Ethan Diamond - Bandcamp
Ethan Diamond is the CEO of Bandcamp - a community platform and tool for independent music online. To raise awareness of the problems facing artists economically affected by the global pandemic, and to try and contribute in some way, Bandcamp waived its fee for 24 hours back in March. It was so successful that today they are doing it again - and will do so on the first Fridays of June and July as well.
Ethan is not known for public appearances and self promotion, and this episode is a rare insight into the history, ethos and mission of the company the New York Times called “one of the greatest underground-culture bazaars of our time”.
Read more about Bandcamp’s Covid-19 Fundraiser
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast.
I first came across the name Ethan Diamond on the 8th of September, 2008. I’d been blogging about music online for about four years, and I’d just published a book for independent artists about the technologies and the opportunities of the internet, and also how to think about the relationship between artist and fan in that context. And I got this email, which, of course, I’ve kept.
It says: “Hi there, Andrew. My name’s Ethan Diamond. I’m a long time reader of your blog and a big fan of ‘The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online’. In fact, after reading it several months back, I formed a start-up to address many of the issues you raise in the book. My new company, Bandcamp, is essentially a publishing platform for musicians. If at all possible, I’d like to demo it for you sometime Friday. We’re tentatively scheduled to launch next Monday, the 15th. I’m in San Francisco, but it’s easy enough to demo over the phone, provided you’re in front of a computer with an internet connection. Thanks very much for your time, hope to speak with you soon. Ethan Diamond.”.
Now, since getting that email and being blown away by the service itself, and then agreeing to come on board as an advisory board member, I’ve been a close follower and advocate of Bandcamp. I really think it’s a fantastic thing for artists. And today, if you’re listening the day this podcast comes out, Friday, May 1st, 2020, Bandcamp’s doing something more than usual to help artists in the light of the COVID pandemic. That small percentage they take off the top of each sale, that’s going directly on to the artist. Now, last time they did this back in March, over four million dollars went directly to the artists using the site. So today and the next few first Fridays of the month are going to be great days to support independent music.
Now, I haven’t spoken to Ethan for a while. He’s been busy growing the platform and the team. But I thought that this would be a really good occasion for a long-overdue chat. So, from a small room in a house in San Francisco, here’s Bandcamp CEO, Ethan Diamond. Enjoy.
Dubber Ethan Diamond, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Ethan Thanks for having me.
Dubber We have a bit of a history, so we should probably start at the beginning. When did you first encounter what I was doing?
Ethan Well, let’s see. I want to say it was 2007, right when you came out with… It was New Music Strategies, and your ‘20 Things You Must Know About Music Online’. Did I get that…?
Dubber Wow, you can remember that title better than most people, including myself.
Ethan I think that was it. One of the 20 in there really stuck with me, and that was “Hear / Like / Buy”. That music is unique compared to books or film in that the order has to be you hear it, you hear it a few times, you decide you like it, and then you buy it. And this was in 2007, right when everything was 30 second snippets online, and that just never made any sense to me. So one of the things that, from the very beginning, we wanted to do was make a service that really embodied that particular point of yours.
Dubber Right, wow. Okay. So nobody buys music anymore, have you been told?
Ethan Okay. We are up to, in an average day, people buy 78,000 records through Bandcamp. Per day.
Dubber That number again?
Ethan Yeah. So I always felt like that was a line that people were saying in 2007 already because of piracy, and we demonstrated that if you actually give people a way to directly support an artist, they want to take you up on that. People want to help create more of the music that they love because it makes them feel connected to the process, like they’re helping make it, connected to that artist. And I think that was true already when streaming didn’t exist and it was piracy that was on everyone’s mind. And now it still exists, now that I think piracy isn’t so much of an issue any more.
Dubber It’s a niche activity, I think.
Ethan Yes, it is.
Dubber Okay, so just first principles, what is Bandcamp?
Ethan Well, we didn’t start this way, but nowadays, and for a while, I like to say that we are an online record store and music community. And I think what our key differentiator is is that we’re a place where people directly support the artists they love and connect with those artists. And it’s also unique in that about half the sales at this point are for physical goods. So it’s not just digital music, it’s vinyl and cassettes and… Last year, 300,000 cassettes were bought on Bandcamp. Talk about niche activity, that’s…
Dubber That’s insane. Has it ever been a great time to be an independent musician?
Ethan I think it’s always a great time to be an independent… I wish I could be an independent musician. I don’t have the musical skills to be an independent musician, but…
Dubber I was just listening to a piece of music that you were on. So there’s a 20 Minute Loop track where you’ve got a baritone sax solo.
