On Wednesday, the unbiased digital music market/publication/streaming service/former startup Bandcamp made a startling announcement: It was “becoming a member of” the online game firm Epic Video games, maybe finest generally known as the maker of Fortnite and plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against Apple’s app store and its dominance of virtual gaming. In a statement, Epic wrote that “Bandcamp will play an vital function in Epic’s imaginative and prescient to construct out a creator market ecosystem for content material, expertise, video games, artwork, music and extra.” Bandcamp co-founder Ethan Diamond defined in a weblog publish that his firm “will hold working as a standalone market and music group,” and this new enterprise with Epic would “present the assets to carry much more profit to the artists, labels, and followers who use” Bandcamp. (Diamond may even stay its CEO.) In the end, each corporations say, this transfer is in service of “constructing essentially the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem on this planet.”
Instant reactions to Bandcamp sidling as much as Epic Video games had been combined and infrequently confused. Some observers on social media questioned whether or not this was a partnership between the two companies or a wholesale acquisition of Bandcamp. Epic spokesperson Elka Appears confirmed to Slate over electronic mail that “this was an acquisition of Bandcamp’s enterprise,” although the corporate is “not disclosing phrases of the deal/the way it happened.” The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle suspected on Twitter that Epic desires access to Bandcamp’s data. The Way forward for Music Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for musicians, posted a cautiously skeptical Twitter thread in regards to the deal: It defined that Epic has been a irritating accomplice in terms of track licensing, compounded by the 40 % stake held by Chinese language company Tencent, which additionally has a stake in Spotify. Music historian Ted Gioia wrote in his Substack about how his firsthand experiences with massive enterprise mergers and acquisitions left him feeling pessimistic: “In various situations, the buying firm destroyed the enterprise it purchased. Not instantly, nevertheless it occurred ultimately. … They typically had one of the best intentions. However when compelled to decide on, they did what was finest for the guardian firm, not the acquired enterprise.” He additional famous, “The possibility of failure will increase dramatically when the acquired firm is in a unique business,” highlighting the eventual post-M&A failures of corporations like RCA and Kodak.
What’s extra, Bandcamp has typically proclaimed independence as each its mission and ethos. It’s long had a glowing reputation because the uncommon—maybe solely—musician-friendly platform of the digital age. A 2020 Los Angeles Instances profile referred to the service because the “anti-Spotify,” noting that Bandcamp was “owned primarily by” CEO Ethan Diamond, co-founder and CTO Shawn Grunberger, and workers. Some indie musicians referred to as him their “final hope,” Diamond added, and so they reportedly advised him, “The world of right-minded musicians is relying on you. No stress.” Bandcamp giving itself up now to a serious company that’s already acquired a number of other creative companies may properly be thought of “a sell out move,” as one music enterprise determine put it.
It’s value Bandcamp’s improvement and pedestal within the fashionable music economic system—which, notably, is a much smaller one than Epic’s within the online game business—to grasp why skeptics are talking out. As a substitute of partnering with the large three main labels to supply tens of millions of songs totally free or low cost, whereas compensating musicians with literal penny fractions in flip, Bandcamp made truthful artist remuneration and shut connection between creators and followers its M.O. from its 2008 launch. Although it was initially powered by one spherical of enterprise capital funding, the platform claims that it’s not solely been unbiased of such investments since then, but additionally has been worthwhile since 2012, even whereas doubling down on a seemingly counterintuitive enterprise technique.
As free and low-priced subscription-based streaming ate up the once-hot MP3 market, Bandcamp saved promoting high-quality digital information, taking solely a ten–15 % minimize of income per sale whereas Apple made at least 30 percent of the money for each iTunes purchase. Different streamers use costly exclusives from massive stars as subscription incentives, however Bandcamp has saved its focus slim: Over time, it’s introduced independent artists, label-free stars, and game score composers to its interface and cultivated small however loyal fan bases. As CD gross sales plunged from their ’90s peak within the mid- to late 2000s, the platform discovered success permitting artists to promote cassette tapes (sure), discs, and data, presaging the still-booming vinyl resurgence. When Spotify did away with its messaging services in 2017 and obscured liner notes and credit from instant view, Bandcamp gave customers choices to advocate and share their favourite acts, whereas leaving sufficient room on every track and album web page for artists to write down out their lyrics, notes, and credit as they wished.
Subscription-based streaming stays dominant, nonetheless. Websites like 8tracks and eMusic, which respectively allowed customers to share curated playlists freely and purchase digital downloads, have light from view—but Bandcamp has grown and thrived since its 2008 launch. It now hosts the catalogs of legendary independent labels like Sub Pop, runs the net journal Bandcamp Daily, provides retail providers for artist merch, and even manages its personal record store and vinyl-pressing plant. It even retains a public tally of how a lot cash it’s given to artists in whole, in addition to which albums and songs have been bought nonetheless many occasions. The pandemic inadvertently boosted Bandcamp’s clout, as artists struggling resulting from canceled excursions touted Bandcamp because the extra artist-friendly various to other streaming services’ measly payouts. “Bandcamp Fridays,” the once-a-month occasion the place Bandcamp would direct all funds to musicians with out taking its personal minimize, grew to become a much-hyped event on social media; the corporate additionally staged particular days to forgo its revenue portions in favor of supporting transgender rights and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
By 2021, 13 years after its launch, Bandcamp was extra acknowledged and beloved than ever. That’s to not say it has been freed from criticism. Some artists grew to become unhappy with the pressures and incentives of the Bandcamp Friday mannequin; different observers had been suspicious of the company’s vertical integration into vinyl and merchandise; some have pointed out that Bandcamp doesn’t typically pay out royalties particularly to songwriters, or totally free streams on its interface (which it solely permits a restricted variety of, earlier than forcing clients to make purchases); nonetheless extra have decried the platform’s janky interface on each desktop and cell. However the truth that a platform actually did appear to deal with artists pretty, versus exploiting them just like the labels and streaming providers had been accused of doing for years, made Bandcamp an icon. It couldn’t hope to repair the inequitable nature of the music business by itself—nevertheless it didn’t plan to, both. Bandcamp merely made itself an obtainable, workable various when many others failed to take action.
