Thoughts on Bandcamp being bought by Epic Games

So yesterday brought the news that Bandcamp had been bought by Epic Games. It arrived via a very upbeat email – from Bandcamp founder and CEO Ethan Diamond, and it kicked off a flurry of conversation on Twitter, the vast majority of it skeptical at best and heartbroken at worst.

It’s certainly the case that for the longest time Bandcamp has been the bastion of indie success against the total mess of the corporate, VC-funded, short-term gain, tech-bro world of start-ups. Bandcamp has from the start prioritised slow growth but getting things right – every time they introduce a new feature it takes ages for them to develop it and then they trial it extensively rather than throwing it into the wild and letting everyone screw up with it.

As you know, I had a fair amount of input in the run-up to the launch of their subscription service, at a time when I had an annual meet-up with Ethan in San Francisco to chat over what was working best for me and what I’d like to see happen to Bandcamp. There’s a lot of functionality in the subscription platform that is made up of things that I asked for – some of them were definitely just synergy in terms of how we thought of it and some no doubt originated with me. I was also one of the first three artists to get to trial it for a year before it was thrown open to anyone.

So I have previous form with Bandcamp, and of course have made it the sole home for my music online for over a decade. So a change as massive as this comes as both a shock and has the potential to significantly disrupt my music life if it goes badly. Almost half my annual earnings at the moment come from Bandcamp, so its continued success is something that I’m literally banking on.

So what do we make of the decision? I’ve been reading a lot of the responses to it, have privately reached out to a number of people who have knowledge of both the games industry and Epic or who work at Bandcamp. I don’t have access to any not-yet-public information, so none of this is based on exclusive info that I have, and as such represents my attempt to make sense of the decision based on previous dealings with Bandcamp and the wisdom of friends.

First up, the announcement – summarised it says that Bandcamp won’t change its mission or core function or its economic model, but will have Epic’s capital, platform and expertise “to expand internationally and push development forward across Bandcamp, from basics like our album pages, mobile apps, merch tools, payment system, and search and discovery features, to newer initiatives like our vinyl pressing and live streaming services.”

So, firstly, I believe that this is Bandcamp’s intention. None of my dealings with Ethan or my knowledge of what they’ve been offered in the past suggests that he’s in this to bullshit people. It is possible, obviously, that the sums of money involved have made him change course completely in terms of his honesty with Bandcamp’s users – let’s face it, he’s never going to say ‘BTW, you’re all fucked because I just made millions!’ But possibilities aside, I have no reason at this point to doubt that his – and Bandcamp’s – intentions are for this to be an additive experience rather than one that kills a very successful, profitable platform.

Let’s look at the list of things they want to improve:

  • International reach: this is a HUGE one. Bandcamp currently only exists in English. [EDIT as a friend at Bandcamp just pointed out to me, the fan-facing text on the website is also available in Japanese and French!] Obviously the text of the site can be translated by apps, but offering the kind of comprehensive support they try to give to fans and artists, tooling up to offer all of that in another language is expensive and complex. Assuming Epic have this capacity, that’s an immediate win for Bandcamp…
  • Pushing development: I’m not sure what Epic bring to the ‘album pages’ – there’s a possibility that Bandcamp as the sales home of a LOT of game soundtracks could give them reason to try and integrate game links back and forth with those? Total guess… The mobile app and merch tools seem fairly obvious in two ways – the tech team and integration with Epic’s current gaming platform. Which could be an add-on or could make the Bandcamp app unusable. A lot depends on how the people at Epic view Bandcamp’s current profitability (aside from any actual contractual terms in the sale, which make all of my conjecture moot). If they respect it as a going concern, they’ll perhaps try to support and enhance that functionality, but it’s way outside the way most tech companies work in that it doesn’t feature an ad-funding or data-scraping model AT ALL. Bandcamp’s uniqueness is more than just the sales platform. It’s supremely non-intrusive and non-invasive, and also gives artists an amazing level of control and access to their audience without having to rely on an algorithmic gateway. Messing with that terrifies me, frankly. If what happens is that Epic scrape a bunch of user data and use it to do A&R for UMG or Warner (also part owned by Tencent who have a 40% share in Epic), then that’s grim but won’t ruin it for the rest of us. If they cover the site in ads and start to filter what we get to see and what gets sent to us not based on editorial content or what our friends buy but some sort of gameable, chargeable algorithm, that’s a massive step away from Bandcamp’s core values. I imagine Bandcamp believe that won’t happen at this point. We’ll see.
  • Next up is Payment system. This might be one of the biggest things they’ve gone for – again, this is conjecture on my part, I know a lot of people have a problem with PayPal, myself included, but replacing it with a bespoke system was potentially ruinous to Bandcamp’s business given just how central PayPal is to the entire online financial system. They use Stripe for a lot of credit card stuff, but getting away from PayPal requires a whole other level of infrastructure and partnering. Epic is of the scale where they could build their own banking system, which Bandcamp’s experience so far with so many different types of sale could be really useful for, and the costs involved in that would no longer involve haemorrhaging money to PayPal, particularly on small payments. My (somewhat educated) guess is that, along with live streaming, this is one of Bandcamp’s biggest concerns. And it’s one that makes sense.

