And This One Time, at Bandcamp…

Being an ex-band geek (the “ex” only signifying I’m not in a band at the moment), one of my all-time favorite sets of movie lines comes from American Pie. The flute-playing band geek, Michelle, starts several lines in the movie with, “and this one time, at band camp,” followed by some highly matter-of-fact, low entertainment value (to her friends — how unfunny they are makes them funny for the movie viewer) story. Late in the movie, though, she spices it up big time, revealing something she did with her instrument that I’ll leave out here in an effort to maintain a PG rating on this blog.

The reason I love the introduction to those lines, besides my being able to identify with the whole band geek persona, relates to the unexpected turn the line takes late in the movie, as well as the hidden side of Michelle’s personality and her whole notion of the purpose of band camp that are revealed at that point. I also love using that line, or at least the start of it, when I’m around fellow musicians and someone starts to get long-winded on some overly mundane topic. But that’s beside the point of this blog. (Somewhere out there, some fellow band geek reading this is already thinking, “and this one time, at band camp…”)

For a while now, I’ve been hearing about a site called Bandcamp.com. On the surface, Bandcamp sounded like yet another site that lets artists and bands host MP3 files, lets music fans hear independent music by such artists and bands, and provides mechanisms for said fans to pay said artists and bands for said music should they be so inclined, which, in all probability, they won’t be, unless they already know said bands and like their music (in which case they’ve probably bought a CD at a gig already). As a result of that perception, I’d skimmed some information about Bandcamp from time to time, made a mental note to check it out someday since I’d heard lots of favorable comments from other musicians, but basically just procrastinated and procrastinated and procrastinated in terms of taking anything beyond a cursory look. Until now.

Backing up a bit for context, I’ve been putting my music out there on the web since roughly mid-1996. Mostly it was just demo clips on my own web site in the early days, geared toward letting other singers consider my songs for use on their recordings. However, as time went on, I also used some other sites here and there, such as the original MP3.com, SoundClick.com, MySpace.com, and a few others. In 2006, I made the decision to start putting some of my own recordings out there independently, using an aggregator called Tunecore to get the recordings into digital download stores such as iTunes, eMusic, and AmazonMP3. Over the past year or two, I’ve switched to CD Baby for getting my recordings out into the well-known (and no-so well known) digital music stores, including the current buzz of the streaming music world, which has only recently arrived on U.S. shores, Spotify.

The short of it is that my recordings have found their way into most of the stores that count and plenty that don’t. Thus, perhaps you can understand why someone’s mentioning yet another digital music store, along with a discussion of what it claims to newly bring to the market, most of which I’ve heard before, might prompt me to come back with, “and this one time, at band camp…” Okay, I don’t literally come back with that, but cue whatever the emoticon is for rolling one’s eyes.

This past week, though, I was trying to get a new digital single, “Help Us Understand”, out quickly. “Help Us Understand” is a 9/11 song, written in the days and weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001. While my original demo of the song was played on the radio in Western Australia, I’d never made a more polished recording of it. Thus, I decided earlier this year that, with the tenth anniversary of the attacks coming, it was now or never on doing that. However, for a variety of reasons, I ended up finishing the recording much later than I’d anticipated, and I wasn’t ready to deliver the song to my digital distributor until 9/7. It would get in iTunes a few days before 9/11, but it would take a few days to get it out anywhere, and I really wanted it available “now” given its time sensitivity with respect to commemorating the anniversary. Maybe it was time to give Bandcamp a try?

Returning to the Bandcamp site, I started by reading the same information I’d probably skimmed a bunch of times before. However, instead of starting with the attitude of, “why should I sign up for yet another music sharing site?” I looked at the information more in the vein of, “what do I do to get this digital single available now?” I was pleasantly surprised that the total time it took me from signing up for Bandcamp to having my first track available for sale on the site, complete with a professional-looking presentation, was less than half an hour, even with my relatively slow DSL internet connection. I spent a further few minutes or half an hour tweaking the cosmetics of my profile there to make it more compatible stylistically with my main web site and filling in some biographical and other marketing information to be displayed, but things were ready to go extremely quickly. Bandcamp’s page for the downloadable track also provided some convenient facilities for sharing the track on Facebook and other social networks, blogs, and so on. For example, the “widget” at the left of this paragraph is based on generating the embedding code for Blogger. Go ahead and give it a try!

