College students can’t live without music. We require our daily fix of euphoria–filled pop or somber, nostalgic folk for densely packed parties or late–night study sessions, and most of our music consumption is dominated by huge platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.
Nestled in between these megacorporations is Bandcamp, home to a relatively small but significant number of independent musicians. Founded in 2008, Bandcamp was created so that anyone could easily share their music. Uploading a song requires only a free account, and the entire process can be completed in minutes. Bandcamp also allows artists to sell vinyl, albums, tracks, and merch directly on their profile. It’s a one–stop shop for artists to share, promote, and sell their music, making it a convenient and effective way to enter the industry without prior experience.
This made it all the more shocking when Epic Games announced earlier this month that it would acquire the service. The surprising collision between the gaming and music worlds was met with frustration and unease, especially based on the history of other streaming companies. Originally hailed as a legal alternative to music piracy, as Spotify branched out to more specialties and audiences, its controversies grew as well. Taylor Swift removed her discography to persuade Spotify to increase its payments to artists, and podcaster Joe Rogan remains on the platform even as acts like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young removed their works in protest.
Because its mission hasn’t changed in the past decade, Bandcamp has garnered a reputation for being a hub for musicians first and earning profits second. Compared to its competitors, Bandcamp consistently pays artists the highest percentage of revenue, with rates reaching over 80 percent. At a time when streaming’s explosive growth is counteracted by its dismal potential for revenue, Bandcamp seemed like it found the perfect balance between its monetary and ethical goals.
Following Epic Games’ announcement, any sense of an isolated paradise for artists with small but dedicated fanbases is now completely shattered. Their music is being opened to the corporate machinery of the company behind Fortnite and to conglomerate Tencent, which bought 40 percent of Epic Games in 2013. After being protected by Bandcamp's small team of developers, artists are now finding themselves under the jurisdiction of one of the biggest businesses in the world.
What does this mean for the future of independent music? For some, the acquisition can be beneficial. Video game concerts have recently become more common, including Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite, which generated $20 million for the rapper. On the other hand, smaller artists like Weyes Blood have collaborated with Roblox and shared their pop music with a new group of listeners.
But for many independent musicians, this isn’t the end goal. These people opted out of signing deals with major record labels in favor of more creative freedom and control over their music. Bandcamp is as much of a community where users can create connections as it is a music sharing website. These relationships can prove invaluable for these musicians and their listeners to band together against the problems that plague the music industry.
At the end of the day, good music is still the key to success. Car Seat Headrest began their career on Bandcamp before signing with Matador Records, home to other prominent acts such as Perfume Genius, Lucy Dacus, and Yo La Tengo. Parannoul became an overnight sensation in the shoegaze community following the release of his self–produced To See the Next Part of the Dream, originally only on Bandcamp. For these performers, Spotify or Apple Music’s playlist politics or revenue schemes are time–consuming hassles. Bandcamp is a place where they can interact directly with fans and sell their music for the prices they deserve.
When this trust between contractor and manager is so heavily severed, there’s not much room for improvement. Epic Games calls its investment an opportunity to “build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games art, music and more.” For a company that avoids paying fees and doesn’t properly attribute dance moves to their creators, this statement sounds insincere and deceiving. In some sense, Bandcamp already existed as this marketplace, so what purpose does Epic Games have to step in except to extract every penny from unwilling participants? The partnership sounds more like an unnecessary act of betrayal.
Not to be outdone by Epic Games’ overly verbose press release, Bandcamp promised that it would continue Epic Games’ push for a “fair and open internet” and build the “most open, artist–friendly ecosystem in the world.” This ecosystem, however, features already–thriving executives on top of the food chain while the hundreds of thousands of artists are constantly at risk of extinction. The Future of Music Coalition, an organization dedicated to the rights of musicians, echoed the “frustrations with how Epic has dealt with music licensing in the past.” It also warned of a dangerous precedent from this type of “vertical/horizontal shareholding” and laid out principles for the purchase including “nondiscriminatory treatment” and “no payola.”
For now, the investment seems to be grounded in profit instead of the interests of musicians. If Epic Games can give Bandcamp artists more recognition while maintaining the existing pay model, then this could be the start of a new era for indie musicians. However, until the two companies prove how their pledges will be fulfilled, artists can and should continue to express their disappointment in this unsatisfactory deal.