October 17, 2023
I was away from the grid and the world last week, and I missed a lot. I'm still processing the horrific acts happening half a world away, but I also learned that Bandcamp, the folks who've provided my website music store for the last eight years, had recently been sold to an "entertainment company" who promised no changes other than newer and better unicorns. Yesterday came news that they'd laid off 50% of Bandcamp's staff. This tweet from fellow musician James Toth yesterday got my attention, big time:
What follows may sound like a bit of "insider baseball", but please trust me that as a music enthusiast and listener, you are my intended audience. This could be basically a synopsis of the typical indie musician career across genres over about the last 20 years;
- Someone comes up with a great idea or tool that can be used by musicians to directly connect with and market music to their fans (OasisCD, Songs.com, ArtistData.com, CDBaby, Bandcamp.com, etc.)
- Indie musicians are thrilled, and embrace the tool in multitudes because of the access and interaction; yay us! No need for big record labels. We get our music straight to our fans.
- Tool becomes profitable, gets on the radar of bigger companies who want to further grow (read: "monetize") that proof of concept
- Bigger company that doesn't understand or care one whit about connecting artists and fans buys tool, runs it poorly for awhile with no idea what they're doing, gets frustrated at the inability to max out revenues, then damages, disables or outright destroys said tool because it's not profitable enough.
- Rinse and repeat.
What happened at Bandcamp this month is of course alarming to the hundreds of thousands of artists who have depended on them these last few years. I started with them in their earliest days, and they built a wonderful resource for us to sell digital and physical directly to you. An ecosystem designed for the casual listener as well as the hardcore music enthusiast, with the goal of supporting artists you like. They stood tall in the face of giant streaming services who literally pay us artists the equivalent of a CD at the merch table for every 10-15,000 times their algorithms serve up our music.
That "island ecosystem" is now on the same trajectory as all those other great DIY musician tools; bought up by vulture capitalists who say all the right things and two weeks later lay off half the staff. I do have options for when Bandcamp becomes untenable for me. My web hosts at Bandzoogle, who basically brought the lifeboats to the wreckage of HostBaby (another offshoot of CDBaby), offer a very similar service as part of their web hosting. If I've learned anything, it's that nothing is remotely permanent, but a lifeboat temporarily going in the same direction is a lot better than no life boat at all.
Of course, some failings of these great startups are technology driven. What innovation giveth, innovation taketh away. CDs were great. Then MP3s were great. Websites were great. Livestreams were great. The interaction of technology and culture and humanity is constantly shifting; we get excited about a thing, then we grow tired of it, and a new thing rises up.
The thing is, all of these factors are squeezing music creators from all sides. Recording sales revenue from 10 years ago dried up to a trickle of royalty streams. The live music ecosystem, at least below the level of Taylor Swift and Pink, is such that bigger acts are playing smaller capacity venues at higher ticket prices. And our ability to interact with and stay connected to you from a distance is diminished by social media algorithms and the steady decline of email use.
I don't begrudge those at the top of the ecosystem. Taylor and Pink have earned their sunbursts. The collaborative legacy tours of rock bands from my youth are building on the same nostalgia that fueled 50s band shows in my childhood. We always want a trip back in time to when we were young, and those bands were a big part of the soundtrack. If it takes three of them banding together to sell 10,000 seats to see musicians still vibrant in their golden years, hallelujah!
So what does that mean for us, you and I? Me the eager music creator who has somehow been lucky enough to derive some semblance of a livelihood from these voices in my head for the past three decades, because you the supporter cared enough to come to a show, or buy my album, or told your friends about my work? I get it that we're all aging (if we're lucky!), and driving at night sucks more than ever with those supernova halogen headlights in our faces. It's an effort to get out, and everything costs more, and man; it's nice to put on our sweats and spend the night comfy on the couch watching something we enjoy coming through some screen.
What it might mean is this; this thing, this community of intimate interaction with artists and audiences, is in peril. Sure, artists will always make art, and arenas will always fill for the spectacle of the moment. And that art will be someplace where you can enjoy it; if you can find it. The more fragmented the "engagement ecosystem" becomes, the more challenging it might be to get my art in front of you. The last three years really changed everything, including us. As a small business person whose business happens to be making and performing music, for the first time not having enough of a crystal ball to even make a 1-year plan is pretty unsettling. As someone whose music sometimes touches in deep human places, occasionally even when someone hearing it really needed it, it is disheartening.
For now, nothing changes except everything. For now, my music store is Bandcamp. For now, you are seeing my words and reading them, and I thank you! My one ask is this; please go see a show in your community. Not just someone getting paid to sling cover tunes as audio wallpaper for drunk and/or oblivious patrons, but someone making art. Be one of five people sitting in your local coffee shop listening to some young singer/songwriter hone their craft. Over the years, those people helped build my career, and I am grateful that I gave all five of them 110% because they made the effort. I still am.
And if you're not subscribed already, I'd be hugely grateful to share my monthly emails with you (hit the homepage, takes ten seconds). After all, it's just us in here right now. I've still got a lot to share with you, and I would cherish that occasional spot in your inbox. We can figure the rest of it out as we go, even if we have very little idea of where we're going.
Thanks for reading.