Bandcamp was meant to be an alternative to the corporate behemoths of music’s streaming age, giving a better deal to independent artists. But the company’s new owner, Songtradr, has suddenly laid off half its workers, putting Bandcamp’s future in jeopardy.
A wave of sudden layoffs casts doubt upon the future of Bandcamp as it has come to be known and loved over the past decade or so. (Guillaume Payen / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)
With its relatively direct artist-to-listener relationship, sharp editorial, and community-focused public image, Bandcamp has provided a refreshing counterpoint to the faceless platforms of the streaming age for many musicians and music fans since its inception in 2007.
Its regular fee-waiving Bandcamp Friday initiative allowed artists to maximize their income during the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to this day. Artists and labels directly upload and manage their music on the site, with listeners able to pay extra to support independent acts.
The site’s emphasis on material support, physical products, and community interaction is in marked contrast to the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, platforms that tend to encourage more passive engagement from listeners and obscure the economic relations between platform, artist, and consumer.
This more direct, equitable approach has won Bandcamp a devoted user base, and the site enjoys a pretty favorable image among the listening public. A 2020 Guardian article described the company as “the heroes of streaming,” while the Los Angeles Times crowned it “the anti-Spotify.”
This context is key to understanding the changes that Bandcamp is currently undergoing, the organizing of Bandcamp United, and why this situation is so illustrative of wider music and tech industry labor relations, class dynamics, and political possibilities.
Bandcamp is a so-called mission-driven company, dedicated to providing a more sustainable, ethical alternative to the predatory streaming giants around which the contemporary music industry increasingly revolves. However, a wave of sudden layoffs in the wake of the company’s sale by owner Epic Games, which had only acquired the hitherto independent platform eighteen months previously, casts doubt upon the future of Bandcamp as it has come to be known and loved over the past decade or so.
Bandcamp United first went public seeking formal recognition in March 2023. In May, as the group explains, “a majority of eligible Bandcamp workers voted in favor of forming Bandcamp United, a union represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU)” to fight for better conditions for all Bandcamp workers. This decision was acknowledged by CEO Ethan Diamond, and a bargaining process began in August, in “good faith.”
A wave of sudden layoffs casts doubt upon the future of Bandcamp as it has come to be known and loved over the past decade or so.
Yet the process soon ceased to be so straightforward. On September 28, with negotiations ongoing, Epic Games announced that it had sold the company to Songtradr, a music marketing and licensing organization. In an internal message, staff were informed that the new owners would be offering jobs to some workers, but not all.
“Not all” proved to be something of an understatement. Fifty percent of Bandcamp workers were laid off without warning. As Ed Blair, a member of the union’s bargaining committee and former Bandcamp support worker, puts it:
It’s not clear to me when they made that decision, but at some point, we were sitting at the bargaining table, and they knew that none of this was going to matter. That remains really disappointing.
Blair is joined by Jared Andrews, a fellow committee member and former engineer for the site. Andrews is frank about how tough the September layoffs were:
I’ve been a professional computer programmer for a little over a decade now. I’ve worked for several different companies. I’ve been laid off, [but] I’ve never experienced layoffs before where they just do it one day.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the effects of the layoffs were not evenly distributed. In November, the union announced via social media that “the company’s Black & trans/non-binary/gender non-conforming employees were reduced by 82 percent and 84 percent overnight.” As Blair explains, these disparities overlapped with similarly disproportionate impacts along class lines:
Tech as an industry is a white, cis, male industry. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial thing to say. You see that reflected in design decisions; you see that reflected in people who are celebrated within that industry. And you see that systemic bias reflected in these layoffs. Songtradr said that they were done in a way that was based on performance. And based on who we had data for, the numbers indicate that’s not true.
The bulk of the layoffs were concentrated among workers on lower salaries, in job roles (and social positions) with less power and privilege. People from marginalized backgrounds are often more heavily represented in such positions than further up the social or economic ladder:
It’s worth reiterating that a lot of times, diversity in tech is at the lower levels. It’s not at the director level, it’s not at the managerial level, it is at the support level, the ops teams, the people who make less than six figures and are uniquely impacted by situations like this, because they are less likely to have savings.
Many of the workers who were not offered positions following the sale to Songtradr were Blair’s colleagues on the support team — almost the entire department, according to Blair:
How do you wipe out an entire department because they’re underperforming? That doesn’t make any sense. Bandcamp support is a unique thing. Like Jared, I have almost a decade of experience in my role in the tech industry, and like Bandcamp support was something that took more specialized knowledge, more cross training than any other position I’ve had; our systems are very unique, they are in-house systems that don’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve been using them for about six months. In some ways, it’s hard to not see Songtradr shooting themselves in the foot with this decision.
Not only is the platform’s supportive reputation being tarnished by its new owners’ labor practices. The actual functioning of the Bandcamp website could be seriously damaged by this sudden loss of specialist workers, even if the effects take a while to become visible.
