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How Bandcamp's Fee Waiver Days Are Supporting Musicians In The Pandemic
Like most musicians, Belgian ambient synthscape vaporwave artist Sebastian Dessauvage, a.k.a. Zer0 れい, has been struggling since the coronavirus pandemic began. Belgium has been in lockdown for two months and summer festivals have all been canceled. He's lost tour dates in Amsterdam and London. His day job in retail laid him off as well, and while he still gets 70% of his salary through government unemployment, making ends meet has been rough. That's especially true since his beloved cat, Cthulhu, suffered acute kidney failure right before the lockdown. Dessauvage tells the Recording Academy that he was faced with "a hefty set of bills, in total a very solid four-figure sum which promptly annihilated all our savings."
The story of opportunities closing and unexpected expenses mounting is a chillingly familiar one for many people over the last couple of months. There was one bright spot for Dessauvage, though: a substantial boost from Bandcamp. The online music platform suspended its fees on March 20 in order to help artists during the pandemic. Dessauvage put out a collection of 13 unreleased and compilation tracks for the occasion; the album serves as a eerily suitable soundtrack for a lonely apocalypse of staring into the computer screen and feeling it also staring into you. On the day of the Bandcamp promotion, Dessauvage saw a substantial spike in sales as fans rushed to support artists directly. He made several hundred dollars—enough to pay for Cthulhu's final round of antibiotics.
It wasn't just Dessauvage who benefited. The Bandcamp fee waiver promotion was astonishingly successful. Overall, fans and music listeners spent $4.3 million on March 20 to support Bandcamp artists—about 15 times what the site raises on a typical Friday. With fees waived, all of that money went directly to labels and musicians. Some were able to pay their mortgage for the month off the proceeds.
"We know our fan community cares deeply about supporting artists in general," Josh Kim, Bandcamp's COO, tells the Recording Academy. "Even before March 20th we were already seeing huge numbers of fans use Bandcamp to support artists who were seeing tours canceled. So we wanted to highlight that even more and engage as an entire community, and also encourage more fans to continue supporting artists until things are recovered."
Bandcamp's approach has always been to make it easy for independent artists and small labels to reach fans directly, and that has made the Covid promotion a natural evolution. "It sounds simple, but we’ve always believed that the best way to support artists is to buy their music and merch directly," Kim says.
It's hard to remember, but back in March there was some hope that the shutdown would only last a few weeks. Instead, the pandemic has escalated, and while some states have started to roll back stay-at-home orders, the official death count went over 100,000 as recently as Memorial Day. With a deadly contagious pandemic still claiming lives at a terrifying rate, it's difficult to imagine that people are going to be eager to gather in large or moderate sized crowds to see live music anytime soon, and few venues are going to feel comfortable taking on the liability of a potential outbreak.
In response, Bandcamp has decided to repeat its fee waiver program on the first Friday of each month through July. The May 1 fee waiver raised 7.1 million—more than twice as much as the March promotion. There will be another fee free day this Friday, June 5, and another on July 3. (In solidarity with the recent protests, Bandcamp is also going to donate 100% of its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on June 19, or Juneteenth, commemorating the abolition of slavery.)
As Bandcamp has turned the fee waivers into a recurring promotion, artists and labels have started to coordinate their releases to better take advantage of the publicity and fan enthusiasm. For example, the venerable Seattle indie label Sub Pop released not one, but two albums by Oregon indie-rock duo Helio Sequence on May 5. They've also been passing through 100% of digital sales Bandcamp revenue to their artists on the fee waiver days, according to Rebecca Sicile-Kira, Sub Pop's Online Sales Manager.
Nathan Cross, the label owner of Austin-based experimental jazz label Astral Spirits, says that he didn't time any album releases to the first promotion in March. The date just so happened to coincide with pre-orders for a marvelous and much-anticipated new album by the Chicago Underground Quartet. For May, June and July, though, Cross says he's tried to time pre-order announcements to take advantage of the fee waivers.
"I've seen folks say that it's driving people to create albums/products specifically for the aim of these dates rather than creating work that is true to itself," Cross told the Recording Academy. "I can understand this to an extent—I have definitely quickly planned a couple different releases that I probably would have waited longer to do without the Bandcamp fee waiver days." When the floodwaters are coming for you, you can hardly blame them for trying to take a shortcut or two to try to get to higher ground. "I think it's a little unfair to place ulterior motives considering the situation and how fast this has all happened, for artists, labels and Bandcamp," Cross says.
Chicago-born, L.A.-based rapper Lando Chill and his producer/collaborator the Lasso were among the many independent artists who released excellent material to take advantage of the promotion. The two made their 2018 album LANDOLASSO available on the platform for the first time. They also added bonus tracks, including "FUTUREGONE," with lyrics about dreams dying and a woozy hook that is unsettlingly on point for the current moment. Chill tells us they sold more than 30 copies of the album—a substantial increase over a typical day's sales. At $8 a piece, with no platform fees, it was enough to pay for a couple rounds of groceries.
Chill had been organizing an event series called "At the Ardmore"; he'd been doing work with the music publishing company Defend Records. Coronavirus put an end to those projects, and more. The extra income from Bandcamp doesn't make up for that or the loss of touring. But it still helps.
"Bandcamp has been a beacon—or a lighthouse during a storm," Chill says. "It really is. It doesn't mean the storm has ended. It doesn't mean the problems have ended; we're still wet. But that lighthouse provides a modicum of hope. And it really sets an example for other platforms." Spotify, for example, is doing charitable covid relief efforts and matching donations. But that doesn't allow people to contribute directly to musicians the way Bandcamp's model does. Patreon has offered grants and advice for those affected by Covid, but has not waived its fees. Neither has Amazon.
Artist earnings from the Bandcamp sales vary widely. Atlanta-based producer and DJ Leonce was able to pay rent in only a few hours from Bandcamp sales. "Releasing new music on those [fee waiver] days means hundreds of extra dollars in my pocket that I normally wouldn’t have gotten that I can use to go to my living costs," he says.
Other artists like trans activist and indie-rock musician Julia Serano have had more modest sales. "Most people know me as a writer and are less familiar with me being a musician," Serano says. She says she sold three to six extra albums on the fee waiver days. "Which isn't a lot, but it's more than I would have sold otherwise."
Part of the benefit of the fee waiver days isn't just the money—it's the chance to be seen and appreciated. Caroline White, a.k.a. indie-folk/pop artist Infinity Crush, earned half of her income as a nanny and a tutor and the other half touring before the coronavirus lockdown began. Now she's had to switch to childcare full-time. "Naturally it's hard to be creative and produce more art when I'm working seven days a week," she tells the Recording Academy. "But I'm lucky I have something I can fall back on."
With her schedule, White hasn't been able to release new music. But people have been sharing her albums, and she's been able to promote music from other artists. "I have been able to pay some bills with the extra money, and I feel humbled and grateful that anyone even takes the time to listen," she says. "It has helped, and the gesture is encouraging."
Many artists are finding themselves shut off from audiences and with little time or space for creation. "I really was hoping to do a full U.S. tour this summer, since the two tours I did were the most incredible and inspiring experiences, but it'll have to wait. Hopefully sometime in the future there is a place for live music again," White says. Until then, many performers appreciate that Bandcamp is giving fans an opportunity to show they still care about music and the people who make it.