Something is wrong.
As I sit down to write this it is Bandcamp Friday.
Since the start of the pandemic, the music sales platform Bandcamp — which offers free e-commerce, payment processing, and hosting to musicians looking to sell digital goods and merchandise online — has chosen to waive its 10 to 15% cut of revenue for one Friday a month.
Of course, in return they get to take over Twitter, see a spike in Google trends and, bathing in cheap publicity and goodwill, inch ever closer from a noun to a verb. Bandcamp has laid claim to twelve of this year’s Fridays, effectively rebranding the act of buying digital goods from independent musicians. The company has been variously described as “gracious” (Vanity Fair) and “beloved by artists” (National Public Radio) and, much as I might miss the fantasy of the musician-as-platform, I am inclined to agree.
A few weeks ago, Epic Games bought the company. Yet Bandcamp’s user base of musicians — which constitutes the majority of its value — was offered neither a say nor a benefit from the sale. All the same, for a generation of musicians currently staring at the wreckage of their income — who aggressively sided with the record industry in its naughties war on piracy, only to gaze on in confusion as the industry’s “salvation” decimated their copyrighted works — Bandcamp is a rope that has pulled many from the well.
Still, something is wrong.
Charity is not nothing, but it is still charity. One cannot build a sustainable industry on the kindness of strangers. And Bandcamp relies on such kindness: On the tiny percentage of consumers willing to subsidize the listening habits of everyone else. The deal these patrons get is not a fair one, and it is, at best, a sticking plaster for those they support.
Deep down, surely, we all know it. We know that Bandcamp is too precarious a solution. We know that it is too willing to indulge the likeable at the expense of the awkward. A Bandcamp career cannot be left unattended, it requires constant engagement, chivvying, and pluck. We know, ultimately, that Bandcamp represents an awkward compromise between musicians and a tiny percentage of the music-consuming market. We see its proposition declining in value all the time as the sheer convenience and superiority of unlimited streaming nibbles away at the remaining hardcore of unhealthily keen fans still willing to pay for downloads.
Bandcamp is a crutch, not a real solution. We’ve known that all along. But we cling to it, because we know even more certainly that there is something wrong with the streaming paradigm.
Obviously there is. It’s almost impossible to find a musician who doesn’t lament the amount that streaming services pay them. My view has long been that Spotify’s real insight was to look at the sheer overwhelming abundance of recorded music that exists and to accurately price it according to the laws of supply and demand. But the result has been a market akin to that of squeezed farmers forced to sell their produce at a loss to the supermarkets. It’s a market where those who create the essential good on which the market is based feel robbed, scammed, resentful, and trapped. It makes sense on a balance sheet — a hard and brutal fact — but it feels awful and that matters.
The promise of the early internet was that, without the costs of manufacturing and distributing physical media, making copies of things would be trivial and free. The market advantage enjoyed by large companies able to operate at scale, keep marginal costs low, and undercut independent traders should have been rendered obsolete. The idea of the multinational corporate record company should have evaporated and returned agency to independent DIY artists once and for all.
Instead, Web2 saw the rise of the super-aggregator and the colonization of the means of reproduction. Streaming services ate the idea of freely circulating data by walling it off, putting up signs about safety, and charging an admission fee funnelled (largely) back to the operators of the old major record companies that data had broken free from. They were allowed to do this largely unchallenged because a narrative had been spun that music needed saving from pirates.
And yes, pirates had been listening for free, sharing for free, enjoying music for free, but study after study showed that pirates were, essentially, music fans who ended up spending more on music than anyone else. It turned out that music piracy was negatively affecting the kinds of bands making albums that everyone thought were kind of OK and that everyone had to hear once. But bands like my band that made the kind of weird albums that were never going to get Coldplay’s level of exposure — but might be someone’s favorite album ever — often found that piracy benefitted them. I know it did mine. Piracy put our albums in front of the kind of people who loved music and were keen to reward the musicians who turned their bandana-clad heads and caught their single, unpatched eyes.
Streaming, as promised, killed all that. Web2 streaming rewarded the Coldplays and the record companies that had created them. It incentivized the artistically-stilted, but playlist-friendly EP of remixes — a chilled acoustic one, a tropical house version — anything to game the algorithm a little. It reduced music to sheer tone at the expense of its meaning:
“Ignore the wretched cry of this sensitive young gentleman’s soul,” it demanded, “pay attention instead to how little it disrupts the flow of Acoustic Chill.”
Everything that has been written about the algorithmic enforcement of filter bubbles on Facebook and YouTube is just as true of streaming services. Users are forever shepherded toward new art that is similar to the old art that robots know they like. It is curation by coercion — anathema.
Musicians, once again, are deprived of their ownership of the means of reproduction, which is, of course, wrong. We know it’s wrong because of the things we spend our time doing: We thank those DJs (floridly) who are gracious enough to play our records. And we beg Spotify playlist curators for consideration. When we aren’t abasing ourselves, we are straight up paying people. Paying for playlist submission services, for follower count increase services, for distribution services to upload our songs to streaming platforms. We can’t even present our own posteriors without paying someone to bend us over.
And the one thing that all of this begging, thanking, and paying has in common is that at the end of it all one might feel more famous, but one won’t have any extra money. We do all this, pay all these people, thank all these people and the end result in the best possible world is that we earn $0.003 a stream. If the Union of Musicians do the impossible and achieve all their demands then maybe, one day, we’ll get $0.01 instead, as if three times fuck all is really any more than fuck all.