Ethan Oh no.
Dubber And I thought “Maybe this is why he’s got the site set up in the first place, is to send people to that track so that he can get all those royalties from that Hüsker Dü cover.”.
Ethan Yeah, that’s right. That was really fun. I can’t believe you found that. That was a long time ago.
Dubber Yeah, well, everything’s available on Bandcamp. But it’s a particularly hard time to be an independent musician right now, right?
Ethan Yeah, for sure. And this has been, really, the reason that we started doing these fundraiser days, because independent musicians lost such a huge part of their income with the loss of touring. But we hope that we can help at least in a small way with that.
Dubber So what’s the idea?
Ethan So we already did one, it was back on March 20th. We did a day where we were just trying to raise awareness around the impact of the virus on independent musicians, and so we waived our fee for a day. Normally our fee is ten percent on physical, 15 percent on digital, and then you’ve got payment processor fees on top of that. So the average usually going to an artist is about 84 percent. So if somebody pays ten bucks for something, it’s $8.40. But we, on the 20th, just dropped our fee entirely, and the response was amazing. It ended up being 4.3 million dollars in 24 hours. People bought about 800,000 items in that day, and it was about 15 times what was a normal Friday for us.
The other thing that stood out, really, a lot was the response from the community. A lot of labels also announced that they were going to pass on their sales directly to artists that day. And this isn’t Warner and Universal, these are independent labels. There are about 7,000 independent labels on the platform. That was amazing to see. And also just so many artists and labels announcing that they were going to pass on all of the money they made that day to food banks and other relief organisations. The community response, I think, was really the most heartening thing, I think, to come out of that.
So because that was such a success, we decided that we would do it more. And so we’re doing one the first Friday of the month for… What we announced is the next three months. So it’s starting May 1st, is the next one, and then the next two Fridays after that. After that, we’ll see where things are and reassess.
Dubber Are your shareholders delighted to be giving all this tidy profit away?
Ethan So Bandcamp, we’re also not a mega funded company. In 2007/2008 we took a little bit of VC funding and then focussed on getting to profitability. So we did that and got there in 2012, and that’s helped us maintain the mission, maintain the vision that we’ve had for the company for a long time. So I think that everybody’s pretty thrilled with the way we’ve been able to do that.
Dubber Yeah, fantastic. Let’s talk about the origin story for a bit. The comic book one. Basically, you came from essentially inventing webmail, right?
Ethan That’s right, yeah.
Ethan When was that? 1999? It was basically when everybody was using Eudora and Outlook, and a friend of mine and I started working on a system to bring that online. So this was before Gmail. Hotmail existed, but it was very basic. Our idea was to try to build more of a desktop experience on the web. And DHTML was just… That was being used for button rollovers and things like that. We thought “Well, we can use that for more than that.”. So that’s where I started. So that company, in 2004, was acquired by Yahoo, and I worked there for three years and then started working on Bandcamp.
Dubber And this is you and Shawn, right?
Ethan Yes, that’s correct. Shawn Grunberger. He’s my co-founder and CTO.
Dubber Okay, so tell me a little bit about him. What’s the hook between you guys?
Ethan The first company we worked at together was a company called Halfbrain, and that was back in… Let’s see. I probably started in 1998, and that was even early… Okay, so that was the very first company, as far as I know, that was really using this, at the time, new technology, DHTML, to try to make an application inside of a browser. And what Halfbrain did was a spreadsheet, so it was making Excel inside of a browser, and from there we started working on a presentation program. All of the things that we all now do with Google Docs and Google Sheets and those things, that was what that company was doing. And it was really successful, but then 1999 hit and everything went poof.
Dubber You’re talking about the bubble.
Ethan Yes, exactly. But that’s where I met Shawn. Shawn was an engineer at Halfbrain, and I loved working with him, and we always wanted to work together again. It took about eight years, but we ended up back together at Bandcamp.
Dubber So how do you go from webmail to music?
Ethan Well, so there was a band. It was 2007. I was working at Yahoo and trying to decide what I wanted to do after that, and this band that I really liked decided that they were going to put out a new record. And they did that, and on the day that the release came out I went to their website, and the website just did not load. And this is 2007, so it’s Myspace, is what you had besides this. So when the website didn’t load, I thought “All right, they’re just overwhelmed. I’m going to check back a couple days from now.”. And I did that, and it at least loaded, but it did it really, really slowly. And there was this weird interface to check out, because this was also the time when Flash was very popular, and so there was always some sort of custom crying black crow flying over the screen or something that you had to interact with in order to…
Dubber Click to skip intro, yeah.
