News of Bandcamp’s sale to Songtradr and subsequent reduction in workforce has spiked anxiety amongst many musicians that the demise of another seemingly ‘artist first’ platform is on the horizon.
“Is Bandcamp as We Know It Over?” asked Pitchfork
“Bandcamp loses 50% of its employees and part of its identity” announced Télérama in France
“Losing Bandcamp would mean losing a path into music’s future” pondered The Washington Post
Of course, we can’t predict the future, but for independent musicians in niche genres like jazz, it’s worth digging into how a platform which essentially ‘just’ acts as an online record store has achieved such status – and how one might replicate some of that in a post-Bandcamp world…
Selling your music direct is nothing special
I’ve heard from plenty of musicians in the past who were reluctant to “give Bandcamp 10-15%” for something which they could quite easily do via their own website.
They’re not wrong: setting up a page on your website where fans can send you money and get physical copies or digital downloads of your music is not hard. In fact, if you’re using one of the more popular musician website builders, it’s downright simple.
But that misses a big part of the picture of what Bandcamp has become…
So why is/was Bandcamp good?
In order to dig into the ways we can replicate the success of Bandcamp on a small artist-centred way, it helps to figure out just why it’s been such a success.
1. Social sales & recommendations
In much the same way you go into a vinyl store for one thing and come out with 4 others on top, Bandcamp does a great job at making recommendations when people are in the mood to spend money.
They aren’t just the checkout person, but the digital equivalent of a 90s-era record store complete with comfortable seats and familiar faces.
This has allowed them to amass a tribe of music fans who are proud to support artists. As Pitchfork noted:
“Bandcamp customers love music so much that they’re willing to pay real money for a non-material format that the rest of the market long ago left for dead as it moved to a subscription model.”
Bandcamp prompts artists to recommend other albums and show customers what people they know and trust are buying too.
Suddenly, you’re selling music to people who would not have landed on your website or seen your social media post about your latest release.
These interconnected ‘social sales‘ were said to contribute around 30% of all sales on the platform – notably, higher than the 10-15% commission
2. Telling the story
In a landscape bursting with algorithmic recommendations and user-generated-content, Bandcamp stood out for its editorial coverage.
Overseen by a substantial team (allegedly now reduced by around 50%) they didn’t just critique new releases; they curated content and told the story of the influences, musicians and even cities behind them.
For the average listener confronted with millions of possible recordings, this provides context, some friendly guidance and a motivation as to why they want to support a certain independent artist or label.
3. Permission to push
As many musicians know, keeping up momentum with a newsletter and a pre-order campaign is not easy.
Hitting send again without worrying everyone will hate you is a tough one to push through.
So whilst not a replacement for a great newsletter strategy, Bandcamp’s willingness to do that on the musicians’ behalf was a big win.
They sent emails when a pre-order was announced, release day, and in various other ways in between.
In a roundabout way, Bandcamp Friday’s created a similar effect.
Whilst on the surface it was a chance for musicians to earn a little extra money, what it really created were thousands of monthly self-promotional posts from musicians who might otherwise have felt uncomfortable deciding to push their followers – again – to spend money.
As we established, simply having a ‘buy now’ button on your website is not heard to do, but making people confident enough to press it is another thing.
In the age of online fraud, having your credit card details saved with one trusted platform like Bandcamp can make the difference between ‘buying’ and ‘not buying’ for many people.
Coupled with the ease-of-use (I don’t know about you, but i don’t even need to type anything before I buy on BC now) it adds up to extra sales across the board, thanks to the familiarity and confidence with the system.
Recreating The Bandcamp Magic
Perhaps Bandcamp will go from strength to strength, but for those not using the platform, or those looking for a more direct alternative, it doesn’t hurt to look at how musicians could recreate some of the Bandcamp effect off of the platform…
It’s a basic, but it needs to be right.
A payment process which doesn’t involve “send me money via Paypal and I’ll be in touch” or navigating unsecure (http) checkout pages.
Get the basics right and make it look professional, so people have confidence to buy from you.
Once they have, the delivery (physical or digital) needs to be quick and pain-free too.
Newsletter, newsletter, newsletter
A big part of the success of Bandcamp has been in bringing customers back, time and time again, and prompting them to connect directly with artists.
You can keep this personal contact (and even improve on it) by sending regular, creative newsletters which invite responses from your readers.
Then reply, like the old days.
Same goes for any social media platforms; it should be a two-way conversation.
Building Your Own Community
Bandcamp makes it very easy to build and see your community.
Everyone who has every bought from you is there at the click of a button. And, more than that, they know they are part of that community too.
A big part of life-after-Bandcamp is replicating that.
It doesn’t need a new platform or hours of work, but it needs
- organisation in identifying people who are in your community
- creativity in how to engage with them
Patreon? Facebook? Instagram?