However with Bandcamp’s VC and startup-culture background (the corporate is, naturally, based mostly within the Bay Space), assumptions that it could go the route so many comparable companies have—pursuing fixed and fast development, making itself enticing to acquisition, cashing out at its peak earlier than ceding future management to the megaconsolidated tech business—weren’t unwarranted. When the L.A. Instances requested Ethan Diamond in late 2020 whether or not he would think about a “sale or partnership,” he responded, “We might solely think about partnerships with corporations that we imagine serve artists in the beginning.”
Epic Video games, then, could appear a wierd alternative in that regard. Max Oakland, a musician and independent video game designer, tweeted that “Epic is such a bad company,” pointing to reporting on how the game company mistreats its employees, forces builders into exclusives, buys (and subsequently abandons) in style properties like Gears of Warfare, and has a horrible UX on its Epic Video games Retailer. Sure, Epic’s flagship product Fortnite has intersected with in style music—its controversial boost of BlocBoy JB’s dances, the Travis Scott hologram—so it might make sense to see these sectors mix additional. (Epic’s spokesperson advised Slate that there was “no relation” between its determination and Twitch’s enterprise fashions, and that there’s “no connection to cryptocurrency/blockchain,” in case you had been questioning.) However contemplating that Epic has did not compensate creators whose dance strikes are appropriated on Fortnite, it’s pure to be cautious.
“Bandcamp was the final bastion of true independence in music,” Ron Knox, a senior researcher on the Institute for Native Self-Reliance and occasional Slate contributor, advised Slate in an interview. His main issues are in regards to the prospect of weaponizing further consolidation as a method of battling Huge Tech’s monopolization of gaming and music, particularly in terms of a platform that was already straightforward to make use of: Bandcamp, he says, “was a fairly rattling free and open market. Should you’re a band, you’ll be able to simply add your music, have it dwell on there, and it may be promoted in any variety of methods.” Nevertheless, whenever you’re an organization like Epic, and you’ve got “full and unfettered management of a platform” like Bandcamp, you’ve got the facility to make any sorts of adjustments you need. The large query, Knox says, is that if Epic will proceed to encourage Bandcamp’s independence, or regularly encroach upon its practices.
Cautious optimism lingers. Jaime Brooks, a longtime digital musician who’s carried out underneath the stage names Elite Gymnastics and Default Genders, thinks the Epic-Bandcamp acquisition could possibly be a possibility for artists to entry new sources of income and direct channels with followers. Extra importantly, Brooks views it as a approach for indie musicians and indie sport builders to see each other as peers, because the technological and enterprise and cultural shifts which have hit the gaming business over time—overproduction, labor issues, trouble with digital marketplaces, mergers of big companies, the lacking compensation from subscription-based virtual gaming, crypto and the Metaverse, racism and sexism—have additionally reshaped the music business. And Epic and Bandcamp have a typical foe in Apple: Epic’s legal fights against Apple’s domination of virtual commerce may make the corporate a possible ally for Bandcamp and its musicians, supplied there’s absolute transparency of their enterprise dealings (which hasn’t been the case simply but). The rationale Epic took the tech big to court docket within the first place was as a result of it didn’t wish to be compelled to supply the steep 30 percent cuts of its in-game Fortnite revenue to Apple and Google. In the same approach, the app retailer additionally hinders Bandcamp’s gross sales and accessibility potential, Brooks advised me: The corporate’s apps could also be compelled to offer potential revenue cuts to PayPal and digital app marketplaces, and thus, they aren’t a significant source of profits. Bandcamp’s iOS app doesn’t permit purchases in any respect, in actual fact. Most funds, then, come from desktop customers. But, as Brooks says, “individuals sitting down at their computer systems is a distinct segment viewers, and we are able to’t increase past that if the cell app is restricted—we’re slicing ourselves off from that giant digital viewers” of primarily cell clients who could uncover songs on TikTok or different apps.
Nonetheless, it’s not as if Brooks is proud of Epic’s transfer. “As a small, unaffiliated artist, I’m formally in opposition to consolidation,” they advised me. “VC cash and its expectations destroy quite a lot of completely functioning companies, and musicians want a functioning enterprise. Bandcamp was worthwhile. It didn’t want this. Now it’s enjoying with fireplace, and if one thing goes mistaken, it’s artists like me who’ll get burned.”
Nobody is aware of for sure what the way forward for Bandcamp shall be underneath its new guardian firm. Should you aren’t positive should you ought to fear, you want solely look to current examples of huge tech corporations swallowing up smaller artistic platforms: Twitter bought and shut down Vine; Verizon steadily gutted HuffPost’s staff; and Fb misrepresented and inflated its video-streaming metrics, forcing publishers to make a financially disastrous “pivot to video.” So what’s the best-case state of affairs for Epic and Bandcamp? “Epic is available in with information and methods to enhance Bandcamp, together with the power to make extra cell purchases, the power to create playlists, extra choices for customers to create and share music, and a solution to join much more deeply with audiences,” Knox suggests. Nonetheless, historical past exhibits us there’s loads of cause to anticipate the worst.