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« A Sustainable Future in Music? Bet your sweet a*** there is! | Main | The Perceived Value of Music »
Wednesday
Jan202010

The Bandcamp bandwagon

So I recently uploaded the first Industrial Jazz Group albumHardcore (now out of print), to Bandcamp, the most elegant, well-designed digital independent music distribution service I’ve yet come across.

But I have a question. Why on earth does a site as sharp as Bandcamp lack a filter?

I only know of a handful of jazz (or jazz-inflected) Bandcampers — Jason ParkerSunna Gunnlaugs, The Atmos Trio, John GoldsbyNeil Alexander and NAIL, Steve Lawson — and I found about their Bandcamp releases exclusively through Twitter.

But that’s only because all of these folks are on Twitter, and were kind enough to tell me about their releases.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. We already know that one of the new skill-sets for a 21st-century musician is self-promotion. (Actually, that’s not a “new” skill-set. Though arguably it has never been as necessary as it is now.)

But what if I want to explore the recordings of the many other jazz or jazz-inflected artists who are now on the site? I could theoretically discover some great new music that way, right? Especially given that one of the beauties of BC is that it makes audio streaming (the easiest way to “sample” an unknown artist) pretty much idiot-proof.

And yet if I try browsing via the Bandcamp homepage, I quickly discover that not only is there no easy way to find other jazz artists, there is not even a “search” function. Only an easily-overlooked “many artists” link, which leads to a page on which the entire Bandcamp catalog can be sorted by one of two parameters: the date on which a given recording was uploaded, or an artist’s name. And that’s it.

Now, philosophically, I truly appreciate the statement this makes. What better critique of the admittedly problematic human habit of categorizing every damned thing to the nth degree? Just make one big alphabetical list and let other people worry about genre and all that.

But as a music consumer, I look at this and feel overwhelmed. Further: I decide there is very little chance I am going to use Bandcamp as a music discovery tool.

And that’s ironic, I think, because apparently the impetus for the creation of Bandcamp was an experience that many of us have had — coming across a brilliant but unknown band, wanting to give that band money (so as to aid them in their quest for world domination), and discovering that even generosity can sometimes be a royal pain in the ass:

[H]ere’s a relatively unknown band that deserves all the success in the world, made the admirable decision to do an entirely independent release, yet was tripped up by the sorts of aggravating technical issues familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to build out their own website.

In other words, Bandcamp’s goal is to make online transactions easier, from all points of view. But what good is it to make a transaction easy if the thing you’re selling is hard to find?

One of the grandparents of Music 2.0, CDBaby, which also traffics primarily in independent music, always excelled in the area of filters, and is an instructive model, I think. CD Baby offers multiple search options, including multi-tiered genre searches (e.g., some 50+ different kinds of jazz), searches based on “sounds like” queries, and even searches based on random adjectives like “sultry” or “twisted” (something not even Amazon.com does). They also allow for user reviews, artist cross-referencing, and all of the other stuff that has more or less become standard in online retail over the last ten years.

Why not Bandcamp?

Well, it may be that the good folks at BC have no interest in these issues. It may be that they don’t want to take on any additional technical challenges at the moment. It may be that they are mostly interested in doing one very limited thing well.

Fair enough. I can respect that.

But in that case, here’s my open plea to the Internets: somewhere there must be a smart, enterprising kid with enough design savvy and free time to just up and build a filter that can work as a third-party interface for Bandcamp.

If there is, it would be an impressive first step in a programming career. If there isn’t, I fear that a lot of the music that lives at the site will remain undiscovered by a wider audience for some time to come.

Andrew Durkin is a composer and bandleader who lives in Portland, Oregon. He is best known as the creative force behind the Industrial Jazz Group, an adventurous big band based in LA. He blogs at uglyrug.blogspot.com and industrialjazzgroup.com.

Reader Comments (13)

Man, I really do hate to be the guy who pipes up on the first comment and says "Yeah, that's called Google" -- but damn, what else can I say?

Personally, I found the lack of dealing with other Bandcamp users to be one of the most attractive things about it! I'm pretty burnt out on the social networking horseshit, though.

Anyways, the search operator you want is site:bandcamp.com and then you just enter in whatever search string you want. Voila.

