Disintegration: Bandcamp Joins Epic Games

Founded in 2008 in Oakland, Bandcamp has long been the go-to for independent musicians, bands, and small labels to sell directly to their audience as well as those looking for new music. But as many of us found out yesterday morning, Bandcamp has now been sold to Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite and Unreal Engine.

From the Epic Games’ website, “Today, we are thrilled to announce that Bandcamp will become part of Epic Games. Bandcamp is an online music store and community where fans can discover, connect with, and directly support the independent musicians they love.

Fair and open platforms are critical to the future of the creator economy. Epic and Bandcamp share a mission of building the most artist friendly platform that enables creators to keep the majority of their hard-earned money. Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.”

But what else lies in Epic’s vision?

The understandable distrust in giant companies like Epic Games is only part of the outrage and wild speculation in the current discourse surrounding Bandcamp. Surely none of us can be certain of the future to come, but if we examine the attitudes and competing narratives perhaps the bigger issues will make themselves clear.

Disenchantment

At the root of much of the backlash to this news is the disenchantment of Bandcamp’s anti-corporate user base. Whether it’s distaste in streaming models, the predatory track records of major labels, or simply the ‘sticking it to the man’ spirit of rock’n’roll, many have lauded Bandcamp’s efforts as an ‘independent’ venture. The company has championed artistic independence, direct payment to artists, and music scene’s sense of community.

But isn’t selling out to a major private entity, especially one backed by a multinational conglomerate, somewhat contradictory?

Distrust: ‘Microtransact Your Nuts Off’

Bandcamp is a low- perhaps the lowest- cost of entry into selling one’s own music. Even the notoriously cheap cassette tape costs about 250 USD for a run of 100 cassettes, and this is just acquiring the product. With Bandcamp, the product is digital. What it costs to produce is the time you the artist put into it, and perhaps 15 minutes to upload and label all your track files (assuming your internet is slow).

But much like your local greasy spoon getting new, yuppier owners, many are starting to worry we’ll see cost of entry inflation from the nickel-and-diming at the heart of the ‘video games as service’ model adopted by Epic Games in the 2012.

Could artists be charged per track upload? Will Bandcamp and third-party revenue shares increase? There’s a thousand and one ways these microtransactions could take place.

Bandcamp Daily, the site’s daily roundup of music from all corners of the site’s marketplace (and currently staffed by some of my favorite music journalists), has proved a semi-lucrative land for any band to make- the closest to ‘front page coverage’ many of us could ever dream of.

But under a microtransactional system BCD could be targeted for payola, given a SubmitHub-esque ‘pay to play’ entry, or even require a paid subscription to read. But all of this is currently wild speculation. None of these things are known.

Regardless, none of the BCD writers or editorial staff deserve the flak and harassment they’ve received since the news first broke. It seems fairly safe to assume that their opinions in the sale of the company, whether for or against, would have had little to no effect on upper management’s decision to pursue selling off the company. And that’s assuming they even knew about it before it happened!

Wild speculation is simply that. We have absolutely no certainty of what the future will hold, but we can look at a Epic’s trajectory…

Disintegration: Bedfellows of A Metaverse

The past few years has shown Epic Games making a series of funding rounds and acquisitions, the latter of which predominantly being video game developers and digital tool makers.

From a post on the Epic Games website, April 13th, 2021, “Today Epic Games announced that it completed a $1 billion round of funding, which will allow the company to support future growth opportunities. Epic’s equity valuation is now $28.7 billion. 

This round includes an additional $200M strategic investment from Sony Group Corporation, which builds on the already close relationship between the two companies and reinforces their shared mission to advance the state of the art in technology, entertainment, and socially-connected online services…”

The article goes on to state founder and CEO Tim Sweeney is still the controlling shareholder of Epic, and includes the following statement from Sweeney himself:

“We are grateful to our new and existing investors who support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse. Their investment will help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences in Fortnite, Rocket League and Fall Guys, while empowering game developers and creators with Unreal Engine, Epic Online Services and the Epic Games Store.”

Tim Sweeney, Epic Games CEO and Founder

It’s hard to see the acquisition of Bandcamp as anything but an extension of Epic’s metaverse aspirations. But how would Bandcamp fit within a privately-owned domain such as a metaverse?

Sony Group Corporation is only one unnerving bedfellow of Epic Games. The Shenzhen, China-based multinational conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd has owned a 40% stake in Epic Games since 2012, and was a guiding force in Epic’s move to a ‘games as service’ business model. Putting some Bandcamp users’ xenophobia aside, in an article written by Tim Ingham for Music Business Worldwide reported that “Tencent now controls 10% of [Universal Music Group], 9% of Spotify… and Nearly 2% of Warner Music Group”.

It’s this selling out, albeit indirectly, to the very behemoths of the music industry which feels like such a betrayal. That these music industry giants are some of the main bread-winners of the currently dominant streaming model, a platform in which the artist disproportionately suffers, only brings that uneasy feeling of a death knell. 

There was a strain of online discourse encouraging Bandcamp to enhance streaming function on its mobile app during the most recent Spotifallout: a debate over better pay and the ethics of streaming drowned out by a Neal Young-leveled ultimatum over vaccine misinformation on the Spotify-backed Joe Rogan podcast. But others have warned over losing focus on Bandcamp’s core-function as a direct B2C (business-to-consumer) e-commerce marketplace.

Would a corporation as big as Epic Games, backed by a multinational conglomerate and having multiple ties to streaming-platform breadwinners, stay true to their claim of “building the most artist friendly platform that enables creators to keep the majority of their hard-earned money”?

The wool may not be pulled over people’s eyes, that doesn’t mean the rug won’t be pulled out from under them.

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