Ethan I don’t know what it was. But I paid for the album and then nothing happened. And then I found an address, an email address, on the site, and I got an email back from who I think was the lead singer, and he said “Sorry about that. Here’s the link to the album.”. And it was a zip file link, and it was totally open. And I clicked on it, and it worked, the music was there, but every track had a title like ‘Master3(final).mp3’.
And so there were these really low-quality MP3s and they all had these strange names, and so no metadata on them. And, basically, I ran into every sort of technical problem you could imagine. But when I finally got the music it was amazing. And to me, that made the situation just tragic because it was clear that a lot of people weren’t going to get to hear this amazing record because of all these problems. And that just killed me because I loved the band, I thought they should have all the success in the world, and this was a problem that was begging to be solved.
Dubber And so your solution was make a shop?
Ethan Basically. So the solution was that, at the time, if you were a blogger, if your artistic output was words, you had Blogger, Moveable Type, and a bunch of others. WordPress. And what they let you do is create a site very quickly that was entirely your own, where it would just say “Powered by WordPress.” or “Powered by Moveable Type.” at the bottom. And if you were a musician, what you could do was either go to Myspace where you give them your content and then they show a bunch of ads and it’s like “Myspace, Myspace, Myspace.”, their brand everywhere, or whatever, hair gel ads and stuff, or you could do what this band did and they paid an engineer, pay a designer, spend a bunch of money, and end up with something that didn’t quite work. And so that just seemed crazy to me. Why is it that if you make words you have all these great options, and if you make music you’re out of luck?
And so the initial inspiration, really, was “Hey, let’s make a white-label service for artists that’s like what Blogger, Moveable Type, etc., are doing.”. And so there was no community aspect at all, there was just the idea of “Hey, let’s let somebody upload their music in really high quality…”. That’s really important to us. So you would give us a lossless file, and then we’re going to do the hard part of transcoding it to all these things that… Again, it’s 2007, so there are all these people who like FLAC and Apple Lossless. And there’s still a lot of people like that, but I would say there were a lot more of them then. And just make it really easy to find a play button and play that, listen to it a few times, going back to your “Hear / Like / Buy”, and then give those people a really easy way to give that artist some money for their work. And that was the simple concept that took off.
And I think that one of the big moments for me was when we started looking at the search terms that people were using that landed them, eventually, on Bandcamp to buy music. And we were finding all these people ending up at Bandcamp, who bought something, who had initially searched for the name of an album or the name of an artist plus the word ‘torrent’ or ‘Lime’, ‘Kazaa’, or whatever these things were, all these pirating sites, who ended up, basically, at Bandcamp. And because of the presentation, where it was really letting the artist present their stuff as the artist, not as Bandcamp, they saw that and went “Oh, you know what? I don’t want to pirate this. I want to just pay the artist directly for it.”. And when we saw that, it was like “Okay, this is working.”. And it wasn’t obvious that that was going to happen from the beginning. I can’t say I knew for sure that that would be the business model. I just knew I didn’t want it to be advertising, because I’ve been in that world and didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Dubber Okay. So there’s one thing that stood Bandcamp even more apart than anything else, and this was this idea of “This album costs five dollars, or more if you like.”. And that “Or more if you like.” was actually a lot more powerful than I would have thought, certainly. Whose idea was it, and how successful was that?
Ethan I wish I could remember whose idea that was. It felt, to me, like it was one of these collective moments where Radiohead had done their “Pay whatever you want for this album.”.
Dubber Right. That was In Rainbows, wasn’t it?
Ethan Yeah, I think you’re right. But it also felt like “Well, we should give the artist more control than that.”. You should be able to say “This is five bucks, seven bucks, ten bucks.”, whatever you want to say. It’s your audience and your album. Maybe your album’s 200 tracks and you spent ten years on it. I don’t know. But you should be able to set the price yourself because you know your audience better than we do, and if somebody wants to come along and pay more than you set as that minimum, then great. Let them do that. I want to say that was in the product from the very beginning, and I feel like it also… Well, it started working immediately.
