Epic Games, makers of Unreal Engine, the Epic Games Store, and Fortnite, just bought Bandcamp. The promise is that the core Bandcamp platform as we know it will remain – but this means a big shift in where opportunities on Bandcamp might go.
Best take so far:
First, it’s always a safe bet to be skeptical of acquisitions, and certainly not to get swept up in “what-if” synergy scenarios. The fantasies of how companies fit together do invariably meet up with real-world realities of integrating technologies, teams, and different visions. This could have pretty big implications in this case, in how gaming and music might fit together. Of course, that, too, we’ve heard before – come ye and I’ll sing ye a tale of Harmonix and Viacom, aye they ne’er quite worked out. And yes, Epic bought Harmonix – as history repeats itself, and we still don’t know what will come of that, either.
With the naysaying out of the way, though, here are reasons to be curious, excited, anxious, maybe all of them:
Epic Games Store is an exploding platform. Steam has hegemony – and now Switch-like hardware – but Epic has invested heavily in their platform and wooed a customer base with a big rotation of freebies. Game soundtracks are already a big seller on Bandcamp, even for stores sold on Steam. Steam’s own music functionality is archaic and horrible. Even just linking from Epic to the Bandcamp site would be a big step forward for game composers. And it could open up new folks to Bandcamp, which despite its popularity with indie artists and labels, still remains a niche player.
In-game events. One reason not to worry about the “metaverse” hype is that the games industry have already been delivering it for years – in a form people, you know, actually want. Fortnite has proven itself as virtual concert venue, and Unreal Engine can power more. It’s a little unclear where that connects to Bandcamp, but see the companies’ own explicit mention of ticketed online events. Even post-pandemic lockdowns, the reality is that the events industry is closed to all but the biggest artists. Building online fans first is more or less a prerequisite to successful tours.
Investment for growth. This is the big one. Bandcamp rode some growth through the pandemic, but gaming is surfing a much bigger wave. And frankly, updating legacy online platforms is a major chore, even just to work through stuff users want. (See the languishing SoundCloud for one example of how a tool online can stagnate, unfortunately – even speaking as a regular paid user.)
There’s one wrinkle in all this, too:
Tencent, the Chinese tech conglomerate, owns a 40% stake in Epic. (They’re also one of the top shareholders of Spotify.) That could have implications for Bandcamp, which is currently blocked in China. One reason to watch this is that China’s government has already pressured Tencent about Epic last year, urging them “to break from the solitary focus of pursuing profit or attracting players and fans” plus “inducing addictions,” according to CNN Business. It doesn’t appear anything came of that particular imperative – or really what to make of it – but it does suggest China’s government is open to telling Tencent what to do not only in its own operations but the companies in which it is a stakeholder. (To be fair, US regulators also tried to influence Nintendo, Sega, and others, once upon a time, so there’s Western precedent for foreign interference, too, if with very different legal-political structures.)
I’ve bought a lot of Chinese-produced music on Bandcamp; users of the kind of music I was seeking out simply use a VPN, as they do for other western sites. But it was never clear what precisely triggered China’s Bandcamp ban, which means in turn it’s hard to predict what this may mean.
This problem is not unique to Chinese owners, let alone Tencent and Epic specifically. Big consolidated platforms will inevitably be under increased pressure to moderate what they host. And that question is one worth asking of platform solutions in general.
For their part, here’s what Bandcamp has to say. They promise to:
- Keep “artists-first revenue model” (with they say a net average of 82% of every sale staying with the artist)
- Retain “the same control over how you offer your music”
- A continuation of Bandcamp Fridays (that might be a bug, not a feature, to some)
- Continue the Daily and editorial content
What they promise in return:
- Expanding internationally
- Push development forward on “basics like our album pages, mobile apps, merch tools, payment systems, and search and discovery features,” plus
- Expand new functionality “like our vinyl pressing and live streaming services“
Live streaming may be the biggest one of that list. But for all the obvious flashy integrations, maybe just having Epic’s payment and account system will be a boon. Right now it’s a huge chore to buy or download more than a single release at a time; this could address that – with some serious dev work.
International expansion would likewise require greater payment gateway options and localization, both of which are currently missing. It’d be fascinating if somehow this did unblock Bandcamp in China – though we’ll see. (Tencent has their own music platform.)
It’s all interesting, and all a tall order, but Epic might be the buyer that could allow Bandcamp to pull it off.
The big tagline for the Epic side of this announcement is “fair and open platforms.” As Bandcamp puts it
There’s not much else to glean from the corporatespeak there, but the headline should be appealing – especially given the trust Bandcamp has earned. As Bandcamp puts it:
[We] not only wanted to see Bandcamp continue, but also wanted to provide the resources to bring a lot more benefit to the artists, labels, and fans who use the site. Epic ticks all those boxes. We share a vision of building the most open, artist-friendly ecosystem in the world, and together we’ll be able to create even more opportunities for artists to be compensated fairly for their work.
There’s an unusual amount of promise in this one, even for me, the acquisition skeptic. I know there will be a lot of mourning of Bandcamp’s independent status. And there’s unquestionably anxiety about a platform on which so many voices depend. We’ll be watching closely for what’s to come.
I’ll try to see if I can reach out to Bandcamp to talk to them about this soon.