It is difficult to overemphasize the deep admiration that music enthusiasts had for the music retailer Bandcamp prior to this week. The platform valued music for its creativity and artistic merit, rather than its potential for commercial success. It provided a space for artists to directly sell their music to fans with minimal expenses, and on Fridays during the pandemic, without any fees at all. Additionally, Bandcamp had a thriving team of writers who wrote passionately and knowledgeably about the music they loved. For musicians struggling to earn any meaningful income from streaming sites, Bandcamp offered a glimmer of hope. To put it into perspective, every dollar earned from a Bandcamp Friday sale is equivalent to 31,250 average Spotify streams, after accounting for payment processing fees.
The news of Bandcamp’s parent company, Epic Games, selling the company was a major setback. Epic Games had only recently acquired Bandcamp in May, causing worries about the site’s future. The purchasing company, Songtradr, announced that 50% of Bandcamp’s employees have accepted job offers to join their team. As noted by Marc Masters, a Bandcamp editorial contributor, this is essentially a polite way of saying that half of the staff were laid off.
Songtradr portrayed the job cuts as a necessary measure: “Due to Bandcamp’s current financial situation, some changes are needed to maintain a stable and prosperous company.” Despite Bandcamp’s financial status, it is evident that Songtradr has unconventional interpretations of “stability” and “prosperity”, as it is difficult to imagine how such drastic layoffs will enable Bandcamp to continue in its familiar and cherished form.
Bandcamp’s unique qualities, which set it apart from other similar platforms, were unfortunately compromised this week. These included its dedication to values beyond solely focusing on making a profit, the team of editors who served as personal curators in a time of reliance on algorithms, and most importantly, the admiration and support Bandcamp earned from both fans and artists.
None of these assets have straightforward monetary values for a reason. Mark Fisher, a prominent thinker on capitalism, proposed in “Capitalist Realism” that neoliberalism aims to remove the concept of value from an ethical standpoint. In today’s society, the term “cultural” can be used interchangeably with “ethical”, as demonstrated by the decreasing incomes of artists over the past few decades. Despite their contributions, the market tends to place a significantly lower value on artists compared to highly successful CEOs or venture capitalists.
It is not unexpected that the executive level lacks understanding and concern for culture. In extreme situations, they even view their lack of knowledge as a positive attribute. In general, they view “content” as simply another expense, as evidenced by CEO David Zaslav’s decision to cancel numerous completed TV shows and films after the merger of Warner Bros and Discovery, solely for the purpose of writing off their costs.
When websites that prioritize culture, such as Bandcamp, are acquired by large corporations, the outcome is typically negative. This is because the individuals who have enough money to purchase these companies often only see value in financial terms, and therefore do not fully understand the true worth of what they are acquiring. A prime example of this is G/O Media, formerly known as Gawker, where the current owners have been in constant conflict with their employees and where seven out of ten editors-in-chief have stepped down since 2023.
There has been a pushback against the growing dominance of capitalist media in recent times, with more and more media companies unionizing. However, this has not been received well by the owners. In fact, the recent Bandcamp sale seems to have been used as an opportunity for the classic tactic of union-busting. According to SFGate, the employee union at Bandcamp has suffered major setbacks due to the layoffs. All eight members of the union’s bargaining team were let go, and a total of 40 out of 67 bargaining unit employees lost their jobs.
It is difficult to ignore the connection between the unionization and the layoffs. This correlation is emphasized by the sudden shift to being strongly against unions by editorial director J Edward Keyes, who still works for Bandcamp. (Full disclosure: I have previously written for Bandcamp, but not recently and never under Keyes. I have met him once and he was quite pleasant.)
It is not sustainable for a company to consistently lose money and remain in operation. (Unless it is a technology company, of course.) However, not every decision made by executives should prioritize extracting maximum profits from a company, especially if it ultimately harms the company’s well-being in the long run.
The way capitalism is spoken about may have become less aggressive compared to the cutthroat mentality of the 1980s and 1990s, where CEOs such as Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and Jack Welch were praised for ruthlessly eliminating any excess until only the bare minimum was left. They would then receive huge bonuses before moving on to repeat this cycle at another company, causing harm along the way. However, at its core, capitalism continues to prioritize monetary value above all else, disregarding the value of important concepts like diversity in music and media.
Some time ago, the Quietus published a well-written essay stating that the difficulty of earning a living from art would lead to a future where only the rich and leisurely individuals could pursue artistic careers. This future seems more imminent than ever, which is why the idea of a platform like Bandcamp, which is highly regarded and distinct, being taken over by large corporations is causing real sorrow to those who believe a thriving culture is indicative of a thriving society.
Tom Hawking is a writer originally from Melbourne, currently living in New York City. His writing focuses on the connections between politics and culture.