When we started, it was before Slack, and so we were using IRC. So it was one channel only. The company was four people, and we would just write to each other. And when there was a sale, one of our engineers had written a little bot that put the sale right into the chat system, and so you would be typing a question about some piece of code and then suddenly there would be a bot line that said “Cha-ching, so-and-so just paid 20 dollars for blah.”. And that happened infrequently enough that we could have that in the main channel. It did not happen 78,000 times per day at that point.
It would sometimes say “Cha-ching, so-and-so just paid 100 dollars for this one dollar track.”, or this seven dollar album, and it was just so cool to see. The generosity of fans, the passion. Knowing that people were doing that because this piece of music really resonated with them and they wanted to express that appreciation. Because, like I said, that appreciation creates that connection with the artist, and that’s just so powerful. So it was great. It was cool to see.
Dubber Yeah. And there’s some other things that have been tried on the way, as well. I know you’ve been quite keen to get vinyl happening. And there was BC Wax in the early days, and you had some releases as that, and then you did the Cities compilation. Did you do more than one Cities compilation?
Ethan No, we didn’t. We just did the one. So the BC Wax, we did two releases as part of that. We did the one around Oakland, where we now have a headquarters of sorts. We’re still a distributed company, but… I wanted to be very familiar with the process of making vinyl and coming up with the packaging and listening to test pressings, finding a good facility, and all of that, because it felt like “This is going to be an important part of the business.”. But also just because that’s what I grew up listening to. My parents’ record collection was on vinyl, and that’s how I mostly listen to music just because it gives me that feeling. It’s not an audio quality thing for me, personally. For me, it’s a tactile thing, and also just a process thing. I like committing myself to a whole record and going through that.
So, anyway, like I said, about half the business now is physical goods, and vinyl is the biggest part of that by far, and it’s also growing the fastest. So we’ve taken a lot of the things that we learned from doing those couple of early tests and have used that to create this service that basically allows people to press vinyl without a lot of the… Well, first of all, without the risk, because you don’t have to front 3,000 dollars. The way the system works is the pressing is funded by your fans who are ordering the record. And also just taking away, or at least trying to make a lot friendlier, the domain expertise you have to have to press vinyl. So we’ve built an interface for letting you specify a record that tries to demystify some of that, and we’ve been in a pilot phase with that now for quite a while. There’s a lot of tweaking to do. And we’re getting ready to roll that out really, really soon to a lot more artists. I’m excited about that one. I think it’s going to be fun. It also, I should mention, takes away the hassle because we do all the fulfilment. So when a record gets returned because of a corner ding or something like that, that’s…
Dubber It comes to you.
Ethan It comes to us. We handle that. We happily handle that. I feel like this is a good service for the world. I once, in the early days, ordered a record on Bandcamp that came back to me and it was packaged exclusively in a single sheet of newspaper. Somebody had taken a single sheet of newspaper, wrapped up the record, put postage on it, and it made its way from… It was Norway. It made its way from Norway to San Francisco. And it was completely destroyed, but it’s one of my favourite records. It’s this amazing record. It’s by a band called Koppen. I don’t know if I’m saying that right, but it’s K O P P E N.
Dubber Okay. Yeah, Koppen sounds right.
Ethan It’s so good. But the record… The jacket is just peeled off, more or less. Anyway, I like the idea of trying to get as many records as possible to people in proper packaging so that that happens to fewer people. Anyway.
Dubber Yeah, because how things look, too, seems to be really important to Bandcamp. When you were doing, for instance, the Sola Rosa album on BC Wax in the early vinyl experimental days, the artwork for that is just beautiful. And you didn’t need to do that. They already had artwork on the original. But that’s translated into the stuff that you’re doing with editorial, the stuff that you’re doing with the look of the website. Where does that graphic impulse come from?
Ethan I think that comes from a desire to make music an artefact. That’s something that people want to collect. First of all, it’s just, I, personally, am into design and like things to have a good interactive experience and look cool and all that business, and I’ve always had that interest.
I went to a concert 11 years ago, and at the merch table you could get the record on CD and vinyl. This was at the start of digital. And I got the record home and opened it up, and it was a black record in a white sleeve inside a flimsy piece of cardboard that said the band’s name on the front. And the whole approach… Part of it is a financial thing. It’s expensive to do anything beyond that. But if you are going to make vinyl, I feel like you’ve got… It’s not a format choice. It’s not just “Oh, I want vinyl.” or “I want a cassette.”, it’s “I want this thing. I want to hold this thing in my hand while I’m listening to the music.”.
