Okay, take a deep breath. Nothing’s happened yet.

Or, rather, nothing has happened specifically to artists yet, but the creeping feeling something will – sooner than later – is hard to shake.

  • Songtradr purchased Bandcamp from video game publisher Epic Games (Fortnite).
  • Half of Bandcamp’s 120-person staff laid off after the completion of Songtradr’s purchase of Bandcamp.
  • Songtradr is a B2B music licensing platform geared toward brand and agency servicing.

Meet The New Boss

Two days ago, song licensing platform Songtradr purchased the indie-favorite organization Bandcamp. It was dumped pretty hard by owner Epic Games roughly 18 months after the company – best known as the developer of the Fortnite brand – purchased it. Independent musicians came to love Bandcamp for many benefits, including free uploads of albums, a friendly user interface that also allowed for merchandise and physical product sales, and Bandcamp Fridays, being the first Friday of each month, allowing said artists to take the maximum cut of sales on those days. The purchase by Epic Games caused people to hold their breaths, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Financial issues caused Epic to divest. Songtradr swooped in…and immediately let go of nearly half of Bandcamp’s staff. Songtradr’s PR department went into immediate spin mode, detailing what a great brand Bandcamp is, why it’s users appreciate it, and that everything you have come to love about Bandcamp will endure.

However, that “everything” was vague, and left a lot of room for speculation. Many choose to take it at face value, seeing the company as not wanting to break a good thing. I have been in this position before, specifically having worked for a company that was acquired by Bain Capital, the notorious investment firm. There too were promises of continuity and no desire to undo a winning brand. And then the undoing began.

Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Crucially to music creation and distribution, the CorpSpeak being issued by Songtradr sounds a lot like when the CD Baby brand was sold by its founder, Derek Sivers. “Nothing will change,” gradually turned to warnings about how compact discs were inching toward obsolescence. “Wouldn’t you like to sell your music digitally through a website we’d create for you,” they asked. Then the asking stopped. Musicians were sent emails stating, bluntly, “Your music does not sell at the scale required to stay with our service. Please send $20 to have your collateral sent back to you. If you do not need them back, we will dispose for you.”

Rightly, Bandcamp is different than CD Baby, being mostly a self-service proposal. The individual can sell physical product, but handles all fulfillment on their own. Bandcamp does not hold any of that material, does not handle processing or shipping.

But Bandcamp is a digital media storage system. It sells downloads, but largely competes with other streamers like Apple, Amazon Music, and the gorilla that is Spotify. Previously, Bandcamp’s revenue benefits made the company infinitely more beneficial to artists over Spotify Etc.’s paltry payouts. That was its specific value-add, but Songtradr has been clear about its intentions to raise its new purchase to profitability. It’s employee firestorm gets them a bit of the way there, but not as far as one expects.

Think of streamers as little more than massive server farms, huge hard drives full of content, much like large shelves. For the egalitarian, it is about art and supporting the development and distribution of such. For the investor, every byte takes up a piece of that shelf. Are those bytes bringing a return on that investment? If not, why are we keeping it? And here is that other shoe many were worried about. We’ve already seen big streamers like Max, Disney+, and Netflix divest from content they found was not “earning its keep.” These projects are not entirely niche, either. From the almost complete Batgirl movie to the fully-completed Willow television series, bytes are the new CDs. If they’re not bringing in money, don’t waste that space. The held-breath is wondering if Songtradr/Bandcamp will view some of their more esoteric offerings in this same way. Most think they will.

See You On The Dark Side Of The Moon

So what will that mean for artists? Just speculating, but based on recent previous history:

  • No “pay what you want” tiers – where’s the return on investment if people won’t pay?
  • No free uploading for artists – you will need to enter an annual paid tier, maybe a bare-bones version resembling the free version they have right now – the justification will be that server space costs money and people aren’t putting up their share.
  • Potentially, added ads in streams – all streaming services are reintroducing ads. Some prefer it because of consistent revenue generation over a more static, ad-free annual user subscription.
  • Price increase for the “Pro” version – this is the most likely first step.
Potential changes:
  • For artists, minimum sales performers get deplatformed – It is CD Baby’s “You don’t sell enough – pay to take back your inventory or we’ll throw them away” all over again.
  • Annual rental fees, or rather, you will be recharged a small fee for every album you have on the site above your annual subscription, provided those albums still make money and have not been deplatformed for underperforming. You are no longer adding to the breadth of music on the site. You are leasing a property and need to pay for that property, above and beyond the cost of making it through the front gate.
  • There could be additional costs for selling merch through the site. While it is not a material burden for Bandcamp staff, it could be seen as a burden to the Bandcamp web presence, another page that has to be indexed, and more hosting costs overall. Passing that burden back to the artist seems inevitable.
  • For casual users discovering new music, expect Bandcamp to “streamline,” and essentially start functioning more like a traditional streamer. It’s not your online record store. It’s a Spotify competitor.
Don’t Give Me That Do-Goody-Good…
Are these absolutely, positively going to happen? I’m not an employee, so there’s no way for me to be sure, but there are now many, many Bandcampers who today aren’t employees either. They might back up assertions that Songtradr has showed its hand. If you insist on doubling down, you assume all risk.
Songtradr did not buy up the company because it believes in the Bandcamp mission, although it may well do so. Bandcamp is an asset, and assets have to grow to satisfy investors. I’m trying very hard to find the warm-fuzzy part in that cold-money scenario.

About the Author

Dw. Dunphy

Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. For Popdose he has contributed many articles that can be found in the site's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Musictap.net, Ultimate Classic Rock, and Diffuser FM. His music can be found at http://dwdunphy.bandcamp.com/.

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