Bandcamp has been a safe haven for independent artists for years and throughout the pandemic. When asked by fans where fans can go to engage in fair commerce with artists outside of the downward centrifugal force of the big pool maelstrom, many said go to Bandcamp.
Now that Bandcamp is acquired by Epic Games, the cats paw of its 40% owner (that we know of) the Chinese surveillance company Tencent, the bloom may be off the rose. Tencent, like its affiliate Spotify, uses music for data scraping in the music-driven streaming data honeypot.
An example: Spotify has integrated “neuromarketing” into its advertising sales efforts. “Neuromarketing” is an ethically controversial area of research; the literature tells us, for example, that “…recent opinions on ‘neuromarketing’ within the neuroscience literature have strongly questioned the ethics of applying imaging techniques to the purpose of “finding the ‘buy button in the brain’ and …creating advertising campaigns that we will be unable to resist.”). In other words, “neuromarketing” marries quite well with the addictive qualities of social media and the endless playlist of the celestial jukebox designed to keep “users” connected to Spotify, or what I call the “streaming data honeypot.”
The Bandcamp sale raises a number of competition questions, however, and also some business ethics questions if nothing else. First and foremost is the ability of platforms like Bandcamp to follow in the steps of Google, Facebook, Tunecore and Spotify and skim the cream off of the artist’s efforts to drive traffic to their platforms for years that adds tremendous value to the firms’ valuation, yet does not share in that value with the artists when they cash in on all the years of work. This is particularly insulting when it comes to session musicians, or the “nonfeatured artists,” who get zero from streaming and less than zero on platform payday, be it an acquisition like Bandcamp or a public offering like Spotify–or Tencent.
Doing the acquisition through Epic Games allows Tencent to hide its hand and the other activities it engages in like surveillance of international users for the Chinese government through its WeChat messaging app.
How does this all jibe with the Bandcamp ethos? Well, it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the Bandcamp founder’s groovy message about “joining” the Tencent ecosystem. A target describing getting acquired as “joining” the buyer is Orwellian Silicon Valley-speak for “cashing out on your hard work and giving you nothing” as opposed to “I took twenty pieces of silver.”
Was there any discussion of what happens to fan data going forward now that it’s partly owned by someone who has real problems with surveillance? Or any protections from what happens when Tencent buys a majority stake in Epic?
What it does tell you is that streaming is now becoming a game of market share, largely driven in my view by the tension at the heart of the market-centric royalty model. That algebra boils down to this: Your Streams ÷ Total Streams = Your Royalty. When the number of recordings on streaming platforms like Spotify increases at a rate of tens of thousands a day, there will be an impact, even at the margins, on the number of Total Streams. If Your Streams does not increase at a rate that is greater than the increase in the rate of Total Streams, what happens?
Your royalty declines over time. It is math. It will happen–unless–unless you find a way to slow that decline by increasing Your Streams (which was the plan). The fastest way to do that is to acquire catalogs. Note that even if you have hits and build careers, it may not do that much long term to increase your streaming revenues quarter after quarter, which translates into month after month, week after week, day after day. And as streaming is becoming the dominant distribution configuration…that only left platforms like Bandcamp as a place that artists could get a fair return and sell in configurations of their choice. We’ll see how long that lasts.
What it does mean is that the industry got a little more concentrated and choices got a little narrower and achieving escape velocity of the streaming tractor beam of death got a little harder. And another one bites the dust.