After Bandcamp, What?
Naomi and I just completed another short tour – we flew to Chicago to join a mini-festival of psychedelic bands (curated by Steve Krakow), and then drove back to Cambridge stopping in Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, and Brattleboro VT. 1366 miles, according to our Hertz rental odometer. I had forgotten what it’s like to sit in a car five, six hours a day. I had also blocked out that nearly featureless drive between Toronto and Montreal: even with multiple cups of the Tim Horton’s tea I’m partial to (two bags, one milk)… ugh.
But there are great pleasures of returning to tour, especially catching up with friends in the places we visit, and seeing so much special live music. In Chicago, we got to see – for the first time – Kath Bloom. Watching her ramshackle but utterly communicative performance, and with Haley Fohr beaming at our side in the audience, was joyful. (We then listened to nothing but Kath Bloom’s 80s albums with Loren Mazzacane Connors the entire long ride home.)
In both Chicago and Detroit, we had the Powers/Rolin duo on the bill with us, playing their thousand-string wash of dulcimer and guitar. In Toronto, indie veterans Picastro joined us for a punky night at a packed bar. In Montreal, the luminously slow and dark music of Myriam Gendron lifted La Sotterenea out of its basement and into the haunted Mile End night. And in Brattleboro we staged a mini-psych fest of our own, featuring local heroes Dredd Foole and Wet Tuna in a 19th-century Baptist church with a deep, deep natural reverb. Dredd gave a rare performance in every sense: he doesn’t play in public often, and it was a performance of such rare power I think all of us – the church building included – were stunned. Had any preacher ever raised their voice in quite that way?
Nevertheless, I came home feeling some despair about the state of music. Not the quality – there’s great music as always, if your ears and eyes are open to it. But the practical situation for musicians has gone from hard to harder. Costs have skyrocketed for most everything, as everyone knows. Yet almost nothing for musicians is keeping pace. On the contrary, sources of our income keep disappearing.
While we were on those endless drives last week, half the staff at Bandcamp were fired by the platform’s new ownership. This will have a deleterious effect on all of independent music. Bandcamp may be a small fraction of the music industry as a whole – digital downloads currently account for only 3% of recorded music revenues, according to the RIAA – but for independent artists like us and those we share bills with on tour, Bandcamp is not only a meaningful source of income, but one of the last online channels we have to communicate directly with our audience. Unmediated by algorithms, unencumbered by ads, untainted by data mining, the site is a throwback to an earlier paradigm. It even employs a bunch of music critics, for god’s sake – or did.
Bandcamp’s paradigm reaches past the internet to a very simple business concept: what’s good for your clients is good for you. Independent musicians – and independent labels – we are Bandcamp’s clientele. We stock the site with our music, and the site takes a commission on what we earn from our audience via the platform. It’s just like any gig on tour, essentially. Not complicated!
Or perhaps too simple for today’s financial models?
What business the new owners of Bandcamp are in is anybody’s guess, judging by their website. “Songtradr is where music meets data, ideas meet innovation, and brand missions are transformed by sound,” it says.
“Songtradr is the world’s largest B2B music company, delivering the only full-stack solution for all business music needs.
“We're on a mission to change the music industry for good through technology, creativity, and transparency. Trusted by global businesses, agencies, and labels, our fully integrated products and services help amplify brands while enabling artists and rights holders to realize the full potential of their catalog.
“Whether with a classic song or a trending tune, a global music strategy or a sonic identity, we help translate ideas into powerful, ROI-driven solutions to ensure content always hits the right note.”
Which means… they do what, exactly? I googled “ROI” – it means “return on investment.”
Whose investment are we talking about?
Songtradr offers services – for pay – to businesses and to artists. Businesses pay them for music licensing. And artists pay them for a shot at being included in that licensing.
But where, in that equation, is the audience? And if it’s not about audience, how is it an investment for musicians?
Bandcamp, like touring, is all about an exchange between musicians and an audience. Songtradr represents – like so many other digital music services – some mysterious financial model that has little to do with either musicians or audience. Neither of us, after all, is looking to “translate ideas into powerful, ROI-driven solutions.”
Maybe Songtradr will surprise me, and have both an understanding and a clear use for the simple exchange between artist and listener that Bandcamp currently offers. Or maybe they will just fire everybody in search for a return on their investment. That seems to be how they’ve started.
And where, then, will we go. By we I mean everyone at our shows last week – bands and audience. Where will we find one another online where we can make a direct exchange – in that simple way we understand – for what we find of value in digital music. Bandcamp has been a virtual merch table for so many of us. Take it away and we lose one of the last profitable sources of income remaining to independent musicians.
Listening to: Kath Bloom and Loren Connors
Cooking: Hot toddy with Canadian rye
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