When I was a kid, AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, I remember holding that record and the embossed AC/DC popping out of the front, and just being “Oh my god. This is the coolest thing in the world.”. And also just pouring over liner notes. And I felt like, from the beginning, what we wanted to do is make Bandcamp a shrine for people who take… Really give a showcase opportunity for people who take that much care. And there’s so many labels and artists who do. There’s Ostinato Records and Analog Africa that create these killer designs with 30 page booklets giving you the entire history of every single artist that appears on these compilations or records that they do. And I just love that. When you’re sitting down with a record and you get to completely immerse yourself in it like that through the art and through the liner notes, it’s such a pleasure, and I want to make sure that Bandcamp encourages that. So have lots of big art and places for the liner notes and places just for context, basically, because it’s just so important.
Dubber Actually, that raises an interesting point. One of the things that’s struck me about my Bandcamp experience is that there’s a lot of compilations that really are of interest to me and open up really fascinating realms of archival music, or music from places that I’ve never been or heard of, and this seems to be… It’s not just bands sticking out their latest releases, it’s this lovely curated stuff of people putting things together. Is that possible because of Bandcamp? Or was this happening everywhere and we just didn’t know about it?
Ethan I feel like it’s always been happening, but we put a lot of effort into highlighting that when we see it. So three years-ish ago we started the Bandcamp Daily. The mission of the Daily, it’s our editorial arm, and it’s just to highlight this incredibly diverse world of music that’s on a site where anybody can upload anything. And the result of that is that you have weird subgenres and a lot of music, I think, that wouldn’t necessarily be covered anywhere else. All they do all day long is go digging through this and highlight things like that, and it’s fun to see what people put up. It’s really great.
Dubber The pressing vinyl thing. Obviously, the first knee-jerk criticism for that would be “Oh, you’re just destroying the planet.”, but that’s actually not the case. I had a look through, and it’s not probably well known, but Bandcamp’s carbon-neutral, right?
Ethan Yeah, that’s right. We’re in the midst of overhauling all of the corporate pages on the site, for like “What is Bandcamp for artists and labels?”, and part of that will be an environmental page that just… It’s not up yet, but early on, one of the things that we wanted to make sure that we did was try to get our operations to be carbon-neutral. So that led us to moving a lot of the infrastructure to Google. Their operations are carbon-neutral.
It’s a distributed company, so there’s not that much travel, but for all of our air travel we work with a company called atmosfair that basically funds renewable energy projects with… It’s not just planting a tree. It’s a really cool organisation.
And then for vinyl, we aim, longer-term, to have the production of vinyl happen as close as possible to where we see the fans of that particular artist living so we’re moving things around as little as possible. And we have a couple other, actually, announcements about this that are coming soon, but one of them is that we will be making all of the production of the vinyl records that come through this service carbon-neutral.
Dubber Wow, that’s fantastic. As a distributed company, and obviously you say you don’t travel very much, but you do… Do you still do the Get Togethers? Because you guys have expanded quite substantially since I was at a Bandcamp camp.
Ethan Yeah. So we’re now 68 or 70 people, something like that, and we…
Dubber I think it was eight, or eight to ten or something, when…
Ethan Wow, yeah. 68 still feels to me like it’s a pretty small company.
Dubber It is, yeah.
Ethan But at the same time, thinking about when we were eight, it’s a different world now.
Dubber What’s interesting is most if not all of those eight are still there, right?
Ethan Yes. For the most part, the early folks are still at Bandcamp.
So we do still do an annual gathering, but just finding a place where we can host 70 people started to become a little bit more challenging. We started off just renting a vacation house, an Airbnb kind of thing, and now we go to Arizona to a ranch out there that can accommodate us for a while longer.
Dubber Is it still a big happy family? Or is it just a bit, now, too diverse, too unruly, too many different people to get a handle on that sense of it?
Ethan There was definitely a transition somewhere in there from feeling like, when we had these gatherings, that every single person had to be in the same room together or else they would feel excluded, to “Oh, there are now several groups of people doing different things. There’s a group of people over here jamming, there’s another group of people over here playing card games, there’s another group over here doing karaoke.”. It was nice to see.
There was a year or two in there where I was just struggling, I think, to keep it “Everybody is all together at the same time.”, and you were making sure that everyone is part of the same group, and now there’s just lots of little groups. But I am happy to say that everybody, I think, feels like they’re contributing, I think, to something really positive. And there’s just, at events like these, a lot of good feelings. So I don’t think that’s been lost in the transition to being a little bit bigger.
