Bandcamp, the small but mighty online music platform and store that caters mostly to indie music fans, had a profitable 2017. Last year the company saw double-digit growth in sales across the board—in digital albums (16%), artist merchandise (36%), CDs (18%), vinyl (54%), and, whoa, cassette tapes (41%)—according to its latest year-in-review report. That’s impressive to the point of being unheard of—the joke in the music industry is that no one buys music anymore, period, and that CDs, vinyl, and cassette tapes belong in the same dumpster pile of outdated media formats as our first-generation clicky-wheel iPods.
And yet, 2017 marked the sixth profitable year for Bandcamp, an a la carte digital music store that doesn’t even offer unlimited access to its catalog. It seems there are still people who very much care about spending money to own music, and they are the kind of music listener who, while they’re at it, will go ahead and splurge on a vinyl set and some limited-edition band tees.
If this kind of sales growth is true for Bandcamp, could it spell hope for the music industry as a whole? Even with the rise of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, which suggest that even diehard music fans will almost always opt for the free option when it’s available to them?
Call Bandcamp users hipsters. Or don’t, because that word has lost its meaning, so call them music snobs. (And Bandcamp has been stereotyped for attracting this kind of costumer.) Regardless, the company’s success challenges the ideas that people aren’t buying physical media anymore, or that people refuse to pay for music as a whole. On its face, the news is inspiring—for anyone who’s concerned about the decline of music ownership, or the devaluation of music as a whole.
But Bandcamp’s success story should (and can) only be applied to Bandcamp—which must be credited for cultivating a strong community of music fans who are interested in discovering new, up-and-coming artists, supporting indie record labels, and, yes, are willing to shell out money to show it. “Since we only make money when artists make a lot more money,” the Bandcamp Fair Trade Music Policy reads, “our interests remain aligned with those of the community we serve.” According to a Bandcamp representative, 7 million registered users have purchased something through the site, and $6.6 million are spent on physical and digital records every month. That’s nothing to scoff at, but 7 million paying users is just a fraction of the users who pay for, say, Spotify, which boasts 70 million paying subscribers, about 18.2 million of which are based in the U.S.
Even as Bandcamp adds 100,000 new registered users every month, it doesn’t seem likely that the platform will catch up to the streaming giants of the world anytime soon, and that may be part of what makes it attractive to users. More than 600,000 bands have sold something through its site, according to the same yearly report—that’s a lot, but it’s nothing compared to Spotify’s catalog of more than 30 million songs. When you sign up for Bandcamp, you’re not getting access to every song in the universe; you’re getting something a bit more curated, with releases from thousands of independent labels. Based on the company’s numbers, that’s what its users find worth paying for.
Whatever Bandcamp has tapped into is powerful—a Bandcamp representative told me that 40% of the time, users pay more than the asking price for goods in their store. Still, I’m skeptical that these folks are the norm, or that there are enough of them to counteract the effects free music options are having on consumer behavior. If Bandcamp were bigger, maybe it also wouldn’t be as cool anymore, and maybe the OG Bandcamp user base would begin to leave, taking their money with them.