One distribution model I've always been supportive of in the past few years has been Bandcamp. I think it's the next best way to get your music out to the public. No limits on full album streams, low end digital pricing (based on the band's asking) and choice of audio file type not dependent on the asking price. I recently shot an e-mail to the man behind the plan, Ethan Diamond, to see what's up with what I believe is one of the best new forward thinking systems in the industry right now.
In an abridged version, how did Bandcamp start up? What did you set out to change about the idea of distributing digital music?
Bandcamp was born out of a personal frustration I experienced as a fan. Three years ago, a band I love left their label and released an album on their own. On the day it came out, their site (which they had clearly spent a lot of time and money building) didn't load at all, then later that day it loaded, but very, very slowly, then my payment went through but my download never started, then the singer sent me a direct, open link to a zip of the album, then the download had no cover art and all the tracks had names like "master5final.mp3." In short, every single technical thing that could have gone wrong, did. It was painful to watch, particularly because I was so enthusiastic about what they were trying to do -- bypass the usual MySpace/iTunes route and instead go directly to their fans.
We started Bandcamp with the objective of solving these problems for every musician out there, and doing so in a way where the artist retains control -- control over the content, control over the pricing, control over the identity. Your site is *powered* by Bandcamp, but it's about you, not us. This approach inevitably brings the focus back to where we feel it belongs, and that's of course the music. In simplest terms, Bandcamp helps artists sell their music and merch directly to their fans, but I'd say our higher level goal is to help musicians be successful. And we do that by empowering them to run their businesses how they want. We don't claim to be 100% of the way there with these objectives, but that's the vision that's driving us.
Bandcamp lets fans choose their preferred format -- not just mp3, but FLAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg, etc. What formats do you find sell the most? Do most people end up getting the standard MP3 rate, or do you find a lot more FLAC users than you would think?
About 90% of fans leave the download format set to its default, which is a 320k mp3. Amongst the other 10%, the most popular format is FLAC. That may sound low, but it represents the überfans, and they're a very vocal minority. They're happy to pay for quality, and they tell all their friends about you and where the best place is to buy your music. We know this because we get email from those fans every single day saying how happy they are to get the music exactly how they want it, and in a way that allows them to directly support the artists they love.
There was some controversy a while back when Bandcamp announced it would be taking a certain percentage of sales. Understandably, you would have to start charging "something" to keep a model like this running. With all the outside flack, was there any uproar from any of the bands, or was there a mutual understanding that something like this was inevitable to keep the system going?
Overall the response was very positive. I think it definitely helped that we started talking to artists about the revenue share a full year before it went into effect, getting feedback about what they felt was fair and would keep them sending their fans to their Bandcamp-powered site. Any transition like this is bound to upset a few people, but no, no uproar. Signups and sales actually increased after the announcement. Still, we decided to look at the accounts that were deleted in the few weeks after the change, assuming that some of those were bands that weren't happy with the rev share model. The sum of the lifetime sales of every one of those bands? Exactly $0. To put that in better perspective, other artists on the system made over $350,000 USD during that same month.
What bands have you found have had the better success in using the model? Do you see more newer bands or the few established ones using the system?
There's no single band type that seems to fare best on Bandcamp. The top selling artists in the past few months include a classical cellist, a gospel choir, a Korean pop-star, a beatboxing street performer, a video game soundtrack composer, and an indie rock demigod. Some of these artists are established, some of them got their start only recently. What unifies this group is a relentless hustle, a devotion to communicating with their fanbase, and a pattern of using the site in whatever way works best for them and their particular audience.
Dub Fx is a good example. He's one guy and a half-time manager, his stuff isn't on iTunes, and he makes a solid living from his digital sales on Bandcamp alone. The key is that he's able to sell his album for exactly what he wants, and in this case that's €13 EUR, or nearly $18 USD. Pretty unusual for a digital album, but it's what he feels it's worth, and his fans couldn't agree more. Or look at Amanda Palmer. She believes deeply in a patronage model, so she let her fans name their own price for her latest album, setting the minimum to just what she needed to cover her expenses. The result? She and her team made more in a single *day* than she'd seen to date from her 2008 major-label release. The point is that not every artist's fanbase is the same, and it's the artist, not the retailer, who knows best what will work for them. Free downloads to build a mailing list, a set price to keep it simple, name-your-price with a minimum to cover costs and allow fans to give more directly to the band....our role is to provide the flexibility to let any of those things happen, and then get out of the way.
There were talks of having Bandcamp be a one stop shop for both digital music and merch for bands. Is this still happening? Is Bandcamp eventually going to move into the realm of physical distribution as well?
We've got digital/physical bundles today, so an artist can offer their fans CDs, vinyl, t-shirts, and so on, deliver an immediate download with the purchase, and then follow that up with the physical merchandise. We also provide a simple UI where you or your fulfillment partner can view pending orders, mark them as shipped, and search, filter and export them. What we don't yet offer is our own fulfillment services, but that's a pretty frequent request and something we're still considering.
What has it meant for you that not only bands are getting behind the system, but labels really pushing it as well?
It's awesome! We suspected that the problems we were initially solving for the little guy also plagued artists with considerably more resources, but it's just hugely validating to see the bigger artists jumping in. At the same time, it means that we have to work harder to deliver label-specific tools, so we're doing that.
In the end, do you feel like Bandcamp is the next revolutionized system in the distribution cog?
Well, the ShamWow is a revolution. Bandcamp, on the other hand, is just a tool. We're thrilled that so many artists find it useful, and we're just excited to keep improving it for hopefully a long time to come.
I must say this is my absolutely most favorite place to buy music. I think one of my favorite artists who really use Bandcamp to it's fullest is Man Overboard. There's not a better place on the internet to get lossless music. I only hope more artists jump on it. :)