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October 19, 2023

Philly musician says 'everyone should be concerned' about sale, layoffs at indie platform Bandcamp

The site not only exposes listeners to new music, it also is a means of revenue for thousands of artists

Music Business
Bandcamp Layoffs Alphacolor/Unsplash

Bandcamp laid off half of its staff after being acquired by Songtradr. For artists and music fans, in Philadelphia and beyond, the layoffs caused anxiety about the possible ripple effect on the independent music scene.

Recent turmoil in the West Coast's tech industry has managed to stir up uncertainty in an unexpected place: Philly's independent music scene. 

This week, Bandcamp — the popular indie music platform that lets artists sell their albums and merchandise directly to fans — laid off about half of its staff after being acquired by Songtrader, a music licensing company, Variety reported. The cuts sent shock waves through the indie music world as artists, fans and former Bandcamp employees expressed anguish and uncertainty on social media. 

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The drastic downsizing of the Oakland, California-based company comes amid a recent onslaught of layoffs in the technology industry, but the potential impact threatens to ripple far beyond Silicon Valley. That's because Bandcamp has played a vital role in the careers of many indie artists in recent years, especially after the pandemic shuttered and rewired the live music industry.

While Bandcamp is not at immediate risk of shutting down, the cuts — which included much of the editorial staff that helps curate and write features about Bandcamp's massive library of music — has shocked many indie artists and fans and raised uncertainty about the platform's future.

"Everyone should be concerned," said Thomas Hughes, half of the psychedelic pop duo Carol Cleveland Sings and a longtime member of the Philly music scene. "There is not anything quite like it as far as a digital platform for independent musicians and small labels."

While Hughes said playing in Carol Cleveland Sings is not his full-time job, the project does generate some income for him and his wife and collaborator Gretchen Lohse. The duo has made twice as much money from Bandcamp as they have from all major music streaming services combined, Hughes said.

From DIY to 'SNL': How Bandcamp supports Philly artists

For thousands of musicians, Bandcamp serves as a virtual merch table where artists can sell digital album downloads, physical records and merchandise like t-shirts, tour posters, tote bags, beer coozies and whatever else they can print a logo on. Unlike bigger music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, which pays royalties per stream, Bandcamp has artists choose their own pricing. A total of $193 million has been paid to artists on the platform in the last year, according to its homepage.

While it caters heavily to unsigned and independent artists, Bandcamp also hosts storefronts for bigger bands and artists that have graduated from the DIY scene in cities like Philly. Japanese Breakfast — the Grammy-nominated band who went from playing in Fishtown bars to performing on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Stephen Colbert" — still uses Bandcamp to sell records, copies of its front woman's best-selling book and band merch like t-shirts and pins to its now-massive fanbase. Other well-known Philly artists like Kurt Vile, Alex G and Sheer Mag are active on the platform as well.

"Bandcamp has been hugely instrumental in my career as a musician, both as an independent solo artist and also including all the bands I've played with over the years," said Andy Molholt, a Montgomery County native who plays guitar in the band Speedy Ortiz and has a side project with Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick.

"I cannot overstate the significance of having an independent marketplace to share, sell, find and purchase new music," Molholt said, adding that the hypothetical loss of Bandcamp would be a staggering one for independent musicians.

Molholt has his own music project called Special World. Prior to that, he had a project called Laser Background that released several albums and EPs. Over the the last decade, Molholt said the vast majority of his music sales have been through Bandcamp. 

With layoffs, Bandcamp's future as a music discovery tool is uncertain

Molholt and Hughes said they use Bandcamp as much for discovering music as for selling it. The platform boasts an enormous and intricate catalog of music from various locales and distinct genres. Unlike subscription services like Spotify, Bandcamp does not use algorithms to automatically categorize and recommend music to listeners. For that, they use actual human beings. In 2016, the company launched Bandcamp Daily, a full-fledged music editorial operation built atop Bandcamp's unique music catalog and staffed with a team of seasoned music journalists led by J. Edward Keyes, who used to write for Philadelphia Weekly and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

"I've stumbled upon a ton of Philly bands and artists just surfing around on Bandcamp," said John Morrison, a Philly-based freelance journalist who has covered some of the city's niche music scenes for Bandcamp Daily. "Bandcamp is significant to Philly's music scene for the same reason it's significant for local scenes around the world. Listeners can get hyper-specific about genre and locale and find music in a way that other platforms don't allow."

Bandcamp's editorial team was heavily impacted by this week's layoffs, with half of the team reportedly being let go. It is not yet clear how the cuts will affect operations at Bandcamp Daily or the company's music-focused podcast, Bandcamp Weekly.

"Bandcamp Daily has amplified and championed so much dope, independent music," said Morrison. "The alt-weeklies are dead and we don't have zines like we used to. Bandcamp has been a positive for listeners, writers and bands alike."