Earlier this month, Bandcamp, perhaps the most artist-friendly digital music platform at the moment, announced it was joining Epic Games, the makers of hit video games such as Fortnite. The acquisition ignited fearful and skeptical reactions from labels, artists, and fans worldwide. Considering Bandcamp’s ease of access and commitment to spreading its diversity to listeners, it’s perhaps the most important promotional tool for independent Latine acts worldwide — and this move could mean the end of one of the last bastions of independent digital music distribution that puts music and fans to the fore.
Bandcamp is a unique platform for musicians, including Latine talent, who have to navigate the industry differently. Getting noticed is more challenging than ever in an ever-growing market, and pay-to-play playlist placements on popular music streaming platforms can be unfair to artists not getting fair monetary compensation for their recordings. In this landscape, Bandcamp leveled the playing field.
In many ways, Bandcamp stands apart from the other digital music providers such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, as labels and artists can upload their music directly into the service for sale instead of offering per-play payments. Listeners are then encouraged to purchase the music for download, streaming, or as a bundle with physical media and/or merch. Unlike streaming platforms that work with music aggregators to administer the music uploaded, often in exchange for a fee, users can upload their music directly to Bandcamp for free. In recent years, the platform has added a ticketed live-streaming service and a limited vinyl pressing service.
The news of this partnership has left professionals and fans scratching their heads. Artists and labels in particular are asking themselves what this could all mean for their future, as is the case of Umor Rex Records. The Mexico City-based label has made a name in the larger world of experimental electronic music with a roster of artists from New York, Chicago, Berlin, Tehran, and León, Guanajuato — thanks in no small part to the internet. Founder and sole operator Daniel Castrejón admits he initially didn’t understand the move but then saw a silver lining. “Bandcamp has been a great tool for digital sales. As limited as we are in Latin America, we greatly appreciate access to this kind of tool. My first reaction was that this is bad news, considering how corporations tend to absorb small businesses and run them to the ground,” he tells Remezcla. “But I read that they are planning on getting into vinyl pressing, and it would be a great benefit for a lot of us.”
Ejival, head of the Tijuana long-running Static Discos, sees it as a problem beyond Bandcamp. “At the end of the day, someone is making money from what a larger community is building,” he chimes in. “It would be great if the spoils generated by the acquisition — I’m not clear if it’s a buyout or a partnership or what — were to be shared with said community, though.”
“At the end of the day, someone is making money from what a larger community is building. It would be great if the spoils generated by the acquisition were to be shared with said community”
Since its inception in 2008, Bandcamp has attracted a steady userbase of artists and listeners. But it was during the 2020 pandemic when it hit a milestone by pledging to waive their fees during the first Friday of almost every month for 24 hours in order for artists to receive a more significant profit from sales. In 2020, they raised $40 million during the year-long event. Additionally, in support of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, Bandcamp made a similar 24-hour event on June 19, donating 100% of their profits to the NAACP Legal Defence Fund. In 2021, Bandcamp Friday and Juneteenth events continued.
In the last two years, Bandcamp’s operations have placed them into a larger conversation about the ethics of digital music consumption and artist compensation. Its model has been beneficial to all sides while industry leader Spotify — which boasts a deeper catalog, larger user base, and star power — is still operating at a loss. Indeed, Bandcamp has been touted as the future of music.
Part of Bandcamp’s appeal is its role as the defender of music and its creators. Spotify — which pays as little as $0.0033 per play — has come under scrutiny for its disregard for artists. CEO Daniel Ek qualified criticism as “a narrative fallacy,” and the company invested heavily in other audio ventures, like the infamous Joe Rogan deal. By contrast, Bandcamp is constantly uplifting artists within their platform and encouraging users to discover more music with their robust tagging system and Bandcamp Daily, their editorial arm. [Full Disclosure: The author of this article has contributed to Bandcamp Daily].
Bandcamp’s acquisition announcement reassured users that nothing would change and their new partnership would help everyone involved. It also mentions explicitly that artists will continue to receive “an average of 82% of every sale.” Still, many are fearful about their new association.
Known primarily as the makers of hit video games like Fortnite and Gears of War, Epic Games has had a short yet eventful history with music. Most notably, Fortnite has hosted in-game concerts that have proven to be massive hits, chief among them the 2020 Travis Scott state-of-the-art event, which boasted an audience of 27.7 million unique players. Other music-related ventures include a J Balvin Halloween concert in 2020 and investing in music publisher Lickd.
One of the most concerning aspects of Epic Games is its ownership. Since 2012, Tencent — a Chinese multimedia conglomerate — has owned 40% of the company. Tencent has other music-related stakes in other music-related ventures such as major labels Warner, Sony, Universal, and even Spotify. Moreover, its music subsidiary, Tencent Music, is the biggest music service in China. This development makes Bandcamp fans more than a little nervous.
In their own press release, Epic Games placed great importance on Bandcamp’s “fair and open” quality, saying “… Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.” This appears to reference their Epic Games Store, which they opened partly over their legal battles against Apple and Google for shady practices in their app stores. This resulted in the latter two deleting Fortnite from their catalogs. As Pitchfork suggested, Bandcamp could represent a way for Epic Games Store to rebrand and have a more competitive chance on the market.
Epic Games has a mixed history of remunerating creators. On the one hand, they offer an 88% cut to independent creators selling their games in their store — a higher rate than most similar marketplaces — which seem to align with their mission statements. On the other hand, they have been accused of bribery and other questionable practices towards video game developers to get exclusivity in their store, as well as similar accusations of Fortnite usage of dances without compensating the creators and profiting off them instead.
Since very few details have emerged from the joint venture and their plans in the future — and even those details’ wording is quite vague — the fact is that Bandcamp will change. As platforms become part of bigger pieces of a corporate entity, truly independent outlets are becoming a rarity. A huge transition is happening, and artists are left off the negotiation table, as it has become customary. Hopefully, the future of music will include the voices of those making music to find the means to make a living doing their craft.
According to Luis Alvarado of the Lima, Perú, label Buh Records, this is an essential aspect of the platform. “Bandcamp has this feeling of horizontal integrity,” he tells Remezcla. “They cover a huge array of genres and territories. I think their editorial branch, Bandcamp Daily, is the only medium which has such diverse coverage.”
For Alvarado, it was an inevitable move given how common internet conglomerates are now. “I think the fear of Epic pushing Bandcamp to include more mainstream artists is unfounded since that’s not Banndcamp’s business. Having said this, a positive change would be to revamp Bandcamp to become a more interactive user experience in terms of navigation, payment options, their mobile app, and more.”
Only time will tell if Bandcamp’s attention to music and the people who love it will remain the driving force into their next chapter.