The bit that makes less sense is the political side of this, going from giving money to PayPal, owned by an epic billionaire douchebag, to Epic, also owned by a billionaire, but with a 40% stake owned by Chinese tech investors Tencent. So there’s something about this that made Bandcamp do this deal rather than another deal, something bigger than just ‘getting away from systems own by billionaires’ – I know they’ve turned down a number of offers from within the music industry over the years, so it’s notable that they went with this. It could just be timing, but it could also be that Epic offered something meaningful. I’m not discounting that possibility/likelihood.

  • The last two ventures are also interesting. Vinyl pressing is possibly the most capital-intensive aspect of all of this, in that to do it the way they want, they need to build their own pressing plants, which also means having the machines built to press vinyl – if they do this, there would be a level of innovation going on within the music economy that could serve indie artists incredibly well. Vinyl is still a growth market, but the pressing plants are backed up and monopolised by the Majors for reissues. Getting new vinyl pressed as an indie in anything other than wholly boutique quantities is frustrating and slow. Bandcamp scaling this could change things for people who want to do that.
  • And live streaming – again, this could be a point of synergy or the parasitic collapse of Bandcamp’s team of ninjas. Bandcamp has started to offer live streaming of gigs. Epic does streaming, including of films, within Fortnite. Both have infrastructure and skills the other could want. Bandcamp obviously has no scale to offer Epic, but taking over Bandcamp’s streaming service and incorporating it with a gaming one would make sense for Epic, given that they are very much minor players in the streaming game. Twitch and YouTube would be obvious competitors here, so pairing a new gaming streaming platform with a music-specific one would make a lot of sense if they were going for that. The fact that they’re also streaming movies inside Fortnite hints at much bigger ambitions – something suggested too by a friend in the games industry who offered a WAY more pessimistic assessment of what all of this means than I’m writing here (her perspective is backed up with years of experience and insight, so I’m not in any way discounting her sad appraisal of what’s likely to happen, but I am trying to factor in what I know of Bandcamp’s dealings so far)… A lot of musicians are using Twitch. A Bandcamp-led campaign to get indie musicians onto a new platform would be massively more effective than Epic trying to do that themselves and just poach people from Twitch…

So where does that leave us? My desire for Bandcamp to remain that lovely bastion of independence is gone. I don’t get to have that any more, and complaining about them doing what they’ve done doesn’t help. What I’m concerned about and will be monitoring closely is whether any of this impacts the functioning of the subscriber community – easily the most important aspect of my music making life, and the subject of my soon-to-be-finished PhD – but also how people find music within Bandcamp – when people describe Bandcamp as a download delivery system, they miss out the incredible amount of internal traffic that is involved in how people discover music. That plus an ongoing familiarity with Bandcamp is worth far more than the percentage of my Bandcamp gross that they take as fees. It’s a net gain for me to have them take that money and invest it in infrastructure, coding and development. Inasmuch as the deal with Epic helps them to do those things, I’m OK with it, even while preferring indie things. I’m an ideological purist but a functioning pragmatist.

