's essentially the end goal. Because the monopolies are benefiting, whether it be monetarily, or even just the good PR of it, while there are actual grassroots people who are doing so much groundwork behind the scenes who don't receive any of the rewards or flowers they are due.
Once Bandcamp had seen the statistics showing the amount of traffic Black Bandcamp was driving, was there any acknowledgement of how this had benefited them or some sort of referral fee exchanged?
There has definitely been an acknowledgement of just the free marketing and free money we've been giving them. One of the things I'm very conscious about is ensuring that Black Bandcamp stays as a grassroots, community-led entity. So there is no point where I'm going to take an offer from any sort of big boy. Not to say that anyone's offered to come and just take over. But to me, even having the slightest bit of monetary connection to another big player, it just loses the whole essence of why I decided to do this in the first place. Maybe it means that it will take us five years longer to grow and make artists benefit in terms of money quicker. But that's why people are engaged with it in the first place, because it's not a corporation, it's not led by monopolies, it's led by people within the scene and the community who have a genuine passion for what they're doing. If Bandcamp had created a sub-platform, Black Bandcamp, would it have received the same level of engagement? No. And I said this to Bandcamp on our Zoom call. It would have been seen as just another corporation trying to tick the "we're allies" box, and it wouldn't have picked up the same momentum.
Going back to your stated goal of serving as much of the Black diaspora as possible: do you have any plans to compile similar databases for streaming platforms or modes of music sharing that are popular in non-Western countries where Bandcamp is not?
Yeah, this is something we've discussed internally because one of the noticeable recurring things that was happening was a lot of people who had music submitted to the website were Black African American or Black European. So I had to sit down and think, OK, why is this happening? Is it because in other parts of the world Bandcamp isn't a platform that they use? Is it because all the people pushing Black Bandcamp are in the same circles?
That goes back to what I was discussing earlier, this Western lens, like, I'm a Black woman, but I still live in the UK, so my eyes and ears are still engaged with the same content as a non-Black person in America, or Europe. People in Africa are, I'm learning, using Bandcamp, but it's just what circles.
So moving forward it's definitely something to discuss. Are people using other music platforms we should be engaging with? A lot will be happening and changing with Black Bandcamp in the new year, especially since Bandcamp days are going to come to an end [in 2021], it doesn't necessarily have to be Black Bandcamp, it could be Black whatever. This would help with the issue of giving Bandcamp too many flowers and open us to platforms we might not have eyes and ears on yet that people in, say, the Democratic Republic Of Congo are using.
In addition to the database, Black Bandcamp has also launched an editorial wing. Can you tell us a bit about how that developed?
We started the editorial platform in late July, and it came out of a combination of things. First of all, we were receiving lots of emails and messages from producers and labels being like, "Hey, I've got this release coming out please can you guys help me by showcasing it?" The website seemed like a perfect way for people to engage with music not just in terms of listening, but also reading about artists in a written format, especially in cases where there's a lot of politics and context behind the release. Also, as we grew internally, there were about three or four people, now part of the team, who reached out and were really motivated by supporting in that way. So I was like, cool, you guys are already experienced writers and editors and are well-known in the scene, I don't see why we wouldn't explore that.
What's your vision for Black Bandcamp's editorial space?
We have our own eyes and ears around to really dig deep beyond, again, the European/American perspective. It would be a combination of us being quite proactive, but also receiving submissions. It would be great to be at a point where we can churn out daily content in an editorial sense focusing on new artists labels and producers who don't have the backing or platform to showcase themselves.
Would you consider doing ads or some sort of crowdfunding campaign to sustain the editorial wing?
It's something that has come up a lot in the past, like in conversations internally. I always think about occupying space. There are venues, entities, platforms, individuals who are at the brink of closure and just not existing if they don't have any funding or money. We're not at that stage. So I say to myself, OK, a platform like Sistah Space are still £75,000 from their target and will literally be homeless if they don't get that £150K. Will Black Bandcamp cease to exist if we don't start crowdfunding? No. Could that £5 that someone would have given to us be better used for Sistah Space? Absolutely. Because I'm conscious that we're in a pandemic, people have been made redundant, people have no money, and the last thing we want to do is ask people for money when other places need that donation. And I would actually advocate that people donate directly to places like Sistah Space that need, literally need the money because they have a physical space to run. For all the plans that we have in mind, we're fine as far as resources. In the future, as we grow if there's a case where we need money or Black Bandcamp will die, maybe, but for now, I think there are other people that are more in need than we are.
Do you think the events and conversations of 2020 will bring actual change to the music industry? If so, what do you think that will look like?
I'm not sure. I think there's a 50/50 half optimism, half pessimistic cynical side of things. The optimistic side looks at it like, OK, you've got a platform like mine which people are engaging in. You've got some publications who've written pledges, and some have from what I can see stuck to them and are being proactive in engaging with Black content, working with Black artists and that's awesome. My concern is the momentum of this. Everyone is stuck at home, we're in a pandemic, people are a bit bored and forced to read these articles and watch these videos and scroll through their timeline where everyone is talking about how we need to diversify.
