This morning, bed-headed in pajamas, I became a fan of the Argentinian Doom Metal band Ambassador. I bobbed my head at the crawling tempo of the genre as I clicked the “Follow” button on Ambassador’s Bandcamp page. That magical synergy between musician and fan emerged naturally as I listened to their sweet, sludgy, guitars. It would be easy to continue to reap the benefits of this newfound relationship without ever considering how it happened. Good products and services work so well that, by nature, we don’t think much about how they were built. Bandcamp has seen consistent growth since its inception, and has topped $100,000,000 in sales for its artists. The New York Times dubbed Bandcamp, “One of the greatest underground-culture bazaars of our time.” So, what makes it so special?
For music artists around the world in 2007, the web was a bit of a double-edged sword. Clearly there was great opportunity there, as the ascendancy of the MySpace music page had demonstrated. For the signed acts, slick private domain sites commissioned by record labels and charged back to the artists set the standard for the display of musical wares on the web. MySpace wasn’t built for music, though, and artists that spent the money for private domains and fancy sites often found themselves short on cash and unable to keep their sites current. Enter former Yahoo developer Ethan Diamond. Diamond recognized the dire straits of the musical artist on the web and saw the opportunity to build something useful.
“…they (artists) end up putting together something half-baked, or nothing at all, and just pointing to their Myspace page instead. And it’s not because they love their Myspace page (the opposite is true). It’s because a decent alternative just doesn’t exist.” — Ethan Diamond, 2008
CONTENT — nouns
Diamond started by building off of a basic piece of user-submitted data: the “track.” In 2007, the ontology of the music business was deeply ingrained but becoming frayed by the digital revolution. “Artists” commonly made “tracks” that were grouped into “albums” for narrative and commercial purposes, and those “albums” were released grouped as “discographies” and marketed by “labels.” Diamond understood that a “track” on the web had an uncertain path to follow, and that the “artist” had very little control. Transcoding, compression, transfer, and playback presented challenges that complicated the process of digitally distributing music for “artists” and “labels” and the process of finding music for “fans.” Diamond’s great innovation was a dedicated micro-site for each artist, with the underlying information architecture to put the basic elements of controlling content into their hands. A group of “tracks” could be submitted as an “album” to be organized in the same basic pattern seen below.
“Artists” register with Bandcamp by submitting their self-described genre, descriptive tags, and location, and are assigned a unique URL for their micro-site. This unique URL is the centralized location for all of the artist content. In a 2008 interview, Diamond notes that Bandcamp focused on semantic HTML structures that allow search engines to easily crawl and understand the page content:
“Not just from a UI perspective, but more importantly from a search engine/discoverability point-of-view. A big part of what we’re doing is making sure that when people search for you, they find your site first, and not the dozens of other places where you happen to have a limited presence,” — Ethan Diamond
The first great benefit of Bandcamp for the “artist” is solid SEO to make them more discoverable on the web. “Tracks” in 2007 had already been dislodged from the context of albums by musical sharing sites like Napster and markets like iTunes. Affinity for the “album” still existed, even if the “track” sometimes lived independently, and Bandcamp would support either arrangement. Diamond provided the ability for artists to submit “tracks” or “albums,” all within the context of their “artist” page and its unique URL. Further, tracks themselves were assigned unique URL’s, making site even more SEO friendly.
“It does sometimes seem like giving each track and album its own URL is a radical concept.” — Ethan Diamond, 2008
By adding an important constraint to the music upload process, Bandcamp deterred “mix-tape” sharing of music, already pervasive on the web at the time. Rather than uploading the ubiquitous MP3, artists were required to upload music in a lossless compression, hi-fidelity format:
“WAV, AIFF and FLAC are high-fidelity (lossless) formats. By starting with the highest possible quality source, we’re able to convert your tracks into a bunch of different format and quality combinations…” — Bandcamp FAQ
The benefit of this clever move was two-fold. Very few casual music sharers would possess lossless files of many tracks or go through the trouble of creating them. Making a faux band page to share their catalog of pirated music just wouldn’t make any sense. Bandcamp offered to expertly handle the trans-coding, hosting, and playback of these large files to make life easier for the artists. They visualized detailed playback data, providing artists valuable insight into the interaction between their “fans” and their content.
The next key data structure Bandcamp created was the “Fan.” By submitting a username, location, and email address, anyone can register with Bandcamp as a “fan.” A “fan” is entitled to their own micro-site as well, with their own custom containers called “collection” and “wishlist” to hold their “tracks” and “albums.” The ability to submit a profile image and banner image allows the user to create their own unique aesthetic presence as a “fan” on Bandcamp. Hierarchically, the “fan” and “artist” exist on the same plane, but each is allowed to possess the other. The artist has fans, and the fan has artists, but neither actually sits on top of the hierarchy. They co-exist in synergy. They need each other.
The “track” and “album” structures that exist within the “artist” pages are allowed to simultaneously exist as elements within the “collection” and “wishlist” structures on the “fan” page. The “track” is technically an element lower on the hierarchy than the “album,” but the album is only a container. The “track” exists and can be traded and experienced without the album, which makes it no wonder that it shook itself free on the web in the era of digital disruption. The “album” is a container, curated by the band, and the “collection” and “wishlist” are containers curated by the fan. A container with well-curated content makes for a valuable new entity, and perhaps a well-respected curator.
