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Chops: The Power of Bandcamp in Jazz

The internet music company has become a prime online location for jazzers to sell their wares

Marc Cary has been offering his music on Bandcamp for the past seven years. (Photo: Rebecca Meek)
Marc Cary has been offering his music on Bandcamp for the past seven years. (Photo: Rebecca Meek)

From Straight Life to Jazz and Justice, creative-music literature is rife with horror stories about artists— especially Black ones—getting ripped off. As pianist/composer/educator Jason Moran reiterates to JazzTimes, “The history of our music and being taken advantage of goes back to slavery in this country.”

Moran spent 18 years on Blue Note Records, which he describes as a positive experience. After fulfilling two contracts for the label, it was time to move on. But when he surveyed the streaming landscape for new options, he found it wanting; history seemed to be repeating itself.

And so, with Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Ahmad Jamal in mind—artists whom he cites as “taking back the catalog”—Moran decided to follow in their footsteps, 21st-century style. Instead of releasing his post-Blue Note output to streaming services, he uploaded it to one place only, a platform that’s quietly positioned itself as the morally defensible alternative to Spotify and its ilk.

That platform is Bandcamp, the internet music company that’s exploded in popularity in recent years, especially since the start of the COVID pandemic. As artists hurl increasingly withering criticism at the big streamers for cutting into their livelihood, and Spotify founder Daniel Ek responds by doing things like investing $1 billion in missile-defense tech, Bandcamp looks more and more attractive.

Although the online retailer is a boon to practitioners of all music genres, it matches up particularly well with jazz. Why? First, its flexibility and ease of use; you can get recordings out to the public in practically no time on Bandcamp, which suits an in-the-moment art form. Second, its connectivity, which jibes with its interpersonal nature. Third, its turnkey design, complete with an independent editorial section.

“It’s almost like a nirvana for jazz artists.”—Tinku Bhattacharyya

Keyboardist Marc Cary praises many aspects of Bandcamp, from its lack of cash-engorged ad campaigns to its financial transparency. “I started with Bandcamp because the labels I was on were kind of lame in the sense of accounting and any kind of communication,” he says. “So I had no idea how well my records were doing.” 

The breaking point came, he says, when a label refused to put out an album that Cary had recorded with his group Indigenous People, featuring bassist Tarus Mateen and multi-instrumentalist Yarborough Charles Laws. “Basically, I took it from them,” Cary says. “And I put it out as my first outing on Bandcamp, seven years ago.” Free of any external entity’s curatorial requirements, Cary has thrived on Bandcamp ever since.

“Generally speaking, a label has a direction they sign you for—you’re not going to be doing a whole bunch of different stuff just because that’s what you’re into,” he says. “I’ve always had problems with labels because they’re like, ‘We want you to do another record like you just did.’ I’m not doing that again; that shit is done.”

On Bandcamp, those sorts of expectations aren’t an issue. And when the music comes out, the fun has only just begun; Cary then beatmaps the results and releases remixes when he pleases, which most labels will not bankroll. How else does he plan to continue leveraging the site? “I definitely want to work the power I built and share that with the younger community coming up,” he says, “the young collaborators I’m working with now and in the future.” 

That sense of unadulterated human-to-human interplay makes Bandcamp catnip not only for musicians but also for labels. The New York-based label Pi Recordings savors the fact that the platform shows exactly who’s partaking of their wares. “I literally know every individual that buys from us,” co-founder Seth Rosner says. “When it’s sold on iTunes or any of the other download or streaming outlets, you have no idea who’s actually consuming your music.”

Rosner also praises Bandcamp’s expediency; that bassist Melvin Gibbs managed to release an audio tribute to the late Greg Tate on the very day of the author’s passing leaves him awestruck. (You can read Gibbs’ written tribute to Tate—published nearly two months after the fact—in our March 2022 issue.)

Saxophonist Tim Berne, who founded Screwgun Records, seconds this. At the beginning of the pandemic, he realized he could record music by himself at his Brooklyn home and get it to listeners as quickly as he wanted, with zero overhead. “We sold a lot of downloads really quickly,” he reports. “I decided, based on the success of that, that I would start putting things out monthly.”

Greenleaf Music’s main Bandcamp page
Greenleaf Music’s main Bandcamp page

Trumpeter Dave Douglas, who runs the label Greenleaf Music, treasures how Bandcamp offers a variety of purchasing options for his listeners: everything from single-album purchases to a full-discography download to an all-access subscription, all in multiple audio file formats. And for him, jazz’s spiderwebbed network of associations makes Bandcamp the perfect distribution service.

“My sense is that each new signing and collaboration feeds into all the others,” Douglas says. “I do think that the community at Bandcamp, being an expanding launchpad for people to discover new work, is a real thing.”

As for the site’s editorial section, it doesn’t just cover indie-approved jazz, but musician’s musicians like Adam Rudolph, Darius Jones, and Peter Brötzmann. “It’s much more balanced on Bandcamp,” Rosner says, comparing it to mainstream music journalism. “There’s a new jazz article as there’s an experimental music article, as there’s a hip-hop article, as there’s an indie rock article.” 

Artist manager Tinku Bhattacharyya takes this a step further, noting how Bandcamp’s marriage of music and editorial content closes the publicity divide. “If you can go to a platform where editorial sits right beside the people that are buying your music and represents the people that are making the music—there’s nowhere that exists like that,” she tells JazzTimes. “It’s almost like a nirvana for jazz artists.”

Imagine, if you will, a digital-music extinction event sometime in the future, in which nearly all of today’s streaming giants have been wiped out (or wiped each other out). Pianist Barney McAll believes that, based on where we are today, Bandcamp would be the likeliest candidate to carry on. “I feel like Bandcamp will survive through Web 3.0,” he says. “I’m actually considering taking my stuff down from every other platform, but I’ll leave it up on Bandcamp.” 

Bandcamp Fridays

In March 2020, Bandcamp made a major splash with the debut of its Bandcamp Friday program. On the first Friday of every month, the site waived its cut of all purchases, meaning that 93% of the proceeds from any music sale went to that music’s rightsholder(s). Originally planned as a temporary measure to combat the pandemic’s woeful effects on musicians’ bottom lines, it ended up running through the rest of 2020 and 2021—and proved to be hugely popular, with $61 million going to artists and labels over the first 15 days (the amount waived by Bandcamp works out to approximately $7 million of that total). A one-month hiatus in January 2022 was followed by an announcement that the program would be reinstated in February and continue through at least May.