So far, other than in my getting up and running more quickly than is possible with many independent music-oriented sites, Bandcamp probably sounds like most other similar sites. Could there be more going on under the surface, though? Is there some sexier side of Bandcamp that you don’t quite see until you’re inside the gates? There was in my case, despite my having read about most of the features in my previous skimming. Here are a few features whose relevance at least somewhat eluded me until I started configuring my singles and albums on the site:

      Full-track streaming: Tracks that aren’t hidden can be streamed in their entirely (at 128 kbps), thus making it possible for a fan to check out an entire song, not just a 30- or 90-second clip, potentially multiple times, before deciding on a purchase. Some bands may consider this a limitation, but I see this as a good thing for music discovery. When is the last time you bought a recording based on having only heard a 30- or 90-second clip? Most times, I’ve heard the song at least 3, but probably 10 or more times first.  

    Free tracks for your e-mail address: Bandcamp supports offering tracks for free, at the band’s option. The band can also option to only provide the free track in exchange for an e-mail address, thus providing a potential benefit to both parties. Free tracks are limited to 200 per band per month by default, but there are ways to increase the number if needed.  

    “Let Fan Name Price”: Bandcamp supports free and fixed price tracks and albums like many sites. They also have an option, though, that lets the music fan pick the price, subject to an optional minimum price level the band is willing to accept. If no minimum price is picked, then the fan can choose to pay nothing for the track, possibly subject to the trade for an e-mail address. However, if a minimum price is set, it is like the band saying, “the minimum I’m willing to accept for this track (or album) is such and such a number, but you’re welcome to give me more for it should you be so inclined.” From the fan’s perspective, this option might get them a track at a lower price, which could be helpful if they’re cash-strapped but still want to support the bands whose music they love. For those who want to provide more support for the band, this also gives them an easy mechanism to pay the band whatever they like above any minimum price. While this might seem, on the surface, like something that would rarely happen — who pays more than the amount on the price tag? — Bandcamp indicates that a significant proportion of fans actually do pay more than the minimum price when this pricing model is used. I’ve priced most of my tracks and albums with this mechanism, setting the minimum price point at roughly half of what someone would pay on iTunes, even though the value of what is delivered is likely higher. I’m hoping this combination of lower price and higher value may lead to more sales from people who may be on the edge regarding a purchase. I would consider it a bonus if others who can afford more end up paying more due to assigning a higher value to my music and helping enable my production of more recordings.  

    Every format under the sun: Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but Bandcamp offers the fan the option of taking delivery of their recording downloads in numerous formats, including the 320 kbps MP3 files, which are, needless to say, higher quality than the 256 kbps, at most, files delivered by most digital music stores. Bandcamp also offers several lossless compression formats, though, including Apple Lossless and FLAC. To put it another way, you can get full CD quality files, and, depending on the pricing set by the band and/or what you choose to pay, you may be getting them for the same kind of price you’d pay for files that sound quite a bit inferior to CD quality. Of course, the tradeoff is uncompressed and higher bandwidth compressed files take up more space than lower bandwidth compressed files. That’s a tradeoff you, the music fan, gets to choose on Bandcamp, rather than one that is dictated by the policies of the digital music store most everywhere else.  

    Embedded goodies: When setting up a song on Bandcamp, the band can configure various bits of information on the track and album sales pages. For example, track or album covers will be there, and the band can configure lyrics, track credits, and ISRC information. When Bandcamp creates the download file for a fan, the graphics, lyrics, and ISRC are embedded in tags in the file, as is a link to the band’s Bandcamp page. This results in proper naming and tagging in iTunes and other music jukeboxes, and it also provides additional information in players that support that information. Do you want to sing my song “Bubble Gum” while playing the karaoke tracks for that song and referring to the lyric sheet on your iPhone? There’s an app for that!  