Dubber That’s cool. There’s a couple of things I wanted to ask you about, and I’m starting to think they might be the same question. The first one was that you don’t see a lot of ads for Bandcamp, and the second one was how come Bandcamp doesn’t get mentioned in all these press articles about music services? Are those related questions? Or is this a deliberate, under the radar thing? Or is it just “We don’t pay for advertising.”? How does it work?
Ethan Well, I view the Bandcamp Daily as our marketing. We invest, obviously, pretty heavily in the Daily and making sure that we are doing our part to highlight some of the music that’s on the site. And helping artists promote their music on search and within social media is something that we’re definitely looking at. But I don’t think the kind of advertising that works for mass-market services that also have massive venture backing would really… It doesn’t work, I think, for us. Bus ads and billboards and that kind of thing. The economics are different.
And I think, also, part of it is just a little bit my personal preference. I like the idea that Bandcamp hangs out in the background and just makes all of this stuff work, and also, hopefully, helps the artist promote themselves, and it’s not about “Bandcamp, Bandcamp, Bandcamp.”.
That’s changed a little bit over the years because, like I said, we started off as a white-label service, but then the power of the community started to become apparent, and now the community drives about 30/35 percent of the sales that happen on the site. In other words, artists recommending other artists, our discovery tools, people’s collections. A fan can have a collection page and discover new music through that. So I like all that community being the advertising that happens, and not “Go here to interact with Bandcamp.”. It’s “Go here because this favourite artist who you love is here, and they’re telling you to go here because that’s where they get the best deal. That’s where you can support them directly and connect with them directly.”. Anybody who is a true fan of an artist, I think, would react much better to that artist giving them that pitch than us.
Dubber It is astonishing to me, still, that there’s a lot written about music services and people still don’t think to include Bandcamp. That’s not just flying below the radar or using other avenues. It seems like, at best, laziness.
Ethan Yeah. The way I think about it is, when I was growing up, so this is listening to music in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, there were lots of people who exclusively interacted with music through the radio, and then there were people who bought tapes and bought vinyl records. And not everybody needed to do that. There are a lot of people who are just totally happy listening to stuff on the radio. They like music, they turn on the radio, they have this channel that’s the style of music they like. And I feel like that’s exactly what’s happening now. The streaming services are a lot like radio, and playlists are a lot like radio, and then there’s this different kind of person who wants to go deep and interact with the artist and own the music and all that kind of thing. And that’s a subset, and I’m happy to cater to that subset, and that doesn’t need to be the billion dollar company.
And a lot of the talk, I think, the coverage of music services understandably focusses on the things that appeal to the largest segment of the population and also have the biggest dollar signs behind them, because that’s interesting. “Oh my god, this company raised this much money. Can you believe it?”, and “It’s worth this much money and is having this effect on artist’s careers.”, and, whatever, “Three-tenths of a penny, for that?”, and “Oh my god, you need 3,000 streams to make one hour’s minimum wage.”. All of that’s very, very interesting to talk about. It’s not necessarily as interesting to talk about “Hey, did you know that there’s also a place where you can actually just give the artist the money and they get almost all of it?”. I think that’s very interesting and awesome, and artists do too, but it’s maybe not quite as…
Dubber I doesn’t sell copies.
Dubber How’s the subscription thing going? Because there are some artists that you can just pay annually and get all of their music.
Ethan Yeah, that’s working really well for some artists, and for others I don’t think it’s the right thing. What we found is that some artists felt like “Okay, this puts a lot of pressure on me to produce.”. And on the fan side, the reaction was “Hey, there’s no pressure. I just want to support you.”. But because it does, I think, create some of that pressure, it’s right for some artists and not for others. Some are absolutely creating more than sustainable careers doing that. And so what we wanted to do is take what is working for the artists it’s working for from that service and apply it to more artists on the site.
So we recently, as in just last week, launched this community feature. When you go to a typical Bandcamp page, you see music and merch, and there’s now a community tab where just like a subscriber can talk to all of their… Sorry, artists who use the subscriptions can talk to all of their subscribers, now anybody can do that to their followers and use that as a channel to promote their music. And previously that was just something that was doable by people who had a subscription or people who used our artist app, because the artist app lets you target your messages by “Who’s spent more than this amount of money?”, or “Who is in this location? Let me send them a message.”. So that’s now something that just exists on desktop, and that came right out of the subscription service. And we’re seeing a tonne of people using that, so that’s cool.
