In praise of... Bandcamp

What Bandcamp's lockdown story can tell us about the future of successful business

For anyone interested in what the future holds for us as societies and economies, the last few months have been fascinating – and Bandcamp's story has been a key highlight.

A rapidly changing environment has forced organisations to adapt quickly - and in the process to reveal the strengths and cracks in their businesses. Our sometime-collaborator Andrew Curry has spoken about this in terms of Mcluhan’s “media effects” model - with an excellent set of blogs talking about how coronavirus can enhance, obsolesce, retrieve or reverse. The case of Bandcamp is a particularly rich one - with the one-two punch of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter throwing the intrinsic qualities of the platform into sharp relief, whilst also retrieving some broader forms of musical community behaviour that have been steadily eroded over the last decade. In the same weeks that Spotify’s market share exceeds $50bn whilst still refusing to pay artists anything like a meaningful %age, it feels a great time to write about Bandcamp - not only because they deserve the recognition, but because their story might well hold a few clues for the kinds of organisation that will thrive in the years of turbulence ahead.

Regenerative economics - full cycle value creation
Let's start with the economic model. In the last decade, the music industry has been reshaped by platform systems that act as protective intermediaries between artists and audiences whilst retaining the lion’s share of revenue and profit. Notoriously Spotify generates negligible revenue for anyone but the most massive of mainstream artists, averaging around .$0.0039 a stream (for the maths enthusiasts amongst you, a listener would have to listen to an entire 9 track album about 300 times before the artist earnt the equivalent of a $9 direct purchase of the same album via bandcamp…!)

Bandcamp has a fundamentally different model - its revenue is based on a 15% cut of any artist’s sales - a model that tethers Bandcamp’s own financial health to the health of its creators in a way Spotify doesn’t. It's a simple feedback loop where the more profitable the individual artists are, the more profitable the platform is as a whole is… which then has resources to improve the platform, which then.... It begins to operate as a regenerative economic system - those market models work to give back more than they take - and strengthen and improve the ecosystems in which they occur. Given the carbon footprint of vinyl and cheap t shirt sales, Bandcamp is no a textbook example of regenerative capitalism but its positive feedback loops are rebuilding the economic resilience of musicians worldwide, and are at least one thriving example of how markets can step beyond the vc-funded, vampire logic of the standard “platform” approach.

UX for the 2020s - welcome to the friction
It's not the economics of Bandcamp that are interesting - Bandcamp’s revenue generation model works hand in hand with an unusual UX model. For those who aren’t regular users, it goes like this - you can stream tracks just like Spotify, but after a certain number of plays you get a screen like this:

Now in the first wave of UX design, this kind of moment is pretty anathema - we’ve spent a decade being told about the importance of fluid, intuitive, frictionless digital experiences. But as Evgeny Morozov has written about at length - those kinds of systems have implications, and often rob us of the kind of friction moments (or what Richard Sennet talks about as resistances) that are crucial to the creation of genuine reflection and meaning.

When you’re faced with this Bandcamp screen it tells you a few things. You can’t stream forever for free. There are people who made this track. They feel like they deserve to get paid for it. Bandcamp agrees. And then you ask yourself… Do I want to pay for it? Did I enjoy it? How much? Sometime I’d quickly realise the music was bland, and no I didn’t want to pay and … why was I listening to it anyway? But other times I’d jump into spontaneous purchases of stuff to show my love. And then find myself feeling connected to them and coming back for more. UX friction created a moment of pause that created meaning. Again, Bandcamp is not an isolated case - take for example, our client Workerbird, who are exploring how to use friction to create reflective forms of personal data tracking). But it's another way in which Bandcamp’s departure from the paradigms of the last decade feels new, a bit strange and … interesting. Maybe the design philosophies emerging from the relentless drive-to-purchase models of Amazon et al in the early 2000s and 2010s are not the only way. Take note, design thinkers … friction is here to stay.

The revenge of context - community beyond the algorithm
And friction isn’t just about pause. It's creating a window for the return of context, after a decade when content has been king - content of all kinds severed from their contexts and served up in smooth, uninterrupted playlists of mood music and infinite scrolls. And music here is only part of a broader story, one part of the big data revolution that has encouraged us to view of the world as neutral and objective data points, divorced from local contexts and texture. But again, Bandcamp creates an ecosystem that enthusiastically, stubbornly places music back into the broader contexts in which it exists.

As a music fan, i’ve found myself discovering music in nonlinear ways that i haven’t since i was a kid walking through records stores in my hometown. One day on Bandcamp, I stumbled across a T Shirt with cool looking typography, bought it, and then almost accidentally fell in love with the band Algiers, before digging deep into the catalogue of the Geographic North label they sit on, intrigued by the design sensibility. Following the appreciative comments of one fan, I spent a moment on their purchase history and came across Mdou Moctar, a band I'd seen years ago and hadn’t thought about since. And then, and then… You can get lost in Bandcamp, but in a way very different to the notorious, listless infinite scroll of Netflix or Spotify’s algorithmic radio.

Monthly Fridays & Juneteeth - the carnival moment
Regenerative economics, Friction UX, The return of context. So much for the ingredients. These threads came together over the last few months. Right at the start of lockdown, Bandcamp started a new initiative to waive its revenue share on one day each month. The sales were astounding - with total sales of $4 million on March 20, $7.4million on May 1st… and on and on. Artists reported receiving something approaching a normal years revenue in a single day. Labels talked about how these days helped them keep afloat in those uncertain times. It's worth comparing Bandcamp’s approach to what Spotify did - Spotify enabled donations and promised to match them. The difference between the “experience design” of these two initiatives is instructive. Spotify appears generous, but is noncommittal (whatever you do, we do) and without drama - give what you want, when you can, into a black hole. Bandcamp is timebound, dramatic and empowering - whatever happens, we take a step back and let fans connect completely with their creators. It was exciting and empowering - unleashing a slew of innovation from labels to make the most of the moment by releasing new albums, new concepts and new merchandise.

And then George Floyd. All of the above continued, multiplied by the pride and rage and grief and confusion and shame that this moment created for so many of us. And those first friday’s became something else entirely, as the bands and labels passed on this spirit of generosity themselves, redirecting their revenue to the causes of black lives, worldwide. And as an individual, i learnt more on so many levels - not only in listening to the direct responses by artists like Space Africa with their remarkable hdbtkibt, but also in looking more into the institutions that black artists wanted us to support - yes the NCAAP in the US and Steven Lawrence Trust here in the UK, but also fascinating initiatives i’d never heard of like Afrotectopia. This was friction and context, but at a level unseen on any mainstream digital platform before. Bandcamp wasn’t only supporting artists, but creating a window into new worlds. Here is a business built on exchanges filled with friction, texture and meaning that strengthen their creators and makes the world feel bigger and more full of possibility than before. In music and beyond, let others take note.

David Gunn is co-founder of Something More Near. Participation specialist. Major projects for Tate, World Health Organisation, Museum of London and Franco Manca. Co-founder of Something More Near.