Will October 16, 2023 ultimately be remembered as the day the music at Bandcamp died?
With outpourings of grief and concern coming in from musicians and listeners alike, news that fifty percent of the beloved music-sharing and direct-to-consumer marketplace’s staff was laid off last month by new ownership has left the industry rattled and raging.
It’s a gutting development for the Oakland-based platform that’s long prided itself as the anti-Spotify: the rare place where artists could earn a decent payout, and where listeners in search of their next favorite jam relied not on algorithms, but on the writing and curating talents of a small yet mighty editorial staff.
Helped in part by artist-friendly initiatives like Bandcamp Fridays (a monthly 24-hour period where the company forgoes its cut of revenues), Bandcamp has paid out a truly astonishing $1.21 billion to artists since forming in 2007.
Now that’s all at grave risk in the wake of mass layoffs imposed by Songtradr, a B2B music-licensing service that purchased Bandcamp from previous owners Epic Games in late September. While Epic, which purchased Bandcamp in early 2022, largely kept their promise to leave the platform to its own devices, Songtradr’s mass layoffs have at last brought a corporate reckoning many feared would come—especially as it appears that Songtradr is quashing longtime efforts of employees to unionize under the Bandcamp United banner.
Speaking by phone to 48 Hills from a tour stop in Miami, Sadie Dupuis of Philadelphia rock band Speedy Ortiz, which distributes its music tin the Bandcamp platform, offered a frank and fittingly frightening assessment of the situation.
“This acquisition by Songtradr has just so immediately burned through the decade-plus of goodwill that Bandcamp generated for music fans,” Dupuis said. “Regardless of whether it was totally random that they laid off every union organizer—shouldn’t they have tried a little harder to make it not random? Because even if that was purely coincidental, which is like the biggest hypothetical I could ever imagine, and I certainly don’t believe that to be the case, with the state of support for labor, for organizing, and specifically for arts labor and organizing, it’s just the quickest way to burn all your goodwill.”
Currently playing shows in support of her group’s latest album, Rabbit Rabbit—including a date at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop Mon/6—Dupuis acknowledged that, without Bandcamp, there isn’t really an obvious place to turn.
“I was thinking about it this morning: I wanted to send an album to one of my tourmates. In the past, it was a no brainer. I’d just immediately go to Bandcamp and send them a link. Now it’s less clear cut than it used to be.
“It’s a bleak landscape for digital music, and that’s without saying anything about how inspiring it was for other music and entertainment workers and labor organizers to see Bandcamp get recognized, and to see what appeared to be good faith negotiations, even through the acquisition by Epic.”
Bandcamp software engineer Todd Derr, one of the let-go Bandcamp employees who has been involved in the continuing organizing effort of workers’ union to be recognized, recalls feeling massively inspired by that moment as well.
It was earlier this year, on May 19, and Bandcamp United had just won its efforts to form. As luck would have it, Speedy Ortiz was headling a show in Pittsburgh that very night, leading to an impromptu victory party.
“It was great to be able to thank her for all the support in person, and incredibly moving to hear her talk about [Bandcamp United] as well as my friends who are on strike from the Post Gazette, before playing ‘Scabs,’” Derr shared in an email to 48 Hills.
Derr was elected to the Bandcamp United’s Collective Bargaining Committee and was in active contract negotiations with Epic Games when the layoffs occurred, which affected two of Bandcamp Daily’s editorial staff of five and all eight of Bandcamp United’s elected bargaining committee members.
Derr, who says he was “shocked” by the development, notes that Epic gave “no indication that any of this was happening, either the layoffs or the sale.”
“Bandcamp workers were left twisting in the wind for over two weeks with almost no information while also being stripped of the ability to do our jobs,” he continued. “It was never communicated how many people would receive offers, or what criteria were used to make those decisions. Some people were extended job offers with an unreasonably short acceptance deadline, which they also had to evaluate without full knowledge of their options, since the severance terms are still being negotiated. I’ve been through several acquisitions and have never experienced anything remotely like this.”
Thought Bandcamp United is choosing not to issue a statement regarding what users of Bandcamp’s platform should do, Derr shared that, for him personally, he’s no longer willing to put his trust in the site.
“I was a huge fan of Bandcamp long before I worked there,” Derr said. “I have almost 4000 items in my collection. Supporting artists who I love has always been paramount to me, and Bandcamp remains an important source of income for them.
“However, I think these past couple of years have made it apparent that artists need alternatives: ideally something they control that operates solely for their own benefit. Bandcamp may have operated as a reasonable facsimile of that for a long time, but the current ownership opted to squander the goodwill of the community that built it.”
In response to a request for comment from 48 Hills, Songtradr shared several previously released public statements. The latest, issued on Oct. 16, reads, in part:
“Over the past few years, the operating costs of Bandcamp have significantly increased. It required some adjustments to ensure a sustainable and healthy company that can serve its community of artists and fans.
After a comprehensive evaluation, including the importance of roles for smooth business operations and preexisting functions at Songtradr, 50% of Bandcamp employees have accepted offers to join Songtradr. Those who didn’t receive offers will receive severance from Epic as part of their layoffs as communicated on September 28th.
We are committed to keeping the existing Bandcamp services that fans and artists love, including its artist-first revenue share, Bandcamp Fridays and Bandcamp Daily.”
One artist who isn’t buying in: John Darnielle aka famed indie folk act The Mountain Goats.
Reached by email, the acclaimed artist (who is currently on tour promoting his new record, Jenny from Thebes) echoed the sentiments of Dupuis and Derr in addressing the topic.
“I mean, it utterly sucks. It’s incredibly depressing,” Darnielle said. “From a business angle, it’s obviously bad when Bandcamp throws a decade of goodwill in the garbage can and tosses in a lit match.”
Comparing the joy of discovering new music on Bandcamp to “the glory days of zines, when you’d get a zine from some distant part of the world and learn about a scene far away,” Darnielle said he hopes other platforms can find a way to pick up the proverbial slack.
“For artists’ business, everything about the recent Bandcamp news is bad,” he acknowledged, “but listeners are smart and creative and tend to set [the] terms on [how] they’d like to find music in the digital age. Artists will figure out a way to reconnect with those listeners.”
Naturally, concerns about the local company’s latest moves are also shared by Bay Area artists like San Francisco musician Andy Pastalaniec, who makes jangly pop under the moniker Chime School, and whose work has previously been featured by Bandcamp.
“I felt frustration that a crucial platform was reduced to meaningless fractions on a corporate ledger, and grief for the workers who lost their jobs, arguably in retaliation for their unionization efforts,” Pastalaniec noted in a message to 48 Hills. “I’m incredibly grateful to the workers at Bandcamp for covering my music and [for] building such a crucial platform.”
“On the positive side,” he added, “some of those folks are still there, likely determined to do the best they can to keep the service alive, in spite of their new corporate overlords.”
Indeed, it appears any progress to come at Bandcamp will be despite the situation the platform and its remaining staff now face, not because of it. To that end, on October 29 Bandcamp United filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim against Songtradr and Epic Games, citing discrimination against employees on the basis of their labor activity.
Perhaps the music at Bandcamp is destined to yet live on.