Dubber There’s a lot of moving parts now, when you come to think of them, the record pressing and the subscriptions and the app, and then there’s the artist app, but you’re not big on releasing features. It’s not like there’s a new roll out every Friday or something like that. What’s the process of introducing something new to the Bandcamp offer?
Ethan Well, deciding what to work on next, that has always felt like the easiest part of the job because it’s whatever benefits artists the most. Because the way Bandcamp makes money is if artists make a lot more money, so that’s what we try to spend every day doing. And so we sit there and look at “Okay, well, vinyl sales are exploding on the site, but let’s look at the numbers. Of the albums on Bandcamp that have had a sale in the last year, only nine percent of them are available on vinyl, and yet we’re seeing this explosion in the amount of money being made by that nine percent. Can we bring that to more and more artists? Okay, let’s try to do vinyl pressing.”.
This is, actually, another feature where it’s the behaviour of the community that inspired it. We saw people doing a fundraiser, essentially, for a vinyl pressing by listing a physical item on Bandcamp and then in the fine print saying “This is not actually made yet. If I get to this many orders, I’ll do it.”. And we’re like “Okay, actually this seems like something we could build a product around.”. That pretty much happens with every feature that we build. Some of it is inspiration, but a lot of it is just looking at the community and seeing what they’re already doing, or trying to do, and thinking “Okay, which of these things is going to have the most impact for artists?”.
Dubber What about third-party integrations? Other music platforms of different varieties that you can plug Bandcamp into?
Ethan Right now, we don’t do a whole lot of it. We have an integration with Songkick to show live shows in the… There’s a sidebar, essentially, that shows where people are playing next. But other than that, we haven’t done a whole lot of it.
In the early days, we built an API. I have to admit, I had a little bit of a frustrating experience with that API where a little too much of our energy ended up going into policing usage, which I hate. I don’t want to do that. Nobody wants to do that. The terms of the API were really clear, but a lot of people were still using it to create things that would play a stream and not show the artist’s work next… The idea was “Here’s a stream. If you want to use that, and the ability to show the fact that the artist has vinyl or a T-shirt or a digital album for sale next to it, you can do that on your own site.”. We saw some of that, and that was great, but we also saw a lot of people just putting ads next to those things and doing things that just have no benefit to the artist and hurt the artist.
So you can play whack-a-mole with those things or not, and we just figured “Okay, we’re going to revisit this when we can do it properly.”. And we haven’t had the time yet to do that properly, but we still need to do that properly. I’m not anti doing this. The early effort, when we were a really small group of people, it was just clear that “Okay, this is not something that we have the time to do right, right now.”. It still exists, but it’s kind of a secret that it’s there.
Dubber I have to ask, one thing that you’ve done that would have surprised a lot of people is you’ve actually opened a physical record store.
Ethan Right. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a record store, it’s a showcase. Here’s a fun Bandcamp fact, if you wanted to have just one copy of every record that’s on Bandcamp in your record store, the record store would be about twice the size of that Tower Records that’s still in Tokyo, in Shibuya. It’s nine stories or seven stories or something like that. It would have to be twice as big as that and you could only have one copy of each record. So it was clear that we can’t have a record… Bandcamp’s the record store, the online record store.
But, again, going back to your question about design, what we wanted to do is have a place that showcased what we felt was the best of Bandcamp. The selection of records in the store is basically curated not only by the editorial team but by the designers. And the idea is “This is great music, and also inspiring in terms of what music can be as an artefact, as a physical thing.”. Every single record you can take off the shelf and sit down and listen to, and just remind people of that experience and have them associate that with what Bandcamp is. It’s a moment where you can really connect with this artist and want to support them.
And all these records are in a space that is also a performance space, and before the virus hit we were in the process of building up a video series around that. So we have had several artists come in and play and filmed them, and we’re building up this video series, which I think is going to be on hold for a while now. But we just wanted, primarily, I think, to create a showcase and a space to interact with the community, because after 11 years of working in libraries and cafes and coworking spaces and stuff like that, having a spot where artists travelling through the area, where we could actually meet with them and talk with them and not get interrupted by somebody ordering coffee or whatever it is, that felt like “Okay, let’s do that.”. So we found a really good spot in Oakland, and it’s right next to the Fox Theatre which is an awesome venue in Oakland, and it just felt like a natural place to open something up.
Dubber Is there plans, after all this is over, for a second/third/fourth store?
Ethan Not right now, no. It’s not like that.
Dubber All right. So Friday, May 1st, when this podcast is going out, it’s Bandcamp COVID day. What are you going to be buying?
