Bandcamp And The Streaming Problem

Bandcamp is a website on a mission to provide musicians with the tools necessary to sell their recorded music–both digitally and physically. It’s an easy way for artists to give their fans a solid commerce experience and make more money than selling through iTunes or Amazon.

Despite all the positive work the company is doing in the music space, it still appears to be focused on selling downloads. This seems like a problem as the social consciousness is wrapped around the idea of unlimited and on-demand music streaming being the solution to the music industry’s woes.

Anyone paying $10 to Rdio, Spotify, Beats, or any of the other services has had the joy of searching for a song or album, hitting play, and being able to listen whenever they please. It’s amazing for causal listeners and enthusiasts alike.

While on-demand streaming music may be its technical future, it doesn’t appear to be the financial future artists were hoping for. To make the streaming model work, artists only make fractions of a cent each time someone hits play. It’s frustrating for artists struggling to rise above the fray who are just trying to support their music habit. But it’s equally as frustrating for fans who have to repeatedly watch as these bands they’ve emotionally invested in call it quits because recording music isn’t sustainable.

What’s the solution? For Bandcamp, it might be a feature called “subscribe.” A fan can directly support a single band by subscribing to them directly for, as an example, $20/year. The fan gains access to all the music that band makes over the course of the year and the band receives a guaranteed fan for that time period.

It’s awesome. Doing some quick math, it should really only take a small group of heavily invested listeners to lift an artist to a level of support they’ve probably never experienced in their musical careers.

No question, this was the answer to the new music industry a few years ago, I’m just not sure it’s still the answer today in 2014. Digital music download numbers are continually dropping (as a whole), plus there’s a visceral sense that people don’t want to have to manage their music, moving it from device to device.

Music is becoming inherently mobile, if it isn’t fully already, and so the thought of having to download something on-the-go is either inconvenient or, worse, not possible. When Thom Yorke released his new album through Bit Torrent, for example, mobile iOS users were forced to download the album via a desktop computer.

Bandcamp does have an app for iOS and Android, but you can’t purchase music through the iOS version–the Android version passes the user off to the website to make a purchase.

The company is putting up impressive numbers regarding money being made and albums being downloaded, despite the industry’s decline. The site is also continually making a great case for music discovery and fostering the type of community found in a record store. But there’s still this nagging feeling that downloads are becoming so irrelevant that it will make directly supporting artists less relevant as well. If Bandcamp isn’t part of the mainstream music conversation, can it still fulfill its mission?

Ethan Diamond, Bandcamp’s founder, recently gave a talk with the main point being that the best way to support an artist is to give them money directly. The 20 minute talk is well worth the time if you don’t believe people in the music industry are passionate about fighting for artists creating art–Diamond is very passionate about it.

I have no doubt that Bandcamp, as a group of individuals and as a company, is trying to do the right thing. It’s trying to provide a direct connection from artists to fans in a pleasant manner, that’s clear.

But it still seems like Bandcamp has a streaming problem, one that will have to be addressed at some point. I dearly want to support a growing number of artists, but it’s becoming harder and harder as I discover more music. Most people just can’t afford to pay for all the music they’d want to listen to.

Plus, streaming music is a dividing line. Once someone starts paying $10/month–over $100/year–for rented music, it’s hard to mentally get over the idea that if they stop paying the money and music will both be gone.

If Apple does get into on-demand music subscriptions with Beats Music in 2015, like is expected, next year really could be the year the mainstream jumps on the streaming bandwagon and leaves the idea of downloads to die.


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