The recent decision by bandcamp.com, the music-hosting service, to charge for free downloads has been met with understandable rancor. The site had situated itself as a constituent part of the Internet’s music ecology. Musicians and labels had made it part of their tech infrastructure, especially netlabels, which give away their music for free.
The relationship between Bandcamp and netlabels makes this development of particular concern for this website. A search on this site for “bandcamp” suggests how thoroughly the service has become part of the Creative Commons community, notably in the case of musicians like Diego Bernal and Y?arcka, and deeply non-commercial enterprises such as the multi-artist One Minute for the Sun compilation.
Bandcamp secured a certain elevation in the crowded field of music-hosting services, and then it went and changed the rules — and not one of those semi-cursory mutual-agreement notices, like when Apple changes its iTunes Store terms of services what seems like several times a week.
A September 9 post on its blog (blog.bandcamp.com) introduced a new system in which only a set number of free downloads would be available per user, this in stark contrast with what had been the case, a system that allowed unlimited downloads. The decision wasn’t surprising. Downloads require bandwidth and infrastructure, and bandwidth and infrastructure cost money.
What was a surprise was Bandcamp’s surprise. This is the opening graph of that notice:
Our hope was that free downloading might be highest amongst the artists who were also selling the most – for example, a band giving away a track or two in promotion of a paid album. That way, the revenue share on the artist’s sales would naturally cover the costs associated with the streaming, support and storage of their freebies.
Given the preponderance of free on the Internet, from YouTube to the Internet Archive (aka archive.org), it seems peculiar that the people who put together Bandcamp expected free solely to be used as a kind of loss-leading promotional opportunity.
I think the major grudge that some people hold against their latest announcements is that they built their customer base of tens of thousands around a VC-money-fueled free service, offering little transparency as to how they would end up monetizing (probably wasn’t clear to the founders either, as they got started). Only after people had invested time and resources in building and promoting their Bandcamp page do they find out how much it will cost them.
In other words, it seems like the real loss-leader here was Bandcamp’s own: allow the free downloads for a long time, build a participatory audience, and then begin charging a fee. Before and after the Bandcamp decision, musicians host files on Bandcamp, collect them as albums, and charge what they want for downloads, along a sliding scale (a la Radiohead’s milestone release, In Rainbows) from zero to whatever the consumer’s heart desired and wallet allowed. The difference is that members now have a set number of free downloads, after which they have to pay to allow additional free downloads, pricing ranging from three cents (U.S.) to half that, depending on how many credits are purchased.
On Twitter, musician @joshwoodward noted:
WTG, BandCamp – with your new pricing, it’d only have cost me $39,000 to give my music away for free through you.
A commenter on Jason Sigal’s freemusicarchive.org writeup said:
Blaming us for using what they offered. I just thought that was unfair
The comment was in response to this section of the Bandcamp announcement:
It’s obviously unfair to burden every Bandcamp artist with the costs of a few outliers giving away hundreds of thousands of free downloads, so we’re making some changes to button that up.
And musician Phil Wilkerson over at his blog (philwilkerson.wordpress.com) wrote:
The romance with Bandcamp is over for me. I won’t be recommending Bandcamp to my friends or to other artists. In fact, I will have nothing positive to say about Bandcamp henceforth. You have to wonder about their business acumen as well. Bandcamp has denied themselves an important way of generating site traffic and positive vibes and goodwill from the Creative Commons community. They have virtually spit in the face of the Creative Commons artists and netlabels who have driven traffic to their site.
The situation is unfortunate, to the extent that Bandcamp even revised its revision; instead of 200 free downloads, each account will get 200 free downloads per month (in addition, there are incentives).
What happens next at Bandcamp will be interesting to observe. Will pageviews and usage drop significantly? If they do, will the decrease in free-related traffic offset such drops? Will someone finally, as musician and netlabel administrator @hecanjog suggested, “[build] a front-end to archive.org as wonderful and slick as bandcamp.com”?
One of the issues with Bandcamp’s switch is how it treats all accounts equally, even though 200 free downloads for an individual artist’s page doesn’t correlate with 200 free downloads for a label’s page. There’s also no apparent easy way for users to offset an artist’s (or label’s) free-related debt. Bandcamp has, all these gripes aside, proved itself responsive to the input of its users. After capping a maximum upload size, the following addendum was posted on September 8: “Some Serious Ambient Artists have helped us realize that our thinking on this issue was very uptight, so we’ve modified our policy: once you’ve made a few sales through Bandcamp (totaling $20 USD or more), we’ll increase your upload limit to 600 megs (that’s like, one whole LaserDisc!).”
Anyhow, just as the Internet has introduced a wealth of micro-cultures in place of long-running Top 40 mono-cultures, I wonder if the same will be the case for financial interactions. Different people shop differently, consume differently, store their possessions differently. (I don’t know the background of those Serious Ambient Artists’ input, but it might have had to do with the fact that much ambient music is significantly longer than the average pop song.) Bandcamp’s system has many things to its credit, among them an easy “trade an email address for a download” interface, and the sliding-scaled, multiple-format (MP3s at various compression rates, Ogg, etc.) download system.
I wonder if the next best step for Bandcamp is to figure out how to provide a broader range of financial alternatives. For example, if I enjoy a recording, I might be inclined to, after the fact, donate a small amount of funds to allow for future listeners to themselves experience a free download of the same track or album. This is along the lines of Cory Doctorow’s manner with the free versions of his ebooks; he says that if you enjoy the book, rather than paying him after the fact, buy a copy for a library (“Cory Doctorow Aids Libraries with Donations-for-Downloads Program”).
As Wilkerson himself put it, the issue of what it costs to promote one’s music on Bandcamp is largely an issue of framing: “I will pay what amounts to a hosting fee. I am not opposed to that at all. I suppose I could look at Bandcamp’s fee as a hosting fee.”