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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bandcamp sells to Epic: can a video game company save independent music? | Music

Musos and gamers were left scratching their heads last Wednesday as Bandcamp, the online record store hailed by independent artists as a bankable alternative to the razor-thin royalties of streaming, announced its acquisition by Epic Games, makers of the online gaming phenomenon Fortnite.

Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond framed the deal as a boon for artists, saying that the two US companies shared a vision of building “the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem in the world”. A blogpost from Epic underlined the need for “fair and open platforms” to enable “creators to keep the majority of their hard-earned money”.

But Bandcamp users reacted with shock and disappointment to the sale of the indie juggernaut, lamenting the loss of “our” store, as drummer and Spotify critic Damon Krukowski tweeted.

“We all just got sold,” lamented media theorist McKenzie Wark. Bemused gamers and tech experts, meanwhile, wondered what possible uses a company such as Epic – itself 40% owned by Chinese gaming megacorp Tencent – might have for the direct-to-fan marketplace for MP3s of niche musical genres like vaporwave and chiptune.

Since its founding in 2008, Bandcamp has become a cornerstone of the global underground music economy through its “pay-what-you-want” download structure and low commissions, taking a 15% cut of every sale. During the pandemic, the San Francisco-based company earned kudos for waiving that fee on the first Friday of every month, generating millions of dollars for artists, as well as donating to racial justice campaigns including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Epic has its own track record as a plucky indie, having remained largely in the hands of CEO Tim Sweeney since its founding in 1991. Like Bandcamp, Epic takes a relatively small cut from developers, setting its commission at 12% compared with Apple’s 30%. Epic even took Apple to court – and lost, at great expense – to accuse the tech giant of monopolising the mobile gaming industry. But the company’s fortunes have soared in recent years after the success of Fortnite and other free-to-play games. Now valued at $28bn, and facing its own controversies over data collection and Store exclusivity, it’s no longer a feisty underdog.

Many independent artists, already squeezed by the collapse of physical sales and – since Covid – a long hiatus from touring, see the Bandcamp sale as another disappointment in a long tradition of indie sellouts. But tech experts and neophyte musicians have also been speculating on the possibility of new integrations between Bandcamp’s vast catalogue of music and Epic’s cutting-edge game technology. These range from live-streaming events such as Fortnite’s virtual concerts, which have seen artists Travis Scott and Marshmello putting on trippy performances for millions of emoting avatars, to social spaces such as Party Worlds, designed for virtual hangouts rather than combat and destruction.

‘It has always been part of platform capitalism, where growth is paramount’ ‘… Zola Jesus.
‘It has always been part of platform capitalism, where growth is paramount’ ‘… Zola Jesus. Photograph: Barney Britton/Redferns

Beyond the busy world of Fortnite, Epic could also be thinking about easy routes into licensing music for software developers using Unreal Engine, the open and free-to-use development platform built by Epic’s Sweeney. There are obvious opportunities for integration with Harmonix, the games studio behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

More importantly, Sweeney is a longtime proponent of virtual reality and its buzzy reincarnation as the metaverse, the promise of a virtual 3D environment built from interconnecting spaces and social networks. “The most plausible way the metaverse is going to rise,” Sweeney said in 2020, “isn’t from one company, even Epic, building this thing and forcing everybody to use it. It’s going to be from more and more companies and brands connecting their products and services.”

In that sense, Epic’s acquisition can also be read as a play for the hearts and minds of the next generation of musicians and music lovers who have grown up in virtual worlds such as Fortnite. Rather than attempting to convert digital natives into record-buying traditionalists, the smart move could be to meet Generation Z where they already are, among the 160 million players inside the Epic Games Store.

Selling to Epic may also have presented itself as the least worst option for a company under pressure to provide returns for its early investors. Bandcamp received venture capital backing in its early years, and though the precise numbers involved are unknown, market logic dictates that VC-backed startups eventually start looking for an exit: either float on the stock market, which works for companies showing impressive growth and significant future valuation, or sell up.

Whether or not that’s the case for Bandcamp, it won’t do much to cheer up the musicians and fans who long ago identified Silicon Valley economics as the source of their woes. On social media, the deal was met with cynicism by some of the musicians who make up Bandcamp’s global community of creator-consumers. “It’s VC-funded and has always been part of platform capitalism, where growth is paramount,” wrote experimental artist Zola Jesus.

The irony is that Bandcamp has always positioned itself as a “community” rather than a marketplace, yet that community has not been given a say in the fate of the value it has created. The solution, say some artists, is to take back control – either by moving over to a platform like Resonate, a streaming cooperative owned by its users, or exploring new Web3 protocols for collective ownership. Austin Robey, co-founder of alternative music platform Ampled, advocates for an “exit to community”, a model where startups are taken over by the users and stakeholders who depend on the product or service they’ve created.

Still, no other indie platform has yet achieved anything like the scale or appeal of Bandcamp, and the shift to alternative platforms will require a leap of technical literacy that most artists and fans aren’t ready to make. In the short term, Bandcamp remains the slickest direct-to-fan operation in town – and is still paying out millions to artists.

“The products and services you depend on aren’t going anywhere,” assured Diamond in his statement. Nothing will change in the short term, is the promise – although it’s the same one that accompanies every similar acquisition. Those old enough to remember losing their MySpace music overnight may be feeling itchy. Word to the wise, advised one suspicious user, “download all your Bandcamp MP3s if you haven’t yet”.

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