jason (FMA Admin)
jason on 09/13/2010 at 09:00AM
On September 16th, Bandcamp will start charging users who use the music-hosting platform to offer free downloads. The announcement may have broader implications concerning the current climate for free music online.
Some are decrying the move as a withdrawal of support for the netaudio community, but while Bandcamp launched completely free, it was only a matter of time before the business model came into play. In a post titled "It's a Business Model!", Bandcamp's co-founder Ethan Diamond announced that they would start taking a 15% revenue share of sales made through the site. Though it's a far cry from major label practices of old, some users feel Bandcamp has gone "from a revolutionary service, one that had the power to change to rules of the game (and did!) [to] more like an old fashioned record label," wrote commenter guyha in response to Bandcamp's announcement.
These shifts are a reminder that what appears to us as "free" online actually has its costs. While digital distribution often feels free, bandwidth and server space are not. Everyone who used Bandcamp for free music -- either because they believed in the values of free culture and/or as part of a larger business model -- essentially added up to dead weight as far as Bandcamp's business model was concerned. Now we understand that Bandcamp intends to rely on artists to bring money to the site, whether it's through sales or an out-of-pocket investment.
For artists, digital tools don't change the fact that good music takes a serious investment of time and resources to create. And this move further aligns Bandcamp's interests with the site's most economically successful artists (Sufjan Stevens, Desden Doll Amanda Palmer). Artists who sell over $5,000 share 1/3 less of their profits, and every $500 in sales earns another 1,000 free downloads. Meanwhile, those who don't sell will need to pay bandcamp for the privilege to offer over 200 free downloads, thus financing the aforementioned incentives for more artists who pass the threshold. It's an ironic twist for the site which was once considered a key player in the netaudio community.
Bandcamp has placed a concrete value on exactly how much they think free music is worth, and while it was done from Bandcamp's perspective as a hosting platform, this perception will inevitably trickle down to the artists who use the platform (and impact many who don't). As one user pointed out, this is "going to cause artists to be more stringent on what they offer for free." As a musician myself, I was drawn to Bandcamp specifically as a place to host free music that I didn't feel comfortable putting on the FMA (I don't want to 'curate' too much of my own stuff on the FMA, which I view more as a place to offer good 1st impressions, like radio singles for the internet era, than entire discographies). I also liked Bandcamp's ability to trade free downloads for email addresses, and am working my way towards a sizable mailing list. I'm not sure what I'll do once I use up the rest of my freebies, and I hesitate to start charging for downloads just because Bandcamp wants me to pay my way... I'm curious to hear what other Bandcamp users are thinking.
The question of "who pays for free music" kept coming up last week at PopKomm/all2gethernow, where I took part in panels concerning "The Economy of Open Content and its Archives" and "Music's Social and Economic Value". We all seemed to agree that free music is valuable, that it has become a crucial tool for artists to reach audiences, and these ideas were reiterated by everyone from label-owner/artist Jason Forrest to Scott Cohen who's in the business of selling digital music (he founded The Orchard) and manages The Raveonettes. So there's no question that free music is valuable not just to free culture and the netaudio scene but often as part of a larger marketing plan for professional artists. Most importantly, free music is a way for struggling artists to undercut last century's distribution bottlenecks, and Bandcamp's imposition of a business model that privileges certain artists over others has some interesting parallels between a system we all thought the web had conquered.