The music site Bandcamp is beloved and unique. I shudder at its corporate takeover | Tom Hawking


Bandcamp was highly cherished by music enthusiasts for its focus on the quality and artistry of music rather than its profitability. It provided a platform for artists to directly sell their music to fans with minimal costs, and even waived all fees on Fridays during the pandemic. The site also had a thriving team of passionate and knowledgeable writers who wrote about the music they loved. For musicians struggling to earn decent compensation from streaming sites, Bandcamp offered a glimmer of hope as every dollar earned from a sale on Bandcamp Friday was equivalent to 31,250 average streams on Spotify, after deducting payment processing fees.

The news of the sale of Bandcamp’s parent company, Epic Games, has raised concerns about the future of the site. The purchaser, Songtradr, announced that 50% of Bandcamp employees have accepted offers to join their team. As noted by Bandcamp editorial contributor Marc Masters, this could also be interpreted as laying off half of their staff.

Songtradr presented the layoffs as a necessary measure: “Due to Bandcamp’s current financial situation, some changes are needed to maintain a stable and thriving company.” Despite the state of Bandcamp’s finances, it seems that Songtradr has a unique interpretation of “stable” and “thriving”, as these drastic cuts may hinder Bandcamp’s ability to continue in its familiar and beloved form.

The key assets that distinguished Bandcamp from its competitors were the very things sacrificed this week: its commitment to ideals beyond the prioritization of profit, the editorial staff who functioned as human discovery engines in an age of algorithms, and, above all, the respect Bandcamp commanded from music lovers and musicians alike.

It is not a coincidence that these assets do not have easily measurable monetary values. In his book “Capitalist Realism”, Mark Fisher argued that neoliberalism aims to erase the concept of value in an ethical sense. This can now also be applied to cultural value, as the income of artists has been decreasing for years, with the market placing far less worth on them compared to successful CEOs and venture capitalists.

It is not unexpected that the executive level appears to have little regard or understanding for culture. In some instances, it even glorifies its lack of knowledge as a positive trait. Overall, it views “content” as a mere expense, as demonstrated by CEO David Zaslav’s decision to cancel numerous TV shows and films following the Warner Bros/Discovery merger solely to offset costs.

When sites that focus on culture, such as Bandcamp, are acquired by corporations, the outcomes are typically negative. This is because the individuals who are able to afford these purchases often only understand value in terms of finances and fail to comprehend the true essence of what they are acquiring. A prime example of this is seen in the transformation of Gawker into G/O Media, where the current owners have been in constant conflict with their staff and have had seven editors-in-chief resign as of 2023.

There has been a push for media workplaces to unionize in response to the overwhelming influence of hyper-capitalist media. However, this has not been well-received by owners. In fact, the recent Bandcamp sale seems to have opened the door for traditional union-busting tactics. According to SFGate, the employee union at Bandcamp suffered major losses due to layoffs, with all eight members of the bargaining team being let go and a total of 40 out of 67 union members losing their jobs.

It is difficult to ignore the connection between the unionization and the layoffs, especially given the sudden shift towards being strongly against unions by editorial director J Edward Keyes, who is still with Bandcamp. (Full disclosure: I have written for Bandcamp in the past, but not recently, and not under Keyes. I have only met him once and he was very pleasant.)

It is not sustainable for a company to consistently lose money and remain in operation. This is not applicable to tech companies. However, executive decisions should not always be focused on maximizing profits at the expense of the company’s well-being in the long run.

The way capitalism is spoken about has become less aggressive compared to the aggressive mentality of the 80s and 90s. During this time, CEOs like Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and Jack Welch were praised for cutting out all unnecessary expenses until only the bare minimum was left. They would then receive large bonuses and move on to repeat the process at another company. However, at its core, capitalism still prioritizes profit above all else, disregarding the value of things like diversity in music and media which cannot be measured in monetary terms.

A while back, the Quietus published a compelling piece discussing how the difficulty of earning a living through art would result in a future where being an artist would only be possible for those with financial means. This future seems more imminent than ever, which is why the idea of a website like Bandcamp losing its distinctiveness and significance due to corporate exploitation is truly saddening for those who believe that a thriving culture reflects a healthy community.

  • .

    Tom Hawking, a writer from Melbourne currently living in New York City, explores the connections between politics and culture in his work.