By Tyler Fisher in Music on the internet – March 22, 2022

What Epic's purchase of Bandcamp means for music

It's time to start thinking about the future of digtal independent music.

Epic Games and Bandcamp logos
Epic Games purchased Bandcamp on March 2, 2022

On March 2, Epic Games bought Bandcamp. Epic is the publisher of Fortnite, one of the world's most popular video games; the creator of Unreal Engine, perhaps the most popular game engine; and the owner of a slew of other video game subsidiaries like Harmonix and Psyonix. Bandcamp is the world's foremost independent music marketplace, a place where artists as large as Radiohead and as small as my bands (we have tens of fans!) can upload their music for sale and limited streaming.

What does the purchase mean for musicians looking to sell their music online? In the short-term, not much, but in the long-term Epic Games' history and ownership raise serious questions about Bandcamp's longevity. Given this, it's time to think about what might fill the gap Bandcamp would leave in the music ecosystem.

The deal

At first glance, it's a perplexing match. Where Bandcamp has emphasized empowering artists by getting customers to pay a fair price for music (where "fair" is a value decided upon by each individual artist), Epic's Fortnite has stolen artists' works consistently, particularly with the games "emotes" feature that allows a player to purchase the ability for their character to do a particular dance. Whether a dance move is copyrightable material is an open legal question, but Epic's practice of lifting popular dance moves without credit stands in clear opposition to Bandcamp's steadfast protection of artist rights.

A layer deeper though, there are clear affinities between the two companies. Epic sued Apple for its controversial App Store policy, where Apple takes a 30 percent cut of all transactions done in the store and through in-app transactions. For a game like Fortnite that makes all its money through in-app transactions, this caused Epic a huge problem. Epic didn't quite win its lawsuit outright, but it can now direct users to other payment systems beyond Apple's.

Restrictions on iOS are a problem for Bandcamp, too. Currently, users can't buy digital versions music on Bandcamp through its iOS app because Apple won't allow third-party apps to put digital music files on iOS devices. Now resourced with Epic's vast legal team, Bandcamp has a chance to fight this.

Epic has a larger vision for Bandcamp. Last year, Epic bought Sketchfab and Artstation, two companies similarly positioned as artist-friendly digital marketplaces. Epic's press release about the Bandcamp acquisition states that "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." Fortnite emotes aside, Epic has positioned itself as a company with the interests of creators at heart. It believes it can be the place for creators to sell their work and make money, no matter the medium. Given this, there is little reason to believe that Epic will fundamentally alter Bandcamp's position towards artist empowerment anytime soon.

The rub here, though, is Epic's ownership. Epic is majority-owned by its founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, who has been leading Epic's charge for creator empowerment. However, 40% of the company is controlled by Tencent, the Chinese technology giant. Unlike Epic's other marketplace acquisitions in Sketchfab and Artstation, Tencent's other investments outside Epic present a conflict of interest with Bandcamp. Tencent owns 9% of Spotify and has stakes in Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, two of the big three major labels. These labels also have their own ownership stakes in Spotify.

Spotify's vision for the future of music, one shared by the major labels and Tencent (who have their own streaming platform in China), fundamentally conflicts with Bandcamp's. To date, most major label artists aren't on Bandcamp, since the platform bypasses much of the major label's entrenched distribution efforts.

It is not unusual for a conglomerate as large as Tencent to have conflicting investments. But it is clear that its stake in the major labels and Spotify are, at the moment, way more valuable than its partial ownership over Bandcamp. The concern for Bandcamp, then, is what happens conflict arises between Bandcamp's vision and Spotify/the major music label's vision for the future of digital music. Will Tencent leverage its 40% ownership of Epic to pressure the company to make changes in Spotify's favor? Will Tim Sweeney hold fast with his majority ownership and open a rift between him and his company's minority owner?

It is unlikely that anything comes to a head here anytime soon. Spotify and Bandcamp can coexist as currently constructed. But as someone who deeply cares about a future of music where artists can make a living on their work, I want a world where Bandcamp can win. I think this acquisition ends that possibility.

What is the next Bandcamp?

If Bandcamp can't win, what can? If you believe the music industry needs a fully independent marketplace for artists to sell music (I do!), then it's time to start thinking about what that might look like in the 2020s.

Threading the needle of ownership

The most important change any future independent music platform must make is its ownership structure. For all its merits, Bandcamp was a privately-owned, for-profit company. While it spent its 14 years of independent existence generally doing the right thing by artists, the company was always susceptible to exactly this problem: getting bought out by interests that may not have artists at the center of their mission.

To secure the future for artists, a future platform must be owned collectively by artists. The benefits here should be obvious: artists can direct development of the platform to meet their needs. Any profits created by the platform can then directly flow back to the artists themselves.

A screenshot of Resonate
Resonate is a co-op based streaming music service.

There are efforts underway, most notably Resonate. Resonate aims to build a streaming platform cooperatively owned by a combination of artists, listeners and workers, where users pay full price for a song if they stream it nine times. It's a clever solution. It's even open source!