    Downloadable album bonus materials: Bandcamp allows bands to provide fans buying albums with downloadable extras like PDF files with liner notes, graphic files with photos, and most anything else the band can imagine subject to some limitations on file sizes and formats. As CDs and other physical music formats lose traction versus digital downloads, this provides a way to, at least partially, make up for what is lost. Or it might provide a way to deliver even more since packaging costs aren’t an issue in the digital world.  

    Physical “stuff”: While I’m currently using Bandcamp primarily as a digital music store for my recordings, Bandcamp also provides some capabilities for selling physical CDs, T-shirts, and more. These physical goods can take the form of purely physical packages or deluxe packages that combine downloadable recordings and physical extras. This can provide the possibility, for example, for the fan to purchase a CD but download the album immediately. Not only does this get the music to the fan faster, but the embedded tag information saves the fan work compared to having to rip files from the CD. Bands should note that the physical side of this is something you take responsibility for fulfilling yourself. This is not a case like CD Baby, where CD Baby will warehouse your CDs. Bandcamp will, however, compute sales tax information, where applicable, and add the shipping costs you specify.  

    Free advice: The Bandcamp site is loaded with advice for bands, often with links to more detailed information within more general information. Some of this information is about using the Bandcamp site itself and configuring your songs. Some, however, goes above and beyond what is necessary to deal with Bandcamp itself. For example, Bandcamp pays bands through PayPal. PayPal takes a transaction fee on each sale. By default that commission is 30 cents plus 2.9% of the sale price. For example, if you’re selling a track for $1.00, PayPal would take roughly 33 cents as its transaction fee (i.e. 30 cents plus 2.9% of $1 or 2.9 cents, rounded to the nearest penny). Since Bandcamp also gets a 15% commission on sales, that would leave the band roughly 52 cents. The numbers get even more depressing for bands on a 50-cent sale, where transaction fees and commissions would add up to roughly 39 cents, leaving the band only 11 cents. However, Bandcamp lets bands know PayPal also has a micro-payments plan geared toward people who are making many small transactions, where “small” is defined as less than roughly $12, which, of course, is what most bands tend to be doing with digital download sales. PayPal’s transaction fees there are 5 cents plus 5% of the item price. If you apply that to the dollar download scenario, PayPal gets a dime and Bandcamp gets 15 cents, for total costs of 25 cents, leaving the band 75 cents — more than they’d get if the download were sold on iTunes. The 50-cent price point also becomes much more practical, with total fees of 15 cents, leaving the band 35 cents. This is much better for the bands, and hopefully music fans will also appreciate that this is providing much better support for the bands they love and giving less of their hard-earned money to e-commerce companies. Bandcamp helps the bands take advantage of this, not only by bringing up this information, but also by providing the relevant PayPal links to get them headed in the right direction.

In case you haven’t already guessed, I’m a little bit excited about Bandcamp. In fact, I was so excited about it that I uploaded all my independent releases to date over the weekend. You can now find them on my Bandcamp site (http://rickpaul.bandcamp.com). I’ve configured some downloadable extras in my albums, EPs, and multi-track singles. I’ve also configured lyrics for every single track, and I’ve set the pricing on most tracks to be better than you’d get at most, if not all, other digital stores. I’m hoping this high value, low price option will prove enticing even if I might make less per sale than I would on iTunes. Of course, if people should choose to pay more than the minimum price, even the 99 cents they’d pay at iTunes, they’d still get better value, and I might even get a bit more than otherwise.

At the moment, I am viewing putting my music out there through Bandcamp as a marketing experiment. I’m eager to see what kind of results this experiment delivers. I’m hoping Bandcamp will be the kind of experience that someday leads this band geek to say, “and this one time, at Bandcamp…”