How Bandcamp could really fix the music business
“A thought: has streaming become the place to address consumers and the likes of Bandcamp the places to engage fans? i.e., fans and fandom inherently matter less on streaming because it/they are a minority.”
I recently posted this tweet questioning whether streaming has become the place for finding fans, while Bandcamp is the place where fans really are. Some of the resulting conversation got me thinking that there are several related but disconnected industry dynamics which define today’s music business but are second-order effects of streaming’s rise rather than how anyone planned for things to pan out. If someone could join the dots between them then we might just have the makings of a solution to many of the problems artists face in the streaming song economy. And perhaps that someone could be Bandcamp…
When being empowered does not feel as empowering as it should
One of the great ironies of this era of empowered artists is that the empowerment only extends so far. Sure, they can choose whether to work with a label, whether to retain their rights, which distributor to use etc., but the vast majority are beholden to streaming. Streaming is where they build and find their audiences; streaming metrics are the success currency that drives or helps shape most of everything else that happens in their careers. Yet the economics for most middle class and independent artists do not add up. Even the ability to get bigger live audiences thanks to streaming does not help pay the bills for most emerging artists as they are still in the stage of their careers where they lose money touring. This is of course why Bandcamp has resonated so strongly in recent years: it is the place where artists bring the audiences they are building on streaming to a place where they can earn meaningful income.
Streams or fans?
This discover on Spotify / monetise on Bandcamp flow works well enough, but it is like bottom-trawling fishing: most of what you catch you discard. But there is more to it than that. If labels and artists are investing their marketing efforts in driving streams as the way to find audiences and build fan bases but few listeners actually convert, this means that the streaming platforms are benefiting much more from that marketing spend than they are. Add to that the fact artists cannot build direct relationships on most streaming services (excepting, as always, Soundcloud and YouTube), then the question becomes: what are artists building on streaming apart from streams? Of course, there is always the unicorns and rainbows hope that they might blow up on streaming – but artist careers cannot be built around the hope of winning the lottery. What is pointedly not being built is, you guessed it, fandom. Audiences may fall in love with the music on streaming and they may follow the artist etc., but they build their fandom elsewhere, going to Google, Wikipedia, Instagram, forums, articles and the like to really get to know the artist.
Bringing it all together
Make no mistake, streaming does an amazing job of helping people hear new music and it does a pretty good job of helping people discover new music (there is of course a massive difference between hearing a new song once and really discovering new music). But the missing bit is nurturing fandom; feeding curiosity, enabling connections with others, facilitating self-expression, getting beneath the skin of an artist. A certain scale of audience is needed to turn Bandcamp into truly meaningful income for artists and right now too much of that responsibility lies with streaming. This is where Bandcamp has a ‘go big or go home’ opportunity.
What if discovery, consumption and fan building could all happen on Bandcamp, not just e-commerce? Apart from a little editorial, right now Bandcamp is not designed as a destination but instead as the place people go to buy stuff. Imagine if Bandcamp was also a place to listen to music, discover cool new artists (based on users’ stated preferences and behaviour to deliver personalised recommendations) and learn about those artists. A place for bands and alternative singer-songwriters. A place to reclaim the essence of ‘independent’ from major label-owned ‘independent’ artist platforms.
Of course, there is a tension: if Bandcamp suddenly starts doing streaming, then it puts sales at risk – the very essence of its market proposition. But Bandcamp doesn’t need to play by the streaming rule book. It doesn’t need to license the majors (or even the big indies); instead, it can build a completely new model with smaller labels who are open to creating something new.
For example, a listener might be able to stream the songs from an album twice before then having the option to pay to unlock the album for unlimited streams using pre-purchased credits. Effectively creating a full streaming catalogue that can be unlocked one album / EP / artist at a time, rather than 'simply stream before you buy'. This would combine the best of both worlds: streaming consumption and sales income for the artist. Once you start thinking about things in this way, the possibilities light up the horizon.
A fan accelerator
So now we have Bandcamp driving discovery, consumption and commerce. But it could do more still: it can become a fan accelerator. By combining all these assets and ensuring artists can always talk directly to their fans and know exactly who they are (opt-in emails, names, DOB, interests etc.) artists would be able to build fan bases like nowhere else. But rather than simply provide the tools to artists, Bandcamp could help them with guidance, support and fan roadmaps. Not all artists are one million follower artists; some might only ever be 100 follower artists. Using its data and expertise, Bandcamp could help artists understand what the right path is for them. For some, it would be providing the tools to get to 10,000 followers; for others, it might be how to truly engage 100.
This might sound like common sense, but too much of the music business is shaped by over-inflating artists’ expectations, trading on unrealistic dreams. The first chapter of the independent artist economy was about establishing them as a serious force in the music business and getting platforms to scale. The next chapter should be shaped by independent artist tools and platforms shouldering a duty of care to their customer bases, to help them plot the right paths for them. There are as many different models for success as there are artists. Success needs redefining for those artists that will never hit it big, nor may ever even be able to give up the day job. Finding those ‘100 true fans’ can still be success; it just needs measuring differently.
There are plenty of other directions this could go in, and there are plenty of other entities that could go in this direction. What matters is that the siloes the industry finds itself with are broken down and that fandom and creator remuneration do not fall between the cracks. With new foundations, we could truly see the emergence of the empowered artist.