December 1, 2023

Music Plugng Melodic Hub

Beats Of Music

Losing Bandcamp would mean losing a path into music’s future

4 min read

Heads-up, we’re currently living in “the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press.” So says New York Times art critic Jason Farago in an essay published this month, arguing that the orderly forward thrust of modernism has finally flamed out in 2023, and that our “present state of culture feels directionless,” like “some glacially slow Ferris wheel, cycling through remakes and pastiches with nowhere to go but around.”

To illustrate this whirly inertia, Farago points toward pop music more than any other discipline — which is good, because popular song has probably been our most reliable cultural time stamp for roughly 75 years; but it’s also bad because Farago’s essay seems to be arguing that Moby was more innovative than Chief Keef, and that Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” sounds contemporary, and that Amy Winehouse’s very retro “Back to Black” album was “neither new nor retro,” among other beliefs that appear to originate from a state of mind that might not want to understand Lana Del Rey or Playboi Carti.

That said, his fundamental assertion is solid. The familiar, linear march of artistic progress has been twisted, tangled, broken and rerouted by the information age — and it won’t be straightening itself out anytime soon. Life on this splintered digital plane means that our smartphones can spit the entire history of human art in our faces, and with no more monocultural apparatus (MTV, Clear Channel) to keep everything in order. But why isn’t that something to be excited about? What if, instead of neat links in a corpo-mediated chain, artistic progress is now something growing wild and omnidirectional in the compost pile of history? It would mean that 21st-century critics hoping to serve their moment need to get their hands dirty. Even if they work at the New York Times.

Some of the finest, most filthy-handed music writing being published right now appears on the editorial pages of Bandcamp, the artist-friendly, community-minded music streaming platform, which made news this week for having laid off roughly half of its workforce. For years, the site’s Bandcamp Daily page has offered rich, informative dives into unknown names, unheard sounds, unrecognized styles, forgotten scenes and underloved freak stuff of all stripes. With every other music media outlet perpetually acquiescing to the whims of the algorithm, Bandcamp has never had to waste a keystroke on Taylor Swift or Drake.

It doesn’t hurt that its editorial staff is sitting on the compost pile, either. Over the past decade, Bandcamp has grown into an unfathomably deep library of otherground music, allowing artists anywhere on the planet to upload and sell their songs at prices they see fit. All the while, Bandcamp has managed to pay these artists at much higher rates than the other leading platforms. (Disclosure-slash-testimony: The bands I’ve played in have made our music available on Bandcamp, and my personal experience corresponds with the happy hype — the pie slices are bigger, and you’re put in direct communication with your listeners.)

So while Bandcamp’s reputation as a site remains one of genuine communion between artists and audiences, its reputation as a business has taken a bleak twist. Epic Games, the video game development company behind Fortnite, purchased Bandcamp in 2022, only to sell it last month to Songtradr, a music licensing company that, this week, chopped Bandcamp’s staff in half, including two of five editorial positions, according to Philip Sherburne’s reporting for Pitchfork.

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The outcry on social media this week has been loud and pained. First, there’s the fear that an uncaring new ownership might end up sending one of the world’s most vital music libraries down the digital flush hole. Then there’s the concurrent fear that the community surrounding this special ecosystem will erode and go poof.

The third fear is that there will be one less place in this world for Bandcamp’s incredibly rare mode of music writing — the kind where staffers, columnists and freelancers actually get paid to tell you everything they know about the latest in vaporwave, dungeon synth or Indonesian indie-pop, rather than whatever’s being sold by pop’s starriest one percent. Bandcamp is one of the only sites around willing to walk you through the dense history of Algerian raï music or the desolate compositions of Éliane Radigue. Earlier this year, it was literally the only site where I was able to find a substantive interview with my favorite new jazz singer, Enji.

The future is obviously unwritten here, but as bad omens go, Songtradr’s reflexive gutting of Bandcamp feels both ominous and infuriating — the latest episode from a chaotic mediascape where moneyed management makes bad decisions, then workers pay with their livelihoods. For Bandcamp’s users, there’s a sour sense that Songtradr has no idea how precious its new acquisition is or, worse, that it doesn’t care. Remember: This is a robust, teeming music platform that grants musicians of any background the power to present and distribute their art. It’s a mistake to understand it only as a spreadsheet.

Yet, above all — and for now — Bandcamp stands as exhilarating proof that today’s music is a living thing. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that our culture is no longer breathing when unchecked capitalism is still doing everything in its power to choke it out.


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