The simplicity of the Bandcamp navigation is impressive. A user has a choice between the verb “discover” and the nouns “feed” and “wishlist.” “Feed” takes them to their own “fan” page with a personalized feed of info from artists they “follow.” “Wishlist” navigates to a personally-curated container, populated by albums and tracks they would like to own someday. Any “track” or “album” on the site can be added to the “wishlist” with a single click. A user choosing to “discover” will find a mix of curated content and “search” functions allowing users to stumble upon or actively seek out various artists. The level of site-curated content has steadily increased over time, likely to give an editorial quality to the exploration user-submitted content. This allows Bandcamp to better compete with sites editorializing major label content. It lends a star-quality to little-known artists, adding excitement to the exploration of their work. This move was most evident in the somewhat recent addition of the “Bandcamp Daily” section.
The “Bandcamp Daily” section on the homepage provides a curated selection of site content to demonstrate to new users what is available on the site and to pique their interest via editorial content. The “Feature” container holds a text-heavy feature editorial profile of one “artist,” and links to their unique URL. The “List” container holds a site-curated selection of “tracks” based on a common theme, often a little-known genre. With this curation in place to demonstrate what content is available and allow users to “discover” it, the site offers up perhaps its most powerful feature: “search” by noun.
Bandcamp created a variety of tag nouns to describe the “artists” and “tracks” on the site. These nouns describe physical locations, time intervals, and genres of music, along with the formats the artists offer for sale. These nouns have always been the basis of the musical exploration that Bandcamp offers. The various contextual descriptors can be combined to describe the tastes of an astonishing variety of passionate music fans.
“I’m into cutting edge funk from Detroit.”
“I collect vinyl and I’m really into the Berlin punk scene.”
Speaking a sentence like this to a friend or searching Bandcamp for vinyl from Berlin are similar actions: you have shared information on your preferences. Over the years Bandcamp has been able to turn information into knowledge by tracking user behavior on the site over time. Whichever set of nouns a user engages with the most, the better knowledge the site has of their individual tastes. For instance, Bandcamp knows that I have an affinity for Doom Metalfrom Argentina, but also for Sufjan Stevens, a Indie-Folk artist from Europe. The groundwork is thereby laid for an effective recommendation algorithm, to suggest “artists,” “albums,” and “tracks” to “fans” based on tags. But the magic of the site truly emerged through the idea of “recommending” “fans” to other “fans” based on shared nouns.
An interesting thing about humans is that, though they operate in a patterned fashion, they also take particular delight in breaking those patterns. One of the great joys of music is finding something you’ve never heard before, something that lights up cobwebbed corners of your brain like the Vegas strip. Variety is the spice of life as they say. While an algorithm can suggest things similar to what you’ve liked before, other people are more complicated and so are their tastes. Having another “fan” recommended to you on Bandcamp is like being given the opportunity to flip through the record collection of a person with whom you share musical tastes, listening to anything you’d like along the way. The person flipping through my collection because we share a taste for Indie-Folk may likewise fall in love with Argentinian Doom Metal.
“To me, it has represented a fantasy of being left alone with valuable information that I can make sense of however I like. I’ve got the raw data: collections of charged, grimy, feedback-leaking songs with uncharismatic titles like “5-Song Demo” and hand-drawn art, by little bands from Chicago and the Czech Republic and Japan.” — Ben Ratliff, New York Times
The journey from a central piece of user submitted data, to a vibrant, global, musical community didn’t happen by accident. The types of data and content found on Bandcamp exist all around the web. What makes the site special is the creation of structures that make the data and content understandable, accessible, flexible, and useful to a variety of people. You yourself can record a ditty and submit it as a “track” to Bandcamp. Your track will then live on your “artist” page and perhaps be “discovered,” “searched,” or “recommended” and end up in a “collection” or on a “wishlist.”
Bandcamp borrows from the ontology of the analog music business, while granting new freedoms to the “track,” “artist,” and “fan.” The site relies on the powerful abilities of an algorithmic recommendation engine, but this ultimately supports the community to interact and create their own knowledge, and perhaps even wisdom. It’s an intriguing example of extended cognition, digital community, and information architecture.
The increasing engagement and role for the “fan” on Bandcamp leads me to believe that Bandcamp has opportunities to enhance that user experience. The symbiotic relationship between “fans” and “artists” means that the two groups attract each other to the service. Enhancing the ability of users to submit content, perhaps even in the mold of a site like Medium, could help foster a deep connection to the site. Communities of like-minded “fans” on Bandcamp may enjoy features that allow them to submit their own custom content, such as articles for zines, photography, video, or artwork.
Bandcamp collected data, organized it, and turned it into a way for “fans” and “artists” to support each other. Through the collective wisdom of this digital platform and a global community of music lovers, I was able to discover a new band, in a different hemisphere. Because of that wisdom, I was able to show a little love for some art that I really enjoy, all through the same platform. I encourage you to try it, go click “discover” and see what you find. Maybe you’ll find an “artist” to enjoy and support, or a “fan” who introduces you to some great new music… perhaps even some Argentinian Doom Metal:
Baio, Andy. Oddpost Co-Founder Launches Bandcamp, Publishing Platform for Musicians. September 16, 2008. Retrieved from https://waxy.org/2008/09/bandcamp_launch/
Ratliff, Ben. Is Bandcamp the holy grail of online record stores. The New York Times, August 19, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/20/arts/music/bandcamp-shopping-for-music.html