“These tech companies are never in stasis,” Andrews points out, referring to Elon Musk’s mass job cuts at Twitter after his purchase of the company as an example:
People though that Twitter was going to fall apart immediately because there’s no-one there handling the servers, the tech, the customer support, but it didn’t crash and burn immediately — there’s a bunch of weird bugs on the site now, but if people who’d been doing their jobs had been doing them somewhat well, these things can live on servers indefinitely; but they’ll get weirder, pick up errors, manual processes will be lost.
Change of Focus
Following the September layoffs, Bandcamp United’s immediate concern necessarily shifted from bargaining for better conditions to a fight for the dignity of the workers who’d suddenly lost their jobs. This was a long, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process, but on December 8, the union announced that it had reached and ratified its severance agreement with Epic Games — Songtradr has yet to recognize Bandcamp United.
The actual functioning of the Bandcamp website could be seriously damaged by this sudden loss of specialist workers.
The situation is, of course, still very difficult for many former Bandcamp employees, but the agreement involved some fairly significant victories, with improved health insurance continuation, two months’ base salary under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act plus four months of base salary to be paid as a lump sum, bonuses, and more. These were important gains, and were only secured through careful, patient, often unglamorous organizing and negotiation, as Blair explains:
Having a union in this moment meant that we have nine months of company paid health insurance. I made $60,000 a year [at Bandcamp]. People who make $60,000 a year don’t get nine months of health care and severance agreements, you know. And that protects me as I look for another job as I try to figure out what’s going next in my life. And it means I don’t have to deal with the fucked-up hell that is the American health care system.
As the Bandcamp dispute illustrates, even seemingly “progressive” or “mission-driven” workplaces can leave their workers exposed and unprotected when they are privately owned and operated for profit (even if they seek to redistribute some of those profits among certain communities or contributors). They exist within capitalist market relations, and no amount of friendly messaging can disentangle these workplaces from that context. Ultimately, the best guarantee of workers’ dignity and basic protections is the organization of those workers themselves.
Ultimately, the best guarantee of workers’ dignity and basic protections is the organization of those workers themselves.
This may seem obvious — almost like a platitude — but the culture and tech industries change quickly, and they rely massively on people who love elements of what those industries can deliver and leave themselves open to exploitation and insecurity as a result in order to function. The fundamental dynamics of disputes like those at Bandcamp help clarify who actually has power in cultural industries and how that power can — or could — be used.
Communities of Struggle
Bandcamp United is not alone in its struggle against the inequalities of the music and tech industry. In the union’s own dispute, it received significant advice and support from some other relatively new music and tech industry unions, such as record label workers at the Secretly Group Union and the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). One of the UMAW’s most prominent campaigns calls for “Justice at Spotify” — in other words, a significant reconfiguration of the way that streaming works and pays artists.
Bandcamp United is not alone in its struggle against the inequalities of the music and tech industry.
As the experience of Bandcamp workers suggests, the action required to create a more sustainable music ecosystem — one in which a wider range of people can access the means of aesthetic production, self-expression, and artistic fulfilment — may need to go beyond a fairer distribution of streaming profits and reckon with the structures of the music industry themselves. Of course, that does not detract from the importance of UMAW’s campaign, and many of the activists involved already understand that longer-term objectives may require more radical strategies.
Theupportt Bandcamp United received also went beyond these closely related unions and campaigns. In some ways, the more surprising sources of support the union received were among the most valuable, as Blair explains:
I was expecting support from musicians and labels, because they’ve got skin in the game. What I was not expecting was how supportive labor was — and that was really educational. The amount of love we got from unrelated unions, not in the music industry, people who were just excited to see workers fighting for a seat at the table — there’s a community in labor, and that’s a real thing that’s being built conversation by conversation in the United States, and you can see it in the historic actions that are being taken right now.
Both Andrews and Blair are keen to emphasize that sense of community as vital to their organizing. Increased class power and material gains are the primary goal, but their pursuit of that goal is only strengthened by the depth of the relationships they’ve built through the union.
Like many tech and cultural workplaces, Bandcamp is mostly operated remotely. This adds to a certain feeling of alienation and atomization among its employees and can make organizing more difficult. Yet through a series of conversations with coworkers, starting with the aim of making basic human connections and building from there, a powerful union began to take shape.
Andrews is keen to emphasize the importance of these simple interactions:
What I would really want to drive home for anyone trying to organize remotely is, just talk to your coworkers, even if it goes against the culture of the place you’re working at. Everyone appreciates a fifteen-minute chat where they can learn something about you and you can learn something about them. It’s always a positive experience.
Blair also strikes an optimistic note about the wider picture: “My takeaway is that this is a moment when labor is on an upswing in the United States — there’s a lot of support for this. It is hard, it is scary, it is frustrating. And it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”Original post