Ethan Okay, hmm. Let’s see. What do I have right now?
Dubber You got a wish list lined up?
Ethan Oh, of course. Okay. I want to get the new Jamila Woods. There’s a record by Paddy Steer, this one-man band from the UK.
Dubber I know Paddy.
Ethan Oh, you do? Oh, cool. Amazing, right?
Dubber Yeah, totally.
Ethan Actually, it’s not on my wish list anymore, but I just got a couple records from The Lewis Express, this band in Leeds that does soul jazz. Do you know them?
Dubber No, I don’t.
Ethan They’re so good. They remind me of Marian McPartland, who did the piano jazz.
Dubber Piano jazz, yeah.
Ethan Her music in the 1960s, they’re kind of like that. So they’re no longer on my wish list, I just got those. Let’s see. I want to get Batsumi.
So Bandcamp Daily did a story recently on the 100th anniversary of the theremin, and there are a bunch of records in there that I wanted to check out that I think I might pick up as well. That’s a really fun story to take a look at.
Let’s see. I’m sure I’m going to say this incorrectly, I think it’s pronounced Goldman Thibodeaux & the Lawtell Playboys. That’s from… There’s a New Orleans label called Nouveau Electric Records that I really like that was started by the leader of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, which is a great Cajun punk band. That’s how they describe themselves. And so he started a label that features some of the music from Louisiana, the part of the world he’s in, that I wanted to check out.
Ethan Yeah, that’s a little smattering of some of the things. What I ended up doing last time was, there’s so much work leading up to this thing that it’s a frenzy on the day too, and I think in the last three hours when things finally calm down, I sat down to listen through, again, a bunch of things on my wish list and took care of it. I didn’t have the “Oh, these are the five things already in my cart ready to go.”. I know a lot of people are doing that.
I have to say, also, even though obviously I want to support people on Friday, and I will, just like I did last time, the economics on any day when you buy a record from an artist on Bandcamp are heavily in favour of the artist.
Dubber Yeah, for sure.
Ethan On Friday, it’ll be something like, on average, 95 percent going to the artist, because there’s still credit card fees, and on Saturday it’ll be 84 percent going, on average, to the artist. So I’m going to continue just getting stuff from folks on Bandcamp when it pops up and I like it.
Dubber I do like it that the CEO of the online music store still buys music directly from the artist. It isn’t one of the perks of the job.
Ethan Oh, no. Come on. That’s the whole point. There’s no way. I think there’s somebody, I don’t remember, five years ago who was like “Hey. Should we give all of our employees gift cards?”, and I was like “No, of course not.”. Everybody buys music directly from artists, that’s the spirit of the thing.
Dubber Sure. So what’s the exit strategy?
Ethan I have to say, I don’t think about the exit strategy. I think about the mission and making the best possible thing for artists, and I haven’t… I’m occasionally asked this, and…
Dubber Well, you’re a Bay Area tech company, so it’s one of those things that’s going to be asked.
Ethan Right now, we’re at a point where the company is just growing nicely, and when you’re growing nicely, what you spend your time thinking about is “Okay, how do we make this work even better? How do I make the product better? How do we make more money for artists and work, again, towards this mission?”. And the time for thinking about an exit strategy… I don’t know. To me, that would be like “Okay, this isn’t working. Better figure out what else to do here with this company.”. And that hasn’t been the case for 11 years because I feel like we’ve just always stayed focussed on the impact that the company is having. I don’t know. I know that’s maybe not the answer that, I don’t know, an investor’s looking for, but that’s the truth.
Dubber It’s a nice answer. It’s something that most people, I think, want to hear. That the mission is the mission, and growing that is the way forward.
Ethan Yeah, and I’m confident that if we do that, there’s a positive outcome that’s not just for us but for artists as well. So I think that’s going to stay the focus for the foreseeable future.
Dubber Fantastic. Is there anything that we can do to spread the word?
Ethan Absolutely. Tell people to buy music from Bandcamp and support artists on Friday. First Fridays for the next three months. Last time it was a huge success. I just hope it keeps going, and I hope that it helps out a lot of artists at a moment where it’s really pretty challenging for a lot of people.
Dubber Fantastic. Ethan, thanks so much for your time.
Ethan Thank you.
Dubber That’s Ethan Diamond, and that’s the MTF Podcast. I’m off to go and pick a few items off my wish list. I hope you’ll do the same and support the independent musicians that you love. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already, share, like, rate, and review, and I’ll catch you next time. Stay safe, have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.