Bandcamp Is Bringing Back the Record Rack

By offering insightful curation, a variety of audio formats and an artist-friendly business model, Bandcamp applies old-school music-buying culture to a digital platform

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Bandcamp features music from, and editorial content on, artists both established and emerging

With music now coming to us from streaming services, downloads, Internet radio and artist websites in addition to traditional physical media like CDs, many jazz fans may long for the days when we had but a single simple way to discover the latest music: flipping through the racks at the local record store. One website, Bandcamp, seeks to bring back that simple pleasure while letting you stream for free or buy in practically any format you want.

Hitting Bandcamp’s home page is like walking into a record store with offerings that are refreshed every day and staff who are truly passionate about music. At the top, you’ll see interviews with various artists, plus articles focusing on genres both familiar (indie rock, pop and EDM) and foreign (Japanese house music, German tropical drum recordings). Scroll down to the Discover section and click on the Jazz tab, and you’ll find new music from current jazz artists such as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Tyshawn Sorey, Anat Cohen, Snarky Puppy and Jason Moran. Focusing on subgenres such as bebop, free jazz and soul-jazz requires just one more click.

Advance-release tracks are available, too. On a recent visit, I discovered a live version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “Meeting of the Spirits,” off John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension’s then-unreleased Abstract Logix album Live at Ronnie Scott’s.

But Bandcamp is much more than a friendly way to find new jazz. It’s also a disruptive, artist-controlled means of distribution that can provide jazz players with a way to make money off their recordings and help keep the creative fire burning.

Phone to Phono

For the jazz fan, and particularly the audiophile, one of the best things about Bandcamp is that it lets you enjoy music exactly the way you want to. Free streaming is available, and any digital music you purchase can be downloaded in your choice of digital formats, from phone-friendly MP3 and AAC files to full-resolution WAV and FLAC files. Artists can also offer their music on physical media, including CD, vinyl records and even cassettes, which are enjoying a mini-renaissance among collectors of punk rock and experimental music.

What appears on Bandcamp is entirely up to the artist. “An artist can upload an album and begin selling it to fans within minutes. There’s no waiting period,” Bandcamp senior editor Marcus J. Moore said.

Bandcamp receives 15 percent of an artist’s revenues up to $5,000, and 10 percent after that. But the artist decides whether to sell the music in digital downloads or physical media (which the artist or record label must produce and ship to the customer), and also decides on the pricing. “I can set prices to whatever I like, and fans can donate more if they wish,” said Yazz Ahmed, a U.K.-based flugelhornist and trumpeter who has played with such diverse artists as Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Radiohead, and who records for Naim Records, a division of electronics manufacturer Naim Audio. “My first albums are on Amazon, and I don’t have any control on pricing. I’ve seen them selling for hundreds of pounds, which is ridiculous, but there’s nothing much you can do.”

Jazz on the Rise

Bandcamp originally attracted mostly indie-rock and punk artists, but many jazz players and labels have gravitated to it because of the control they have over the process, and because of the promotion the site gives them. “Between labels like Brownswood, Naim and Jazz re:freshed, the music’s always been there,” Moore said. “But its presence has been amplified through Bandcamp Daily articles and our own respective tastes. One of my favorite jazz writers, Dave Sumner, does a monthly column for Bandcamp Daily, and our chief curator, Andrew Jervis, hosts a weekly podcast that often features interviews with jazz musicians like Portico Quartet, Matthew Halsall, Monty Alexander, ESKA and Nubya Garcia.”

“Bandcamp has become like a community,” Ahmed said. “They feature new artists and they have very engaging articles, which the fans really enjoy. They also have playlists that are very eclectic, with all sorts of weird and wonderful music.”

The site does not demand exclusive arrangements; artists are free to sell or stream their albums through other means if they choose. “I’m on Spotify, too, but to me, that’s more like radio, a way to get your name out there,” Ahmed said. “As an artist operating in a niche genre, I felt it was important to have physical products available, especially as my potential audience might be more inclined to want to own something tangible, in the knowledge that buying a copy would also support me and enable me to create more music.”

Surprisingly in a time when most music fans have shifted from physical media to streaming, Ahmed reports that Bandcamp is moving a lot of sides for her. “The vinyl of my new album, La Saboteuse, sold out before it was released, which was quite a lovely surprise, and we had to press more CDs,” she said. “As a result of them highlighting La Saboteuse over the last few months, I’m also selling many more copies of my debut album on Bandcamp, which is great because I’m finally getting some space back in my loft.”

While many music sites have struggled to survive, Bandcamp seems built to last. Moore reports that the site, which was founded in 2008, has been profitable since 2012, and that in 2016, digital album sales grew by 20 percent, with vinyl-record sales up 48 percent—making it a rare and welcome success story in the music distribution business.