The ‘where’ isn’t as important as the ‘how’…
Collective Power (Sharing is Caring)
I’ve written before about the early 2010s when ‘collectives’ were big – at least in my then-home-city of London.
It makes total sense: shared workload for a (bigger) shared audience.
Bandcamp does this for musicians in a big way, and losing that would be a real hit.
This point perhaps involves the most thought and creativity, but if I was a musician, this would be my starting point:
Bring together a handful of other musicians who share some common values, both musically and socially.
You could formalise it (more of a record label) or keep it loose.
Set up a central place to display your music and connect with your audience together. Perhaps it’s a central store and mailing list, which you are all allowed to tap into.
Run your own promotions (with regular sharing of ideas) and make sure that a certain amount of “check out what my friends X, Y & Z” are doing it build into it.
The resulting whole should be way more than the sum of its parts.
If you drop the ball, need some time away or get busy on other things, someone else will be in full-on promo mode and some of that will trickle back to everyone else.
You could even go one step further and take a shared cut of sales as a collective profit or for reinvesting.
It goes without saying that this requires a lot of trust and group-work, but the rewards are there for the taking.
There was an overriding belief amongst musicians that Bandcamp was/is a company that cared from the top down. Whether or not that’s been tarnished by the owner’s willingness to sell out for the big bucks, that’s for you to decide.
The pinnacle of that was perhaps Bandcamp Friday, where the company waived their fee so the artists earnt more.
Of course, if you’re setting up on your own, there are no fees to be paid, but that doesn’t mean the concept of ethical monetisation needs to stop.
Why not flip it on its head and make one day a month where 10-15% of the sales go to a charity or a musician trying to get a specific project off the ground.
On the surface it doesn’t benefit you financially, but it will quite possibly lead to more sales and a large amount of goodwill and value (which, incidently, tends to have a way of coming back…)
The other angle on this ‘ethical monetisation’ topic is to look for other platforms which share some similar ‘artist first’ models.
Patreon has done a good job of this, as has Ko-Fi; there are plenty more.
Direct Engagement over Algorithms
A big part of Bandcamp for many is the fact that it is not ‘algorithmic first’ in its recommendations.
If you’re going it alone, you probably won’t be using an algorithm anyway, but it’s also important not to forget the ‘analogue’ version…
Recommending another albums or artist with no expectation of anything in return not only costs you nothing, it generally creates a net-positive outcome in the independent music ecosystem.
Setting reminders and prompts to champion music you like more regularly would be another way of replicating some of the good Bandcamp does.
Pre-orders & limited edition
We’ve seen it time and time again: long pre-order periods with limited edition offers are a great way of generating extra sales and spreading the news of your music further and wider than before.
Of course, it’s the way you promote this that leads to success – not simply the fact to have it ‘available’ – but the way it’s ingrained in the release process on Bandcamp pushes more artists to make use of it than ever before.
Setting up to sell your music on any other platform – elsewhere or via your website – should involve plans for noisy pre-order periods at a very early stage.
For all the modern technolody out there, one thing hasn’t changed since the beginning of human existence: people love stories.
Regardless of whether or not a writer at Bandcamp is covering your music, the onus is on you to tell the best stories you can.
Of course, there are the super-fans and musicians who come and stay for the music, who can sniff out something original from a mile away.
But there are a huge number of passionate listeners and would-be fans who will only get to hear your music if you can reach them elsewhere first.
Great storytelling cuts through the noise of social media and helps many non-musicians appreicate your music in a whole new way.
Whether its written (blogs, newsletters) video (Youtube) or spoken (podcasts), creating your own ‘editorial’ voice on the music can do wonders.
Bandcamp’s vibe might have been analogue and story-first, but they knew their numbers and let you have them all.
From customer email addresses and locations, to number of purchases, that information is (in the right hands) valuable.
If you haven’t already got to grips with that, it’s worth spending a little time inside Bandcamp looking at what’s on offer and – most crucially – how you can use it to grow your audience.
Download your data before it’s too late!
Off-platform, there’s the added level of figuring out how to collect and store that data. Not a major roadblock, but an important part of the puzzle…
In a world where the landscape of music distribution is ever-changing, the news of Bandcamp’s sale and workforce reduction can indeed feel like a seismic shift. But let’s not forget the features that made Bandcamp a household name among independent musicians.
From creating a seamless shopping experience to building a community around your music, there are strategies that artists can take away from the Bandcamp model, if they so wish.
However, perhaps the most crucial takeaway is the art of storytelling and direct engagement. Unlike algorithm-driven platforms, Bandcamp fostered real connections between artists and fans.
Maybe now it’s time for musicians to do what they do best – be creative – and implement some of these strategies themselves.
Thanks for reading. As always, your opinions, experiences and points of view on the topic are welcome in the comments section below, or over on social media!