Unfortunately, I'm not confident Resonate will survive much longer. Resonate currently has 3,318 total releases, most by relatively unknown artists, on the platform. They need to raise over €10,000 euros by the end of the month to remain sustainable.

It appears Resonate received a $1 million investment from venture capitalists Reflective Ventures. But... according to Resonate, they took the investment as crypto. The market crashed and they only got $600,000 out of it. Earlier versions of Resonate used the blockchain to "ensure payments to artists are transparent and properly distributed." However, I can't find any reference to that in their technology now. Maybe getting burned by the crypto market turned them away?

Resonate gets a lot right. Most importantly, it's a co-op model that allows artists (and, in their case, listeners and platform workers) to share in any profits generated through the platform. Any future platform looking to fill Bandcamp's space should use a similar model.

However, Resonate's fatal flaw may be its inability to attract prominent artists to the platform. On the other side of the artist notability coin, Tidal infamously launched in the US as a streaming platform with major artists signed on as owners. Today, some of the world's biggest artists are still shareholders, though Block (formerly known as Square, run by Jack Dorsey) is the majority shareholder.

A screenshot of Tidal's interface
Tidal has attracted some of the world's largest artists with ownership stakes and boasts a catalog to rival Spotify.

This has resulted in serious wins for artists: Tidal pays more in royalties than both Apple Music and Spotify. Late last year, Tidal launched a direct artist payout system for its highest-paying customers. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) has been advocating for a similar system to be put in place at Spotify.

Yet Tidal misses the mark as a proper independent digital music platform due to its ownership. It's great that Beyoncé and Rihanna have stakes in Tidal. Tidal is clearly the most artist-friendly major streaming platform. But there is still no way for independent artists to have a real seat at the table.

With the digital music industry as entrenched as it is, the only way to get a critical mass of users on a new platform is to get music people know and love, ideally exclusively. This is how Tidal built notoriety. But giving all power to the world's biggest artists does not make a better music industry.

Instead, the way to build an artist cooperative with momentum would be to find an existing group to partner with, such as the UMAW. Such an organization can maintain membership, share ownership, build collective decision-making structures, and grow the community over time.

Building a product for musicians and fans

To attract a critical mass of users, you don't just need the music. You need a business model that encourages users to pay for music, an artist experience that actively helps musicians make money, and a product that competes with Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music to entice listeners to stay and use your product every day.

Streams and downloads: what's the business model?

Any digital independent music marketplace must both satisfy artist financial needs and remain sustainable in its own right. Bandcamp largely gets this right with a simple rev share model on sales. Any future platform should use a similar model when music is purchased. It works and remains far less extractive for independent artists than other forms of music distribution.

The more important thing to define is the relationship between streaming and sales. We've discussed three platforms in this essay so far: Bandcamp, Resonate, and Tidal. Each handles the relationship between streaming and sales differently.

  • Bandcamp: The default number of free streams before requiring a purchase is three, though artists have the ability to increase this number (or disable streaming entirely). After purchase, listeners can stream on Bandcamp indefinitely or download the files for use anywhere.
  • Resonate: Streaming automatically leads to purchasing after nine streams. Purchases are added to the user's collection on Resonate. It is unclear whether you can also download the files.
  • Tidal: Streaming is unlimited, though they do provide direct purchase links for digital download.

Tidal's model is a nonstarter. Purchases need to be incentivized on this platform, and unlimited streaming gives no serious incentive to purchase. Resonate's model, though fascinating, may lead to unexpected purchases for users or trade in cumbersome store credit systems. Bandcamp's model makes sense, but its product emphasizes the download over the purchase, hindering the platform from becoming a streaming destination for a mass of users. Today's music listeners stream; thus, streaming should be the emphasis on the platform.

So, what's the model? It lies somewhere between Bandcamp and Resonate. Combine Bandcamp's user-controlled stream limit with Resonate's streaming-first product decisions, and you likely have the right system. Users should be able to download purchased music but give them a better experience for streaming, and they will stream more than they download.

A better home for artists online: more than music sales

Bandcamp launched in 2008, and while its product has evolved and innovated over time, a lot of its core functionality has stagnated. Its artist and album pages haven't changed their fundamental design in a decade. While Bandcamp gives artists the ability to theme their pages with a background color and text color, any further customization relies on the user providing image maps. The streaming platforms, on the other hand, emphasize their own branding over the artists.

Bandcamp's design tools
Bandcamp's design tools

In a world of Shopify, Webflow and other WYSIWYG web design tools, any new artist tool would have to provide better branding and customization options. An artist profile on the platform should be a more customizable, branded space than anything Bandcamp or the streaming platforms allow. We have the ability to give users simple tools for building bespoke web experiences. Trust them with that power.

Beyond that, any new platform must recognize that being a successful professional musician in the 2020s is about more than putting music online. Like anything else, it's about realizing multiple revenue streams, marketing your work, and community-building with your fans. A new platform should give artists the tools to do this work. This platform can be not only the home for streaming and purchasing music but also the home for merchandise stores and concert tickets. By combining all the major revenue streams for artists into one platform, the platform becomes more enticing for artists.

