On Wednesday, the independent digital music marketplace/publication/streaming service/former startup Bandcamp made a startling announcement: It was “joining” the video game company Epic Games, perhaps best known as the maker of Fortnite and plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against Apple’s app store and its dominance of virtual gaming. In a statement, Epic wrote that “Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.” Bandcamp co-founder Ethan Diamond explained in a blog post that his company “will keep operating as a standalone marketplace and music community,” and this new venture with Epic would “provide the resources to bring a lot more benefit to the artists, labels, and fans who use” Bandcamp. (Diamond will also remain its CEO.) Ultimately, both companies say, this move is in service of “building the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem in the world.”
Immediate reactions to Bandcamp sidling up to Epic Games were mixed and often confused. Some observers on social media wondered whether this was a partnership between the two companies or a wholesale acquisition of Bandcamp. Epic spokesperson Elka Looks confirmed to Slate over email that “this was an acquisition of Bandcamp’s business,” though the company is “not disclosing terms of the deal/how it came about.” The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle suspected on Twitter that Epic wants access to Bandcamp’s data. The Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for musicians, posted a cautiously skeptical Twitter thread about the deal: It explained that Epic has been a frustrating partner when it comes to song licensing, compounded by the 40 percent stake held by Chinese corporation Tencent, which also has a stake in Spotify. Music historian Ted Gioia wrote in his Substack about how his firsthand experiences with big business mergers and acquisitions left him feeling pessimistic: “In more than a few instances, the acquiring company destroyed the business it bought. Not immediately, but it happened sooner or later. … They often had the best intentions. But when forced to choose, they did what was best for the parent company, not the acquired business.” He further noted, “The chance of failure increases dramatically when the acquired company is in a different industry,” highlighting the eventual post-M&A failures of companies like RCA and Kodak.
What’s more, Bandcamp has often proclaimed independence as both its mission and ethos. It’s long had a glowing reputation as the rare—perhaps only—musician-friendly platform of the digital age. A 2020 Los Angeles Times profile referred to the service as the “anti-Spotify,” noting that Bandcamp was “owned primarily by” CEO Ethan Diamond, co-founder and CTO Shawn Grunberger, and employees. Some indie musicians called him their “last hope,” Diamond added, and they reportedly told him, “The world of right-minded musicians is depending on you. No pressure.” Bandcamp giving itself up now to a major corporation that’s already acquired a number of other creative companies could well be considered “a sell out move,” as one music business figure put it.
It’s worth looking at Bandcamp’s development and pedestal in the modern music economy—which, notably, is a far smaller one than Epic’s in the video game industry—to understand why skeptics are speaking out. Instead of partnering with the big three major labels to offer millions of songs for free or cheap, while compensating musicians with literal penny fractions in turn, Bandcamp made fair artist remuneration and close connection between creators and fans its M.O. from its 2008 launch. Though it was initially powered by one round of venture capital funding, the platform claims that it’s not only been independent of such investments since then, but also has been profitable since 2012, even while doubling down on a seemingly counterintuitive business strategy.
As free and low-priced subscription-based streaming ate up the once-hot MP3 market, Bandcamp kept selling high-quality digital files, taking only a 10–15 percent cut of revenue per sale while Apple made at least 30 percent of the money for each iTunes purchase. Other streamers use expensive exclusives from big stars as subscription incentives, but Bandcamp has kept its focus narrow: Over the years, it’s brought independent artists, label-free stars, and game score composers to its interface and cultivated small but loyal fan bases. As CD sales plunged from their ’90s peak in the mid- to late 2000s, the platform found success allowing artists to sell cassette tapes (yes), discs, and records, presaging the still-booming vinyl resurgence. When Spotify did away with its messaging services in 2017 and obscured liner notes and credits from immediate view, Bandcamp gave users options to recommend and share their favorite acts, while leaving enough room on each song and album page for artists to write out their lyrics, notes, and credits as they wished.
Subscription-based streaming remains dominant, however. Sites like 8tracks and eMusic, which respectively allowed users to share curated playlists freely and buy digital downloads, have faded from view—yet Bandcamp has grown and thrived since its 2008 launch. It now hosts the catalogs of legendary independent labels like Sub Pop, runs the online magazine Bandcamp Daily, offers retail services for artist merch, and even manages its own record store and vinyl-pressing plant. It even keeps a public tally of how much money it’s given to artists in total, as well as which albums and songs have been purchased however many times. The pandemic inadvertently boosted Bandcamp’s clout, as artists struggling due to canceled tours touted Bandcamp as the more artist-friendly alternative to other streaming services’ measly payouts. “Bandcamp Fridays,” the once-a-month event where Bandcamp would direct all payments to musicians without taking its own cut, became a much-hyped occasion on social media; the company also staged special days to forgo its revenue portions in favor of supporting transgender rights and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
By 2021, 13 years after its launch, Bandcamp was more recognized and beloved than ever. That’s not to say it has been free of criticism. Some artists became unhappy with the pressures and incentives of the Bandcamp Friday model; other observers were suspicious of the company’s vertical integration into vinyl and merchandise; some have pointed out that Bandcamp doesn’t often pay out royalties specifically to songwriters, or for free streams on its interface (which it only allows a limited number of, before forcing customers to make purchases); still more have decried the platform’s janky interface on both desktop and mobile. But the fact that a platform really did seem to treat artists fairly, as opposed to exploiting them like the labels and streaming services had been accused of doing for years, made Bandcamp an icon. It couldn’t hope to fix the inequitable nature of the music industry on its own—but it didn’t plan to, either. Bandcamp simply made itself an available, workable alternative when many others failed to do so.
