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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Music fans worry over Epic Games acquisition of Bandcamp

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The Oakland-based company, which also operated a physical record shop and performance space on Broadway pre-pandemic, has one of the few artist-friendly distribution models in the industry. Although you can stream tracks for free, the site tries to steer the listener toward purchasing music, either digitally or as physical media, with an average of 82% of the net revenue going directly to artists.

So the music industry internet let out a collective gasp when it was announced Wednesday morning that Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, Gears of War and Unreal, has acquired Bandcamp. The deal was announced by Bandcamp CEO and co-founder Ethan Diamond in a blog post that was short on details but stressed a shared vision with Epic of building “the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem in the world.”

For now, nothing looks fundamentally different on Bandcamp’s site, and if one were to take the company’s word for it, the core mission of the company won’t change. Bandcamp Fridays, a pandemic-era initiative in which one day per month the service waives most of its fees for artists, will continue. Its editorial operation Bandcamp Daily, one of the few bastions of music writing left on the internet, is also safe for now. According to the CEO, the merger will expand its international scope, improve systems like mobile apps and discovery features and support its vinyl pressing and livestreaming operations.

When reached for comment, Epic Games would not comment on questions regarding how this might open up video game sync opportunities for artists or ideas of incorporating streaming music players into future games.

As expected, music critic Twitter responded with plenty of armchair predictions about where the merger might lead. Those that traced the money noted that Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent, which owns 40% of Epic, also has nearly a 10% stake in Spotify. Others noted that Epic might help solve the problem of not being able to purchase albums on the Bandcamp app, as well as help implement a playlist feature, but adding a standalone streaming player might undercut the album sales. Eagle-eyed observers noted several writers on Bandcamp’s editorial team deactivated their accounts Wednesday, but Bandcamp’s editorial director assured that the staff isn’t going anywhere.

For many fans, Bandcamp’s independence and modest size were part of the appeal, and this puts it in danger of entering the realm of its too-big-to-be-accountable peers like Spotify. There’s also a risk of Bandcamp succumbing to some of the pitfalls faced by SoundCloud, including ads, sample detection and premium subscription models. And there’s also the risk that every musician on the platform might become a playable character in Fortnite. Plus, plenty of commenters predicted Bandcamp entering into the world of NFTs, a move that would actually be well aligned with its mission of rewarding creators.

It’s natural to be skeptical of any acquisition like this, but for all the Twitter doomsaying, the details of the announcement are so thin that the future of the company is really anyone’s guess. The one thing that is for certain? This Friday would be a very good day to head to the site to support your favorite band.


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