To take it one step further, the platform can make tour planning and merch creation simpler. By allowing venues to sign up for the platform and manage their concert schedules, artists could more easily find venues with open dates that match their tour schedule and directly communicate with those venues. And by leveraging print-on-demand services, the platform could also allow artists to easily create products for their brand, from t-shirts to posters to pins. Just bring your design and upload.

Bringing all this together, the platform can directly advocate for artists by providing actual training on how to record music, plan tours, design merch, find fans online, and more. If owned by a union or a similar group, this becomes an obvious affinity.

In short, building a new independent digital music marketplace is not just about allowing artists to sell music online for fair prices. It's about helping artists reach their full potential and reach people who would love their music.

Build for diehards and casual listeners

On the end-user side, Bandcamp hasn't built itself into a streaming and discovery destination for the masses. On the discovery front, it does make laudable efforts here, especially with its Bandcamp Daily publication. Bandcamp Daily reads like an alternate-universe Pitchfork, dedicated to digging out and promoting the best in new, independent music with none of the pretension that comes with Pitchfork review scoring. Any future independent music platform can learn a lot from Bandcamp Daily.

Bandcamp's inability to compete with the major streaming platforms as a streamer comes from three major product flaws: a lack of user personalization, a lack of playlisting features, and a lack of integrations with how people listen to music.

Building for user-personalized streaming

In the 2020s, more people listen to music by streaming than any other format. An independent music platform has to embrace this reality in its product decisions. The Bandcamp mobile app has made huge strides in this regard, though the web product remains woefully behind. On bandcamp.com, you can't even navigate between pages while listening to the same song.

Neither product personalizes its display for users. When I open Spotify or Apple Music, it makes a best guess at what I want to listen to, providing me with my favorites and some curated suggestions of new things I might like. Bandcamp displays a universal homepage, more like a publication than a platform. While I can follow genres and artists and find those feeds in other sections of the app, they feel far from central to the experience.

A new platform has to both allow users to follow and support the artists they love and personalize its recommendations for each user. Specific types of music lovers (like me) may hate the algorithmic approach of Spotify, but it has unequivocally been a success for the platform. The success of Pandora before Spotify suggests further that most music listeners don't mind an algorithm providing music recommendations. Investing in some level of machine learning seems essential for building a successful mass-market music platform.

Emphasize playlists

Spotify has made one thing clear with its success: people love playlists. The Music Business Association commissioned a study in 2016 that found 31% of listening time is spent on playlists while 22% is spent on albums. (Single tracks are the most popular form of listening, though). Since then, Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal have only doubled down on playlist creation and playlist curation.

Bandcamp's album-first positioning, with no ability to make playlists, fails to meet the market's preferences. Bandcamp receives the request for playlists enough that they have a dedicated page to the topic on their help site, just to say no outright.

Why hasn't Bandcamp built playlists? My guess is that they, as music lovers, believe in an album-first product. Artists make albums, not playlists, and artists want to sell their albums. Adding playlists would add complications for artists trying to sell their work on the platform. I have no doubts that adding playlists to their existing structure would be a huge technical lift as well.

But playlists are essential to music communities. Playlists further reinforce the need for the user to customize their streaming experience. From cassette mixtapes to burned CDs to Spotify playlists, people love to curate music.

A greenfield take on an independent music marketplace could thread the needle, offering tangible benefits to both artists and fans. Playlists, both user-created and platform-curated, offer opportunities for artist music to get into the ears of more potential fans. By allowing users to purchase songs on playlists individually or purchase an entire playlist with one click, artists increase their potential for sales.

You could even encourage playlist creation by giving the playlist creator a small cut when users purchase an entire playlist. (This cut would come out of the platform's take, not the artist's, to be clear.) This further incentivizes users to remain on your platform and encourages users to see purchasing music as a positive step away from streaming.

Integrating with today's listening experience

This is a shorter and more obvious point: today, everything can play music from your phone. Smart speakers are ubiquitous, and every modern car has a USB connection. IKEA makes lamps with Sonos speakers in them. Thus, this platform has to support every standard under the sun: Chromecast, Airplay, Sonos, and whatever else might come. If people can't listen to music in their preferred ways on your platform, they will stop coming and find somewhere they can.

The ultimate goal

3,000 words later (thanks for reading!), it's worth restating the ultimate goal. Artists need an independent marketplace to sell their music. Bandcamp has long served this purpose admirably. However, its sale to Epic Games raises serious questions about its ability to remain independent. Thus, it's time to start thinking about what a future platform might look like. Other existing platforms like Resonate and Tidal offer visions of potential futures.

My vision is this: a streaming-forward platform that offers all the personalization and customization of something like Spotify, but pushes listeners to purchasing music outright with Bandcamp's streaming limits. Most importantly, this platform must be artist-owned, allowing the platform to continue to adapt to the needs of artists as the music industry changes.

Now, who can build it?

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