WASHINGTON – In late 2007, Radiohead brought the pay-what-you-want sales model to the forefront with an initial online release of its album, “In Rainbows.” In 2008, a startup called Bandcamp took that idea and combined it with a simple interface for bands to sell their music online. Fast forward to 2011: Online music sales topped physical CD sales for the first time, CNN Money reports.
Local indie bands say they are selling more music and able to better market themselves thanks to Bandcamp.
What is Bandcamp, anyway?
At first glance, Bandcamp might appear to be just another online music store, but there are several elements that make it stand out in the glut of online record stores. Bandcamp is different from other online tools for musicians because they’ve created a fresh business model with the independent artist in mind.
Anyone can sell his music on Bandcamp with no initial cost, so it’s a great tool for independent bands to increase online presence, sell music, and book gigs. It has quickly become one of those things that every band just “has to do” – similar to Facebook, and Myspace (remember that?).
What about iTunes?
iTunes is more profitable for major record labels. In order for independent bands to get their music on iTunes, they have to go through a middleman service such as Tunecore, which charges $49.99 per year to keep an album available via iTunes. On top of that, iTunes takes a 30 percent cut of artist sales. Bandcamp has no up-front fee for bands to sell music, and takes 15 percent of digital sales. Bandcamp also pays artists directly via Paypal (which also charges a small transaction fee), allowing real-time tracking of sales.
iTunes relies heavily on fans to know exactly what they’re looking for: Type in the band name, get that band’s music. Bandcamp can be browsed not only by music category, but also by location, so someone searching the website is more likely to discover music that is new to them.
The “try before you buy” element is another reason why so many artists and fans prefer Bandcamp over iTunes. Fans can listen to full songs, as opposed to 30- or 90-second previews on iTunes. Bandcamp also allows a purchased song or album to be downloaded in many formats, including mp3, WAV, and FLAC.
Who’s using it?
Now that the service has been around for a few years, just about any local independent band one can name has a Bandcamp website. Once a band registers, it can upload its whole music catalog for fans to browse and purchase. Bands have the option to give away free downloads, allow fans to pay what they want or sell songs at a fixed price. It’s also helping many bands to realize that they’ve got the potential to become their own small businesses.
Band member Matt Dowling prefers the overall Bandcamp experience: “It’s a better way to get a sense of what the band is…what their history is.”
Commenting on digital music sales, Dowling says, “We probably sell more records through Bandcamp than physical CDs. It’s just an easy place for people to purchase.”
He doesn’t foresee the allure of Bandcamp fading anytime soon, either.
“I think it’s going to be around for a long time…I think it’s important for any band to have.”
Ardamus began writing his own raps at the age of 8, but really started his emcee career while attending Howard University. Ardamus was among the first recipients of the D.C. Young Artists grant, and is currently offering a dozen downloadable releases on Bandcamp.
“It allows me to sell my music without a middleman distribution source, direct to the customer.”
Ease of use is also a big plus for him.
“With iTunes and Amazon, there are too many loopholes to jump through to even be able to sell music online.”
Ardamus also prefers that Bandcamp streams entire songs.
“iTunes only gives you a brief snippet, but Bandcamp will stream the whole thing.”
The band kindlewood is a self-described “dream-pop folk” three-piece from Maryland. Originally formed in 2010, they embarked on their first self-booked U.S. tour in 2011.
“Bandcamp gave us the ability to distinguish ourselves, and to sell physical [merchandise],” band member Galen Smith says.
Artists are not limited to just selling digital music. They can sell records, clothing, whatever products they have.
Galen likes using Bandcamp’s artist-only tools.
“We see when we have spikes in streaming from our website.”
Regarding overall awareness of Bandcamp, Galen says, “I think that it’s still a fairly new medium by which people can purchase music…as more and more artists utilize it, people will get more and more comfortable with it.”
Jessica Louise Dye fronts the decidedly American-sounding Lightfoot. You can catch them at local venues like the Black Cat.
Dye is a huge fan of Bandcamp.
“I have my music on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify. My album is everywhere, but I still prefer to send people to my Bandcamp because I get a better percentage of the sales.”
She also points out that many booking agents now prefer that bands send links to Bandcamp, rather than the traditional press kit, which used to involve snail-mailing a big envelope stuffed with a band’s CD, biography and other promotional materials.
“I can’t imagine [that] anyone [else] is going to do it any better than Bandcamp…I can’t imagine releasing music without it,” Dye says.
The band Young Rapids has been around very long, but on its three-song powerhouse MindDrug, the band sounds well-seasoned. Band members all all agree that as a young band with little to no budget, this makes our self-promotion process worth a whole lot more. Catch Young Rapids live at the Rock & Roll Hotel on May 5.
“If you want to give away a free single, or you put out a live album that you only want to charge 5 bucks for, you can set your prices to do that. I think Bandcamp’s [fee] is pretty reasonable, especially compared to iTunes,” Tucker says.