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Bandcamp should be Substack for musicians

Alan Jacobs:

I’m waiting and hoping for some major musical artist to say, “Screw this. I’m taking my music off all of the streaming services, and instead will sell it from my website and on Bandcamp.” I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened already.

Of course, many artists don’t have the choice as long as they are under contract with a record label, but there must be some artists of stature who are between contracts and who could therefore make this move. Maybe the economics aren’t what I think they are, but everything I’ve read about the minuscule payments the streaming services offer musicians suggests that artists who already have a following stand a very good chance at least of breaking even by selling rather than streaming; and moreover could set an example for others that might lead to a breaking of the streaming services’ hold on music.

My (admittedly small) sampling of artists on Bandcamp that I follow suggests they either never entered the music 'industry' or are now out of it. And while Bandcamp does take a cut from sales, I'm pretty sure that those artists are getting more money from those sales than they would from streaming.

And I say advisedly “hold upon music” as opposed to “hold upon artists,” because as has been amply documented, the way that the streaming services work has exerted enormous power on every aspect of the songmaking process, down to the details of composition. Just listen to this BBC radio documentary for the ugly, ugly details. For instance, because listeners have to stick with a song for 30 seconds on Spotify in order for the artists to get paid, some writers are putting the choruses at the beginning of songs in order to grab people’s attention right away. The very idea of a song building slowly to a climax, or taking an unexpected turn partway through, has become a financial impossibility. In other words, the streaming services are Taylorizing everything about the music industry, which was headed in a Taylorized direction anyway. (Seventy-two songwriters worked on the assembly line called Beyoncé’s Lemonade.) 

I'm listening to the BBC radio documentary, and it's well worth a listen. While songwriters and composers have always used tricks to hook listeners, and tailored songs to the distribution formats of the day, I'd not been aware before of just how much streaming has changed the process. Songs are literally being written and arranged to satisfy the Algorithm first, then the listeners. And while, yes, they are definitely catchy, they are also very interchangeable. As are the vocals, thanks to auto-tuning.

While I don't listen to much 'pop' music these days — as in 'popular', whatever the genre — it does occasionally cross my radar on Apple Music. I wouldn't call any of them bad, but most of them are merely okay. In any week, I could probably count on the fingers of both hands the number that I'd actually want to listen to again.

I've actually been shocked when I listen to music that is more than 10-20 years old, and realised just how much variety there was. Now, some of that in nostalgia, because a lot of those tunes were ones I'd remembered from younger days, but I've also been spelunking around in the back catalogues of artists I was only semi-familiar with, or in some case had never heard the first time around.

By comparison, most of the music I've discovered on Bandcamp has been anything but forgettable. Not always to my taste, perhaps, but definitely feeling like it has been put together by human beings rather than machines. And with Bandcamp, the artists have a voice on the page, they can tell you the why, what, when and how of the composition and recording. On streaming platforms, you might get an artist bio if you're lucky, though not written by the artist but by a journalist or (more likely) a staffer at the platform. But forget about liner notes, or any information about individual albums or tracks.

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