Signage at Bandcamp's new Oakland offices goes up on Jan. 17, 2019. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
On March 2, musicians who sell their work through Bandcamp got a surprise email: the Oakland-based music ecommerce platform was being acquired by Epic Games, creator of the video game Fortnite.
“Honestly, I was really confused,” says Oakland electronic artist Sharmi Basu. Basu is the executive director of Ratskin Records, an experimental label with dozens of digital albums and vinyl records for sale on the platform.
“We know how capitalism works, and we’re in a very twisted stage of capitalism right now where nothing is as it seems,” Basu says.
For years, Bandcamp has been hailed as the anti-Spotify because of its artist-friendly business model. So as news of the acquisition spread through social media, many independent artists reacted with skepticism. After all, up until it was bought by Epic, Bandcamp was a small, privately-held company whose growth since its founding in 2008 has been slow, although profitable. Music and artist merchandise are its main products, but founder Ethan Diamond likens it to Etsy—a place for craftspeople to connect directly with customers—rather than the streaming giants one might assume are its competition.
From a tech company standpoint, it’s not the most lucrative way of doing things. But that’s the point: Bandcamp has grown a loyal global user base of people who take pride in supporting their favorite artists.
So what does Epic, a company with a $28.7 billion valuation as of 2021 and ambitions in the metaverse, plan to do with Bandcamp, a modest platform with just over 100 employees?
“I just really worry about a company coming in and buying them for—I don’t know why,” says Damon Krukowski, a musician and writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose new book and podcast, Ways of Hearing, examines music listening in the digital age. “I mean, that’s the problem, because [Bandcamp is] not profitable enough, it wouldn’t seem, to interest a multibillion-dollar business like Epic Games. And that’s what’s distressing. It’s like, ‘Well, what are they going to do with it?’”
“It’s really worrisome to me because I’ve lived through several cycles of creative, independent activities in music being absorbed by larger, more mainstream corporations,” says Krukowski, who has worked in the music industry since the late 1980s.
Although a representative for Epic Games and Bandcamp declined to comment for this story, Epic’s recent foray into the world of virtual concerts might offer some insight into why it could be interested in Bandcamp. Since 2020, when the pandemic shut down the concert industry, Fortnite hosted “shows” by Travis Scott, Ariana Grande and J Balvin within the video game, which operates as an ever-expanding virtual world. More recently, in the fall of 2021, its virtual concerts grew beyond stars with American followings to international artists like Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki, France’s Aya Nakamura, Brazilian rapper Emicida and Japanese singer Gen Hoshino.
“Fortnite is evolving from a battle royale game to a global social entertainment platform. It’s really important we start on a regional level as we look for talent, and these regions we chose have some of the most positive and engaged Fortnite communities,” Emily Levy, senior partnerships manager at Epic Games, told Rolling Stone in September 2021.
Still, any speculation of what awaits Bandcamp and its artists is still just guesswork. The press releases Epic and Bandcamp put out about the acquisition promised to keep the business model the same and emphasized both companies’ dedication to supporting independent artists.
“The products and services you depend on aren’t going anywhere,” wrote Diamond, the Bandcamp founder. “However, behind the scenes we’re working with Epic to expand internationally and push development forward across Bandcamp, from basics like our album pages, mobile apps, merch tools, payment system, and search and discovery features, to newer initiatives like our vinyl pressing and live streaming services.”
Still, some industry insiders are worried that this promise won’t be guaranteed. “There’s almost no time in history that somebody who has been acquired has said, ‘Nothing is going to change, this is just a merger, or whatever you want to call it,’ and that that’s actually happened. It’s not a real thing,” says Patrick Brown, owner of Text Me Records, a San Francisco independent label that sells music on Bandcamp. “Even if it takes a year, something eventually changes because it’s new management.”
“The hope is that it creates opportunities and visibility for independent artists,” he adds. “Whether or not that’s the case, I’m not sure.”
Theoretically, song licensing in Epic’s video games could present a money-making opportunity for artists. But “it’s not something that I think any of us can make a determination on until they’ve already done this and released their financials,” says Marshall Moran, a Brooklyn musician and steering committee member of Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, a group that advocates for fair wages. “But unfortunately, transparency is always a difficult issue.”
Indeed, Bandcamp’s transparency about its financials are a rarity in the music, tech and digital entertainment worlds. In contrast, artists have had to work backwards to calculate Spotify’s pay rates, which are widely believed to amount to $0.0038 per stream.
In the digital music landscape, Bandcamp is the company artists perceive to be on their side. And because independent artists’ ability to make a living has been undermined over and over again—because of the pandemic, low streaming rates or corporate giants Goldenvoice and LiveNation buying out independent venues—many are looking at Epic’s acquisition of the platform with trepidation.
“It’s a little scary,” says Tracy Wilson, a musician and owner of the Richmond, Virginia-based independent music distributor Courtesy Desk. “Genuinely the last thing any independent artist wants to be given is even more question marks and more uncertainty because our landscape has been nothing but a slippery slope of bad news.”
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.