Like thousands of artists, Nashville singer and songwriter Emma Swift faced a reckoning in March after all of her gigs were scrapped.
"When the pandemic hit, I lost my job as a touring musician. And in losing that job, I lost my primary income stream," she said during a recent phone call. Pondering the prospect of releasing "Blonde on the Tracks," her new folk-rock album of Bob Dylan songs, to major music streaming services minus any sense of when she'd be able to tour in support of it, Swift ran the numbers.
"It wasn't actually going to be financially sensible or sustainable for me to release it on mainstream streaming platforms such as Spotify or Apple," Swift explained. "I was only gonna be able to survive as an artist if I used a platform that would allow me to make money from the record."
Like a skyrocketing number of independent artists, Swift went with Bandcamp. The platform, with its artist-first business model, has since its birth in 2008 become a player in the music streaming wars by celebrating niche communities while promising a radically transparent approach to royalties.
Born in Oakland with profits in part from the sale of an email start-up company, Bandcamp has thrived during a moment when the challenges facing musicians couldn't be greater. Starved of road money and feeling abused or ignored by major services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and YouTube that pay fractions of a penny per spin, artists have flocked to Bandcamp and fans have followed. Launched as a digital music site, it has since become a merchandising powerhouse, connecting listeners with vinyl, CDs, cassettes and T-shirts.
Underscoring musicians' needs, Bandcamp announced in March that once monthly, on each first Friday through the end of 2020, it would forgo its regular 15% cut on digital sales (and 10% cut of physical sales), in effect channeling 100% of money directly from fan to artist, often with as little as a two-day turnaround. Since then, fans have paid artists nearly $100 million.
All told, according to a tally prominently displayed on Bandcamp's landing page, the platform has generated $584 million for artists since 2008.
"Spotify didn't do anything to actually improve the financial situation for musicians out of their own pocket," Swift said. Indicting Spotify's billionaire founder and Chief Executive Daniel Ek as what she called "a morally reprehensible human being," she added, "the music industry is in a really unfortunate situation where artists feel like they have to use those platforms or they're not going to get their music heard."
Bandcamp, by comparison, was founded on a basic question, says 49-year-old co-founder and Chief Executive Ethan Diamond. "If I love a piece of music, how do I get as close as possible to directly handing the artist some money? How do I do that and create that relationship with them?" He then repeats a mantra he's recited in countless interviews: "Our success is tied to the artist's success. We only make money if the artist makes a whole lot more."
That approach has made it the rarest of tech companies: a beloved business that upends the market while coming across like some combination of consummately curated record store, laudably progressive nonprofit group and supersize first-generation music blog.