I think perhaps some people want to go back into their daily routine and fall back into what they do and know, which is part of the problem. Then everything that was spoken about and discussed and worked on gets forgotten, and it ends up having been very performative. I'm thinking back to a panel I watched a few weeks ago, and even the dynamics of that, where the only non-white person raised the issue of, "Well I can't actually discuss my plans for the future because I'm too concerned with Black people having ten more obstacles than you do." These are people who are running monopolies in the scene, and they have nothing to say about changes they're making in regards to race and diversity. And this is now, while we're in a pandemic. So when we're not in a pandemic are we supposed to think that things are going to change when people are gobsmacked and even offended as to why they're being asked about what they're doing to support Black folks?
So it's a difficult one, I think we'll only know when we're out of the pandemic, and that's when people's true colours, you know, all these pledges, we'll be able to look back and say hey you did that a year ago and now what have you actually done. Another thing is the various grants that have been given out, you know, and I just want to be very clear, that I feel the decision making process for some of these grants and relief funds was swayed by the fact that such entities are monopolies. I believe that if there was more knowledge around the entities that were granted such large sums of funding— e.g. how much space they occupy, monopolise and how little they actually support artists—then it would've been a different outcome. Who has access to what resources? Who can afford to hire an exceptional bid writer versus who cannot? And that's just another example when we talk about change, is there going to be any change when these entities monopolize things and therefore have a massive impact on everything? And it's not just about diversifying DJ lineups, it's who the bouncer is at the door, who's pouring my drink, who's doing sound and lighting design, who my artist liaison is, who's the night manager, who's the promoter. And the entities that will survive this [pandemic] are the ones who've implemented this very very negative system of showcasing people who aren't from marginalized groups and communities—unless they change then I'm not sure what can change.
I think it's an interesting question. Record labels and publications, it's something they need to think about, being very serious and genuine about wanting to make changes. Because you're the ones with the power. So unless you give up that power, you know, make those sacrifices, then really it's not going to change. Maybe in ten years when Black Bandcamp is on that level, we might be able to, but we're just one platform.
It always takes me back to the lack of Black ownership in the industry. Unless there is more ownership, there's never going to be change because, you know, most of these entities are run by the same ten white dudes that run in the same circles. Is this at the forefront of their mind, trying to like, save the scene, whatever that means to them?
Do you think audiences have some power in this equation? Shifting their attention and support to platforms that embody some of the changes they'd like to see in the scene?
I think, actually, the editorial space is one where there has been more change. There's a particular publication who's recently been putting a lot of content out about Black culture in the dance scene and hiring Black writers to do it, so that's pretty great to see and I know it's been getting a lot of attention. Which again, still gives those big publications good PR, but ultimately it's leveraging another Black writer or Black creative and knowledge around Black underground music.
Maybe it's just the circles that I'm in, but I do think the editorial output of smaller platforms is receiving more attention than it would have before and hopefully this is something that continues. I mean, Dweller as an example, I seldom used to read their articles and would pay more attention to their festival lineups when they'd come out. But this summer, all the pieces, and I've read some of them twice because I'm just like, wow, this is so engaging and interesting, and they're written by some really intelligent writers who have a lot of knowledge. So I think in the editorial space perhaps new entities pick up quicker than in other areas, particularly while we are unsure as to when we can next plan physical initiatives.
What would your advice to music consumers be? In your mind, what choices could they make that would help enact and sustain changes in the industry?
Just be as profoundly conscious as possible. Because it's the individual actions, and I'll use Black Bandcamp as an example, everyone who submitted something to the website has done something that's positively contributed to the community. That's an example of how you can do something consciously in day-to-day life in the music scene and not just take from it but give back to it. Do you just take or do you give back to the industry you benefit from?
You can donate, you can share people's posts, and not just share but actually read them, if you're in a circle of friends continuously challenge people, and they should be challenging themselves. And educate yourself on what you're supporting. For instance, a lot of people bought music on Juneteenth, but do they actually know what Juneteenth is? Another one, I challenged a well-known record label who did a post that same week saying all profits go to the Stephen Lawrence Trust, and I was like, "Do you even know who Stephen Lawrence is?" And they gave me two facts, but didn't know any of the context around it. So, things like that. Actually educate yourself and learn and have a bit of understanding before you consume and try to give back.
I've saved the most challenging question for last. What are your favourite finds from Black Bandcamp?
This is actually kind of embarrassing because this label has been running since 2001! But I heard a track from one of the releases via Josey Rebelle back in February, and I thought "what is that EP?" And then I was going through Black Bandcamp, it came up, and I was like oh my god, this person runs that label! So, deepblak is the label, run by AYBEE in Berlin, it's sick. The EPs he's been releasing are unreal, but the one that's a standout for me is Reverb, which came out in February of this year. And then Santana Mongoley is a Congolese artist who makes highlife, soukous, rumba kind of music and wow, again, like, completely different from what we're used to listening to, it's amazing. Those are my two gems, and whenever I get asked this question I always mention them and I've been incorporating them into my mixes because they're awesome!