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Digital DIY music platform Bandcamp finds its footing with artists like Amanda Palmer, Sufjan Stevens and RJD2 [Updated]

January 2, 2011 |  6:07 pm

Amanda palmer After six years, a handful of albums and one censorship controversy, Amanda Palmer wanted a way to call her own shots after splitting with Roadrunner Records in April.

After she claimed the label sought to cut or alter shots of her stomach in the video for the “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” song “Leeds United,” Palmer asked to be dropped in late 2008. As fans bared their own bodies in an online protest dubbed “The ReBellyon,” the singer took to performing a song pointedly titled “Please Drop Me” in concert.

When she finally got her wish, Palmer celebrated by offering a free download of a track titled “Do You Swear to Tell the Truth the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth So Help Your Black Ass,” a decision that probably would have made her former label cringe.

Independence has its virtues.

The Dresden Dolls frontwoman-turned-solo artist has joined a growing number of artists who’ve found a home on Bandcamp, a San Francisco-based website and publishing platform that aims to put musicians in better control of their digital sales and online merchandising.

“We really wanted to do everything quote unquote on our own,” said Sean Francis, Palmer’s director of new media, marketing and promotions, adding that they discovered the site in its infancy. “We always had them in the back of our minds for when ultimately she would get off the label.”

In contrast with a number of rules-clad retailers, Bandcamp offers ease and options: free sign-up; a Bandcamp storefront page to add to an existing site or let stand alone; an array of digital download formats (from hi-fi MP3s to FLAC and Ogg Vorbis files) for customers; physical sales and physical-digital bundling; and, perhaps most important, the ability to set prices, from free to a flat rate to a pay-what-you-want donation.



In July, Palmer, married to writer Neil Gaiman, released the “Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele” EP on her website for an 84-cent minimum, enough to cover Radiohead’s licensing and PayPal fees. In its first day of release, she made $15,000 from digital sales and digital-physical packages, with all transactions conducted through Bandcamp. Placed on industry giant iTunes or another e-retailer, the EP would’ve been costlier -- and been disconnected from Palmer’s offers of colored vinyl and limited-edition ukuleles.

“We told people upfront, we’re not doing this on iTunes right now,” Francis said. “We have nothing against iTunes. We just want to see where this takes us.”

According to Francis, fans paid an average of more than $5 for the 84-cent album, a trend of generosity that Bandcamp founder Ethan Diamond said extends throughout the site, even as overall music sales continue to slide.

“I think a lot of it is the fans’ perception that they’re supporting the artist and they want to pay more when that’s what they perceive,” he said. With donations, “fans are paying about 50% more than whatever that minimum is.”

Diamond, who previously led e-mail innovators Oddpost (which became Yahoo! Mail), launched Bandcamp in September 2008 after watching a favorite band struggle with technology as it self-released a digital album.

“I couldn’t get the buy button to work. I e-mailed one of the help links and the lead singer of the band writes me back just sending me a URL to the record,” Diamond recalled. Bandcamp drew its inspiration from intuitive blogging platforms such as WordPress. “[T]here, if you’re a writer, you can set up your own site that’s rock-solid for free. It struck us as crazy that if your artistic output happens to be music instead of text, that your options were bad.”

The site’s relative success -- Diamond said the company is “on our way to profitability” -- comes at a time when many prognosticators have called music retail dead, pointing to touring, licensing and 360 deals as the industry’s next revenue streams.

“We make music for the fans because we love it, but our customers are the music supervisors,” Jeff Bratton of upstart L.A. indie label Cascine Records said last year. “You’re not going to make money selling digital tracks.”

But Bandcamp, with a business model based on taking a modest cut from sales, is betting it can. The site offers more than a million tracks for download from both indie labels and independent artists, with higher-profile acts like Palmer helping to shed light on the service’s long tail.

Whereas bigger labels tend to be restrictive of their artists’ music, among Bandcamp’s most used features is a streaming widget that allows listeners to play full tracks -- not just samples -- on artists’ pages as well as embed them on their own sites and blogs.

“A science blogger heard Amanda’s cover of [Radiohead’s] ‘Idioteque’ and just had it as a footnote. He embedded the player and the next day, [I] found our traffic was vastly increased,” Francis said, noting that the unexpected publicity outdid traffic from music outlets such as Spin and Pitchfork. “It’s definitely very helpful to have the widget that anyone can run with and use how they want.”

Such advantages have made it enticing to bands (and content-hungry music bloggers) looking for alternatives to iTunes and MySpace -- though they do come at a cost. Bandcamp takes 10% to 15% of proceeds, depending on a given artist’s overall numbers. (It also charges minor fees for extras.) ITunes takes 30%, though that number comes with the benefit of a preexisting audience. Diamond said that in December, Bandcamp had more than $530,000 in sales, “and that’s growing quickly.”

“I don’t think it’s in any position to replace iTunes,” said Glenn Peoples, a senior editorial analyst at Billboard. “There’s a benefit to being in the stores where people shop.”

However, plugged-in artists have found that if they build it, fans will come.

Sufjan Stevens In August, long-absent indie-folk singer Sufjan Stevens released his surprise “All Delighted People” EP through the site and watched it sell more than 10,000 copies in its first three days --  good enough for the No. 48 spot on the Billboard 200 the next week.

Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, then went to bat for the service, encouraging fans in a September e-mail to consider buying from upstart outlets like Bandcamp.

On Monday morning, electronic producer RJD2 is releasing “The Glow Remixes” EP as a free digital download exclusively through Bandcamp. The site will also offer a vinyl box set from the artist, who is perhaps best known as the composer of the “Mad Men” theme song.

But Bandcamp remains dominated by unknowns hoping to turn a profit as they share their sounds on their own terms.

“I’m sure there will be more chart impacts over time,” said Peoples. “I think right now the impact it’s making is below the charts, [with] a considerable number of artists who are never going to make the charts. That’s where it’s building its word of mouth.”

Among those acts is L.A. beach-pop quartet the Smiles, an unsigned group of college kids who self-released the “Hermosa” EP through the site last year.

“It’s the best service that I’ve found for musicians,” singer-bassist Will Sturgeon said, picking it over other digital options such as Topspin, a powerful start-up that counts Arcade Fire, Metric and Paul McCartney as clients, and SoundCloud, a streaming/downloading service favored by electronic musicians. Other recent L.A. acts, such as Puro Instinct and Lord Huron, have also released material through Bandcamp, and the site’s “Los Angeles” category is populated with hundreds of under-the-radar releases.

Since releasing their debut EP through the site in May, the Smiles have garnered label attention and had three songs appear on an episode of MTV’s “The Buried Life,” making Bandcamp the primary piece of a complicated pie.

“I like to direct people to Bandcamp because I think it’s the best for us and the best for them. [But] for some people, it’s way easier to buy music off of iTunes still. We’re trying to get everywhere that we can,” Sturgeon explained. “It’s just about being accessible.”

-- David Greenwald

Updated: The original version of this post said that Bandcamp takes "10% to 5%" of a band's sales. The second number should have read "15%." We have updated the post.

Top photo: Amanda Palmer. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin and Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Sufjan Stevens. Credit: Denny Renshaw.

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