But I am also concerned about the ethics at the heart of the company. Ethan says that Epic shares their values. The way Epic is structured and funded reveals that to be at least partially not true. Bandcamp’s way of operating up until now is markedly different to Epic’s, and it will be interesting to see what happens to Bandcamp’s annual fundraisers etc. They’ve chosen some pretty great causes to support in response to political happenings in the US over the years, and I’d hate to see that stifled by concerns from Epic’s investors. It’s a distinct possibility that they will clash head on and how that plays out would tell us a lot. I operate my business on fair trade principles. Bandcamp have always branded themselves as a fair trade music company, and that is now less clear than it ever has been. It’s not necessarily gone, but it’s not clear cut the way it was.

But outside of that, I am going to be watching developments in the space that has just opened up to the left of Bandcamp as people with a concern for free and open tech tools are re-energised to look at what’s happening with fresh impetus. Maggie Vail who was one of the people behind CASH music – an organisation who developed a bunch of super cool and experimental tech tools for artists – and has already tweeted (perhaps semi-sarcastically?) asking about people wanting to explore that space again. It will be interesting to see if anyone just seeks to build a new version of Bandcamp. As much as I’ve been perfectly happy to have my music available in one place, it’s not healthy to live in an ecosystem where your financial viability is in the hands of one company.

That said, Corey Mwamba tweeted this morning ‘Don’t let businesses trick you into thinking they’re your friends.’ but for me it does work the other way round – my friends run this business. They’re not making decisions based on what I want, obviously, but they are friends whose intentions and ethos have consistently been in line with my own up until now. Again, it’s possible that my friendship with Ethan was merely a way for him to extract information from me. I think it would be absurdly hubristic of me to assume that my conversations with him were valuable enough to be worth faking a friendship! We hung out and chatted and he built some of my suggestions into the way Bandcamp works, and as a result my earnings from Bandcamp over the last decade have been roughly the same as if I’d had 20 million streams on Spotify. Not band for a subscriber community of 280-something people, eh?

Bandcamp currently remains unique in providing the infrastructure for the kind of community I value, for centring music recordings within a space where I can charge an annual fee, give my subscribers WAY more music than they’ve nominally paid for, and gather around that music a discussion of caring, insightful, literate and fascinating opinions that informs the way I understand what it is that I do as an artist. That community is unique and is formed of the people in it, but the affordances for building that and maintaining those relationships are absolutely essential to the ethos behind the subscription engine within Bandcamp. It’s genuinely brilliant, and in my case genuinely life-changing. I’m not about to jump ship because someone else is funding it, but the possibility of it ceasing to function the way I need it to to maintain what is important to me is significantly higher today than it was two days ago, and I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening at Bandcamp, and what else is developing outside of it.

7 Replies to “Thoughts on Bandcamp being bought by Epic Games”

  1. Articulates a lot of many folks’ immediate concerns – and a great insight into some other previously-unconsidered facets… Great read!

  2. Great write up – I’m not a musician but the email left me cold! Always worry when people say “we’ve just been bought, bit don’t worry, it will all be the same…” (never is)
    Metaverse, NFTs, tokenomics, access to audience, a few reasons why I can see Epic going for it! What it means for the Bandcamp side of things, no idea!

    1. As a good friend who works in tech pointed out, there’s very little that Bandcamp has that Epic needs beyond an audience and an entry into a market. That’s what makes it a slightly more hopeful proposition… we’ll see.

    1. That’s very kind of you Geoff but I sincerely doubt Epic are too concerned with the contents of my blog xx

  3. My first thought was that it’s an interesting direction to go in, partnering with a games company. My hope is that it might mark a paradigm shift in the way music exists somehow, although I wouldn’t care to guess how that might be achieved.

    If it’s just the same model but with a new player… that does not bode very well. I guess indie game producers exist and, it would appear, thrive though and that gives me some hope.

    How might ‘serious’ music find its place in a games orientated environment though?

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