My argument is not that Spotify pays too little. I think Spotify pays the market rate for the content they procure, but that the very idea which underpins the entire market: The trading of copyright and the licences derived from it, is broken.
So what, as musicians, do we want?
My guess is that, first and foremost, we want to be heard. We want people to listen to the music we make. We want them to share it, excitedly, with their friends, and to evangelize about it. Second, we want to be paid. We’d like to be rich, sure, but more pressingly we would just like to be solvent: To pay our bills and buy food for our children and to do so without having to confront the nagging voices that yank us from sleep to insist that we are, in fact, shelf stackers, podcast editors, and charity workers who do music as a hobby.
The problem with copyright in the digital age is that in order to secure solvency an artist is obliged to restrict people’s ability to hear their music. Enforcing one’s copyright is an exercise in the erection of paywalls, of accusing enthusiasts of theft, of finishing a song and hiding it in a box — trying as hard as one can to keep the song a secret so that its value doesn’t leak away and make the song unviable to the song-buying Moloch.
Copyright creates conflicting incentives. Once upon a time, when the means of reproduction were forbiddingly expensive, this paradox was not evident. Enthusiasm equated to sales. But now that reproduction is simultaneously free and paywalled, copyright makes us mean, sour and sad. It exposes us.
I don’t have a scheme to fix copyright. As the Irishman said to the tourist, “I wouldn’t start from here.”
A few weeks ago, I made more money selling NFT admission passes to a wholly imaginary theme park (that I had conceived as a work of conceptual art centred around the release of an official soundtrack album to said hypothetical park) than the advance my proper, non-imaginary band, was paid to sign our first record deal in 2007.
I made more money in a day than any of the six Indelicates studio albums made in their first six months of sales during the download and streaming eras. I can’t retire on this new money. But it happened nonetheless.
As a condition of the sale, I promised that if the initial drop of NFTs sold out I would immediately release the album into the public domain via Creative Commons 0. The initial drop of NFTs sold out in seventeen minutes. So the album has been released into the public domain. You can download it here and do as you please with it.
And look, I have read the comment threads below every celebrity’s tweet announcing their purchase of an NFT or collaboration on an NFT project or, even, their agreement to participate in an NFT auction where 100% of the proceeds will go to a refugee charity. So I know what people are supposed to think about them. Even when scammers scrape DeviantArt for content and auto-upload it to OpenSea in the hope of some unauthorized but irreversible sale, it isn’t actually depriving anyone of anything and therefore can’t be reported breathlessly as theft. But I recognise that this feels repugnant to artists and admit that it is both well-poisoning and incredibly annoying.
And I’ve also watched that YouTube video. I have educated myself. But I’ve also thought a lot about possible futures that aren’t terrible.
I get it, lots of people really really hate NFTs.
Still, though. Nothing about the NFT market is any more stupid than existing art or securities markets. And nothing about the existing Web2 paradigm for selling music is any less hateful. Streaming is hopeless and unfixable. Bandcamp softens the edge, but it doesn’t address the fundamental issue. The NFT market raises the possibility that art that was previously monetized by the mass sale of copies could operate like the fine art market instead. A market that rests on the sale of originals (to which copyright is an irrelevance) could offer a genuine, lasting settlement.
I made CDs of my Arcadia Park soundtrack and sold them, to be released on streaming services as usual. The CDs made a few hundred quid and I was delighted with that. The streaming income will be so tiny as to be irrelevant. Spotify will always feel like a receptacle for dead music. With all of my other records a Spotify release would be its obituary. With this one I made NFT admission passes and sold them. The return was a five-figure sum and there has been a healthy secondary market since.
For the first time in my experience, everyone’s incentives were aligned. My music was heard, I was paid, and I didn’t try to stop anyone listening. The people who bought the passes acquired a valuable asset that I’m delighted to spend more time adding value to because the project is alive and kicking and not abandoned to the graveyard of a streaming platform. The people who like my music and don’t care about any of this get it for free. No one, for once, is a loser here. This isn’t speculation either, it actually happened. I’ve read countless tweets about how no artists have ever benefited from the NFT market. But I’m here, I exist, and I have.
This is an anecdote. It doesn’t prove very much, but I wanted to share it anyway. With NFTs as a catalyst, I was able to make music, sidestep copyright altogether, earn a reasonable return on my labor, give the music away for free, and actively encourage people to share and evangelize it without any hesitation or conflict, and to do so without once (insincerely) thanking a DJ, begging an influencer, or paying a con artist. In this one case, at this one data point, there was nothing wrong. The problems were all solved. Tell your friends.
The big question for me — and I think that if you are one of the many conscientious, thoughtful souls who exist in this space, it should be a question for you too — is how can my experience be generalized? How can we get to the point where we can truly say to that huddled mass of musicians begging before Spotify, and Google, and EMI, and the TV, and the radio (and every other rotten bastard in a music industry that spends most of its time trying to restrict the amount of music that exists and make it harder to listen to) that there is a better way to do this and it is within reach? How can we build a better solution that will remain in place after the gold rush?
Today is Bandcamp Friday. What will tomorrow be?
Simon Indelicate is the singer and guitarist for The Indelicates, with whom he has played around the world and recorded six studio albums. He is also the creator of Paradise Rocks — a reimagining of Milton’s epic as an Elvis in Hawaii rock opera — and an obscure solo artist born of pandemic necessity. His Arcadia Park project will be dropping a second collection of NFT passes soon. Follow @ArcadiaParkNews for details and do not enter the tunnels.