Like: site:bandcamp.com world around records for example.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Bandcamp have pointed out several times that the huge page of every band on the site is just there so Google can index all of them, and wasn't really meant for humans to use. They've also pointed out that they're in the hosting business and not the discovery business, but I agree with you: I don't think it would be too hard to add a few features to make discovery so much easier.

My idea was to allow tagging, which is a semantic method of organization I've come to like. Maybe each band could have two tag types, genre and sounds-like, where not only the band, but fans could add tags they feel are appropriate. Searching could opt to filter out the fan-tags if desired. Other might have a better idea of how to do it, but that's my two-minute idea. :)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Landrum

@Justin:

The only issue I have with that is that you're not guaranteed what information will be mentioned on a band's site. A tagging system encourages people to think specifically about single words or word pairs that can actually help people sort through the mess. Also, tagging is not a social media anything, and you don't need to interact with anybody to use it.

Still, I just tried a search for "progressive rock" using your method, and it came back with some promising results, so you might be on to something.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Landrum

Well, you're absolutely right that a dedicated interface is more appealing than Googlage, and that internal tagging is more flexible and accurate than external bots crawling someone's album copy.

It should be a cinch for someone to whip something up, but that someone is probably not going to be me.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Thanks for the comments.

Just curious: what's the specific complaint with social networking as a context for music discovery?

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Durkin

If you're asking me, I don't really have any complaints at all, I just don't do it anymore. I have an email address that attached to a blog and that worked out fine in 2009. Less work, better results, I'm cool with that.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I see -- thanks, Justin. I read "burnt out on the social networking horseshit" as an expression of dissatisfaction.

As a fan of the Internets, I agree with your point about google. And as someone sympathetic to the challenges of creating a site like Bandcamp, I take Darren's point about the designers' perspective on this.

But as a musician, I'm faced with who-knows-how-many different sites offering to help me get my stuff into the world. I want to simplify my choices and maximize my results. Specifically, in terms of the latter, I want to make it as easy as possible for people -- even people who are not web-savvy enough to do the sort of search you're describing -- to find my stuff online. I want it to be -- I'll use the term again -- "idiot proof."

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Durkin

It really comes down to the fact that this isn't what BandCamp is out to do. As it's been stated, discovery is not part of their goalset. Just like Nimbit, Topspin, Echospin, et al they are set out to be a direct digital delivery service that is more customizable than your standard iTunes stuff.

It isn't a standalone such as iTunes or meant to be a place where fans hang out a la MySpace/Facebook/etc. It's a way to sell music+ on your own website with lower margins while allowing you to keep the purchasing data. BC and all the other companies above have obviously added features to this basic principal and as they expand they will add more. That being said, discovery is quite a ways down on the list of things to come as there are many other places out there that do this.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Thanks, Andy. You're right, of course. But for the record, this article was not intended as an expose of some promise that Bandcamp failed to live up to. It was not a "how dare they forget to..." post, but more of a "wouldn't it be cool if they also..." post, driven by a combination of my own admiration for what the site does do well, and my (admittedly idealistic) quest for consolidation and efficiency in the online experience.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Durkin

Greg Rollett has a really great tutorial post on How to Change Your Myspace Music Player over to Bandcamp's Music Player -- which has very obvious benefits all around. You get yourplay metrics in bandcamp, you get to send people away from Myspace faster, and you take them straight to a product page with built-in checkout. (Also happens to be on my task list for next week.)

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Awesome, Justin! Thank you.

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Durkin

Funnily enough, I asked the same question on twitter last week. Happy to have stumbled across this blog post on the topic.

This article is fully wrong, it should be rewritten AFTER to have use and experiment a bit with google search instead of try to find some bandcamp search feature. A shop has never been a good way to explore music but few very specialized and oriented to some precise type of music.

Bandcamp isn't trying to offer more services to make you pay more. Instead they try minimize all costs and lack of search management and shop front is part of this cost reduction goal. That's a good choice because it's not Shops role to select music.

For artist communication skills it's perhaps true but there's still labels and many small labels have a page in bandcamp. There's now even tiny labels with digital only releases because of the costs reductions.

May 19 | Unregistered CommenterNoname

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