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Bandcamp Decoded: An Indie Musician's Best (and Most Profitable) Friend

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For starving musicians and champagne-sipping mega-stars alike, a strong digital presence is essential. The ways in which artists can present and sell their work online are constantly expanding, changing the face of the music industry in the process. The need for intermediaries between artist and audience, such as record labels and publicists, is a thing of the past.

Enter Bandcamp, a service that allows musicians to price and sell their work as they see fit, in whatever digital format they choose. This user-defined pricing scheme puts a great deal of control in the hands of artists, albeit at the cost of a profit percentage that goes to the site. In essence, a user's sales fund the service's operations, which in turn aim to help market and sell the musician better. It's a trade-off that has proven to be a powerful tool for accomplished musicians such as Sufjan Stevens and Amanda Palmer. But Bandcamp can benefit the less established as well -- as long as they're willing to accept the compromise. Read on to see if Bandcamp's innovative business model is your key to freedom from the shackles of iTunes' uniform pricing, or just another shady tactic from the record industry.

What It's All About

bandcamp sufjanBandcamp offers users a place to host, stream and sell music through personalized home pages. What differentiates it from sites like Myspace is convenience, and the ability to conceivably turn a profit. Bandcamp handles all the nitty gritty, such as server upkeep, file conversion and stat tracking; thus, users can focus on making music, sharing it and promoting themselves. That kind of plug-and-play simplicity is perfect for musicians who are not exactly organized, those who have trouble working their way around the Web, or upstarts who are just looking to sell or share their work.

How to Use It

how to use bandcampAfter signing up, you'll be given a Bandcamp URL, which can be linked to a custom address at a later date. You can immediately start uploading your tunes, but, first, let's take a look at how Bandcamp's interface works.

Bandcamp's back-end functionality is entirely accessible through a screen-top menu on your homepage. Unlike Myspace, with its confusing hub, Bandcamp takes you immediately to your page after you sign in. Bandcamp's focus on its users' mini-sites, rather than on the entire Bandcamp ecosystem as a whole, helps to personalize the service, while keeping all pertinent utilities only a few clicks away.

The "New Track" link on the menu allows you to upload music through a comprehensive track editor, which prompts you to input artist credits, release dates, copyright information and accompanying artwork for each of your songs. You'll also be able to create albums, and group songs within them, by checking 'Part of an album or EP' and selecting 'New Album' from its accompanying menu. Admittedly, it can take a little time to get used to Bandcamp's system of uploading songs and attaching them to albums, and the lack of batch uploads makes the process of posting an album clunkier than it should be. Still, once uploaded, single songs and albums will appear on your homepage as streamable links along with purchasing options.

You can also use the upload editor to designate whether a track or album is available for free download, purchase or optional donation. (You can even set suggested donation minimums.) The plethora of payment options really opens things up for artists, although it may be difficult to decide how much your own music is worth. We suggest following the price precedents set by iTunes.

Bandcamp requires its users to have a PayPal account for transactions, which means that you'll be paying transaction fees on top of Bandcamp's regular cut of ten to 15-percent. (Bandcamp does offer suggestions to help minimize transaction fees, though.) Additionally, you can generate download codes, which are great if you plan on selling physical copies of your work, but want to let fans download digital copies, as well. If you are planning on selling physical items, such as vinyl or CDs, Bandcamp lets you offer them on your homepage, too.

mp3sBandcamp requires that you upload your songs in lossless formats like .AIFF, .WAV, or FLAC, which are hefty files but retain full sound quality. This shouldn't be a problem for users who export their songs directly from music software programs. (You can always use iTunes for conversion, although your tracks won't gain any audio fidelity.) Uploading lossless files allows Bandcamp to convert songs into an incredibly wide array of compressed formats (from .mp3 to .ogg), which will please even the most anal retentive fans. The site also applies all relevant metadata to each file after it's been uploaded, a godsend for those who don't want to spend time converting tracks and properly identifying them within iTunes.

Customizing Your Site

Customizing
While Bandcamp places certain limitations on how you can customize your design, your site will feel like a breath of fresh air next to the garish clutter of MySpace. Unlike MySpace, however, Bandcamp does not feature an events calendar or the ability to add blog posts or messages. For those looking for a one-stop source for fans, Bandcamp isn't quite there yet. Nevertheless, it's a small price to pay for a clean and friendly UI. While we hope Bandcamp adds some more design options in the future, there's certainly nothing wrong with a minimal look. You can upload a banner and a background, making the landing page look convincingly your own.

Stats

Stats
For those determined to self-promote as much as possible, Bandcamp also features an incredible array of statistic tools to help you learn everything you can about your audience. (They're located under the "Stats" link in the persistent menu bar at the top of the screen.) You can see where your traffic is coming from, what songs have been played the most, and even see how long people have listened to each song. You can filter statistics by date, as well, allowing you to see if that timely post on Pitchfork made a difference or not. Also, you'll be able to see exactly where hits are coming from. That way, you can join in on a message-board discussion of your work, or get in contact with kindly bloggers who are singing your praises. In addition to visitor stats, you can export all your sales as a handy spreadsheet, complete with the e-mail addresses of your customers (thus making e-mail blasts a snap).

Power-Ups

powerupsOne of Bandcamp's most innovative features is its recently introduced "power-up" system, establishing a symbiotic relationship between heavy users and Bandcamp's higher-end features. These are achievements that, once earned, will grant users a variety of incentives. While it means that not every option is available upfront, it's a good compromise between the services Bandcamp provides and its need to remain profitable. These power-ups include increased file size for songs and free download codes (which would come in handy when included with an LP or CD at the merch table).

Payment

paymentThe biggest concern for anyone using Bandcamp will be payment. Aside from the transaction fees that PayPal requires, Bandcamp will claim 15-percent of the first $100 of any transaction. This rate is lowered to 10-percent once you sell $5,000, though, and the percentages are taken before the user pays taxes and PayPal fees. If you're going to use Bandcamp, you'll have to find a price that's low enough to make it attractive to consumers, yet high enough to pay the site's commission, to cover PayPal's fees, and to make some cash for yourself. It's a tightrope walk that some may want to avoid altogether by releasing their work for free.

Last Word

Bandcamp is clearly a powerful tool for all kinds of musicians, giving them control over how they share their work. What may be most important, though, is its honest attitude. In an industry notorious for not giving artists their fair shake, Bandcamp is surprisingly upfront in its attempts to strike a balance between turning a profit and providing artists with the empowerment they deserve. While you sacrifice the detailed customization of a personal website, as well as the complete financial control of selling your music out of the back of your van, the ability to sit back and let someone else worry about the technical details is inescapably attractive.

Tags: bandcamp, features, indie, IndieMusic, music, MusicIndustry, myspace, playroom, socialnetworking, streaming, StreamingMusic, top, web

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