today bandcamp is waiving their fee for all purchases on their platform. it’s their second such promotion in response to the coronavirus pandemic, having done their first on march 20th. going forward, they’ll be running this same promotion on the first friday of every month.
the rest of the time, bandcamp charges 10-15% on downloads in addition to standard payment network fees (visa always gets their tax). credit where credit is due—this is leaps and bounds better than just about any major distributor out there; bandcamp is widely regarded as an ally for good reasons. but let’s not forget that at the end of the day bandcamp is a corporation that’s been profitable since 2012, and they wouldn’t be running this promotion if they didn’t think it would help their bottom line collected all the other days. so let’s take a step back and ask, what exactly does bandcamp offer?
at its core, it’s an ecommerce platform for music. it lets artists and labels list their music and sell downloads for fixed or flexible prices. it funnels listeners to artists with a recommender system similar to spotify (though likely less sophisticated/invasive). it reports sales to music charts and supports the sale of physical goods/merch alongside downloads, and has lots of other bells and whistles like discount codes, analytics, and preorders.
this is a great collection of tools that are very helpful for independent artists, and to date has facilitated almost $500m of payments to artists. but the core of what they offer—exchanging dollars for downloads—does not require their presence and fee in the middle.
in fact there’s nothing stopping artists from listing downloads of their music online and putting venmo/paypal/cashapp/etc links beside them. plenty of virtual tip jar solutions are out there which charge fees much closer to payment fees (those immutable laws of nature). if artists aren’t comfortable making their music so easily downloadable without payment, solutions can be as low-tech as saying “venmo me and include your email address for a download” (and get fan relations for free!) or using a more hosted solution like square or shopify, which isn’t free but whose monthly and transaction fees come out to much less than 10-15% for those making rent-money from sales.
these are solutions that exist today which artists could use to cut out the middle men and get more money from supporters to themselves not just the first friday of every month, not just during global crises, but every day. and what solutions could we build for the future? it’s not so difficult to imagine a non-profit version of bandcamp which, instead of taking mandatory cuts, allows buyers to tip the organization. when you remove all the bells and whistles, the core of an independent music sales and discovery platform is not particularly difficult or expensive technology. if it were built on free and open source software the community could contribute software and decentralize the platform by making it “fork”able.
to be clear, i don’t mean to argue that bandcamp is terrible and nobody should use it. for small artists, those without the technical know-how or time, and those who substantially benefit from its organic traffic, their fees can be a worthwhile. along the spectrum of corporations that self-describe as having a fair trade policy, bandcamp is a genuinely good citizen in the industry. but i would like to challenge—if this fundraiser has encouraged so many people to support artists knowing a larger amount will go to them, why can’t we do this all the time?