But with Bandcamp’s VC and startup-culture background (the company is, naturally, based in the Bay Area), assumptions that it would go the route so many similar businesses have—pursuing constant and rapid growth, making itself attractive to acquisition, cashing out at its peak before ceding future control to the megaconsolidated tech industry—weren’t unwarranted. When the L.A. Times asked Ethan Diamond in late 2020 whether he would consider a “sale or partnership,” he responded, “We would only consider partnerships with companies that we believe serve artists first and foremost.”
Epic Games, then, may seem a strange choice in that regard. Max Oakland, a musician and independent video game designer, tweeted that “Epic is such a bad company,” pointing to reporting on how the game company mistreats its employees, forces developers into exclusives, buys (and subsequently abandons) popular properties like Gears of War, and has a terrible UX on its Epic Games Store. Yes, Epic’s flagship product Fortnite has intersected with popular music—its controversial boost of BlocBoy JB’s dances, the Travis Scott hologram—so it may make sense to see those sectors combine further. (Epic’s spokesperson told Slate that there was “no relation” between its decision and Twitch’s business models, and that there is “no connection to cryptocurrency/blockchain,” in case you were wondering.) But considering that Epic has failed to compensate creators whose dance moves are appropriated on Fortnite, it’s natural to be wary.
“Bandcamp was the last bastion of true independence in music,” Ron Knox, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and occasional Slate contributor, told Slate in an interview. His primary concerns are about the prospect of weaponizing further consolidation as a means of battling Big Tech’s monopolization of gaming and music, especially when it comes to a platform that was already easy to use: Bandcamp, he says, “was a pretty damn free and open marketplace. If you’re a band, you can just upload your music, have it live on there, and it can be promoted in any number of ways.” However, when you’re a company like Epic, and you have “full and unfettered control of a platform” like Bandcamp, you have the power to make any kinds of changes you want. The big question, Knox says, is if Epic will continue to encourage Bandcamp’s independence, or gradually encroach upon its practices.
Cautious optimism lingers. Jaime Brooks, a longtime electronic musician who’s performed under the stage names Elite Gymnastics and Default Genders, thinks the Epic-Bandcamp acquisition could be an opportunity for artists to access new sources of revenue and direct channels with fans. More importantly, Brooks views it as a way for indie musicians and indie game developers to see each other as peers, since the technological and business and cultural shifts that have hit the gaming industry over the years—overproduction, labor issues, trouble with digital marketplaces, mergers of big companies, the lacking compensation from subscription-based virtual gaming, crypto and the Metaverse, racism and sexism—have also reshaped the music industry. And Epic and Bandcamp have a common foe in Apple: Epic’s legal fights against Apple’s domination of virtual commerce could make the company a potential ally for Bandcamp and its musicians, provided there’s absolute transparency in their business dealings (which hasn’t been the case just yet). The reason Epic took the tech giant to court in the first place was because it didn’t want to be forced to provide the steep 30 percent cuts of its in-game Fortnite revenue to Apple and Google. In a similar way, the app store also hinders Bandcamp’s sales and accessibility potential, Brooks told me: The company’s apps may be forced to give potential revenue cuts to PayPal and digital app marketplaces, and thus, they are not a significant source of profits. Bandcamp’s iOS app doesn’t allow purchases at all, in fact. Most funds, then, come from desktop users. Yet, as Brooks says, “people sitting down at their computers is a niche audience, and we can’t expand beyond that if the mobile app is limited—we’re cutting ourselves off from that large digital audience” of primarily mobile customers who may discover songs on TikTok or other apps.
Nevertheless, it’s not as though Brooks is happy with Epic’s move. “As a small, unaffiliated artist, I’m officially against consolidation,” they told me. “VC money and its expectations ruin a lot of perfectly functioning businesses, and musicians need a functioning business. Bandcamp was profitable. It didn’t need this. Now it’s playing with fire, and if something goes wrong, it’s artists like me who’ll get burned.”
No one knows for certain what the future of Bandcamp will be under its new parent company. If you aren’t sure if you should worry, you need only look to recent examples of large tech companies swallowing up smaller creative platforms: Twitter bought and shut down Vine; Verizon steadily gutted HuffPost’s staff; and Facebook misrepresented and inflated its video-streaming metrics, forcing publishers to make a financially disastrous “pivot to video.” So what’s the best-case scenario for Epic and Bandcamp? “Epic comes in with knowledge and ways to improve Bandcamp, including the ability to make more mobile purchases, the ability to create playlists, more options for users to create and share music, and a way to connect even more deeply with audiences,” Knox suggests. Still, history shows us there’s plenty of reason to expect the worst.