It goes without saying that the old institutions of the music business world—record stores, radio charts, vinyl, cassettes, and CDs—are fading into obscurity. In their place are bizarrely named streaming services that, increasingly, are how we find and share new music: Spotify, Pandora, Songza, Google Play, Apple's impending Beats platform, YouTube's freshly-announced Key Music.
These sites and apps are great for users, who get to listen to gigantic libraries of tracks without (in most cases) paying very much for the privilege. But critics say that artists barely earn anything from their songs being streamed; Taylor Swift famously pulled her music from Spotify this year because she felt it wasn't being valued when it was just part of the streaming library. Other artists probably feel the same way, though they may not have Swift's luxury of selling a million albums with or without Spotify.
In this rather musician-unfriendly landscape, Bandcamp—a site used by many independent artists and labels—is entering the streaming market with a model that the six-year-old company hopes will change the way the game is played.
Officially announced on November 11 at the SF MusicTech Summit conference, the plan is to allow bands to curate a personalized online subscription streaming and download service for their fans. While Bandcamp previously let artists to set the price of their music, this currently-unnamed feature—set to be released out of beta by the end of the year—will allow them to create unique subscription packages where fans pay an amount determined by the band, and in turn, receive new, streamable music the moment it's released through Bandcamp's app. Importantly, the site will only take a 15 percent cut, which drops to 10 percent once an artist hits $5,000 in sales.
"It's kinda like what U2 and Apple did, except that it's music that you actually want!" Ethan Diamond, the founder of Bandcamp, told the Guardian. A better comparison might be Vimeo's new On Demand option, or even a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign—if a band gets just a few hundred fans who are willing to pay a monthly premium, they'll hypothetically have less trouble affording to record and release music regularly, which their fans will get the second it drops.
"You could call it a la carte streaming, though that sounds horrible and I don't like that term," Diamond told me over the phone. The Bandcamp founder emphasized that this was not just a way for people to get new music, it was a way for artists to reach out to the people who love them directly.
"There's a competition that artists feel with social media and getting through to fans using Facebook or Twitter," he said. "Often there's the promoted-post bullshit, things get buried, and people can game the system. We wanted to let artists know that if fans subscribe to them, the artists can post messages and photos directly to subscribers through the app."
But there are plenty of questions about how all this will work—for starters, any band who takes advantage of this will have to already have fans willing to fork over some cash every month for the promise of new music, messages, and pics.
"It doesn't seem like something that will serve any type of new or up-and-coming artist, but it will serve the artist that already has a huge following and who doesn't necessarily need this boost in digital sales," said Jake Acosta, the owner and founder of the Chicago-based independent record label Lake Paradise, who told me he didn't use any digital music service besides Bandcamp. "I guess I don't see it as very groundbreaking."
Ric Leichtung, co-founder of music site AdHoc, said that fans and artists could have a lot to gain through a service like this, but questioned whether bands would release enough good songs to make it worthwhile for their subscribers.
"There's no doubt that Bandcamp is capable of building a great platform for self-publishers, but the question that remains to be seen is if they'll use it properly," he told me over email. "Releasing quality content over a consistent period of time is hard, and it's a very real possibility that the bulk of the material released via subscription will be subpar, which will alienate potential patrons from using the service altogether."
Acosta agreed, adding the feature could "put stress on the artists to produce, even when [they're] not ready. If fans are paying a certain amount per month or per year and are expecting new material, then it now factors into the artists' creative process. It doesn't seem organic."
Realistically, artists probably won't charge their fans a premium unless they do plan to write and record material relatively frequently—and fans who are willing to pay for music that way will probably be drawn to the altruistic idea of supporting artists and not demand fresh tracks every 30 days.
"I don't think subscriptions are for every artist," Diamond told. "Not all artists want to give [away] everything they have immediately. And that's totally fine; some people make work in a way that's just not a great fit for the subscription model. There are artists who want to share the creative process they go through—maybe they put out stuff more frequently. For those people, we want to give them the option to connect with their fans and give something back."
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