Just over a year ago Snatch Tapes dipped its toes into digital distribution by launching first a Storm Bugs Bandcamp page followed by a Sanderson one. Previously there had been MP3 files of a few tracks available (but not for sale) on the Snatch Tapes site and various blogs had posted rips from original cassettes. All previous releases had been on vinyl or CD usually in runs of 500.
So how has the digital distribution experience fared? Bandcamp is easy to use and the interface straightforward and simple, there are no adverts and the final layout whilst basic is clean and uncluttered. In terms of sound quality tracks can be downloaded in a variety of formats including of course MP3 but also lossless FLAC and WAV, in other words pretty much what the artist hears on their hard drive (unless you work in some super high res format) is what the listener hears. This quality aspect seemed key as a complaint often voiced (usually in the context of eulogies about the merits of vinyl) is about the crummy sound of compressed MP3s.
Bandcamp take a 15% cut on sales, which is not onerous, and payment is straight forward via PayPal, you make a sale and you get the money immediately. There is a good stats section showing you daily plays and sales/ downloads. Bandcamp also shows whether the listener has played just the into, the majority of the track or the whole track. In respect of plays there has been a healthy number on both Sanderson and Storm Bugs.
So far so good however in contrast to plays our sales have been virtually non-existent. This is arguably better than getting no sales/money at all as one does with streaming services like Soundcloud, Last FM or YouTube (where for example a copy of Tin is close to 10,000 plays) but only just.
In thinking about why sales are so low (and Bandcamp is after all not meant to be a streaming service) there area number of possible reasons. Firstly it is quite hard to let people know about a new release. When a physical release comes out the distributors and on line sellers (Volcanic Tongue, Fusetron etc) all write a little blurb and generally promote the item for you to just the sort of people who would be interested, With Bandcamp you effectively have to blow your own trumpet. A keenness for tweeting, facebooking and generally shameless self-promoting to and the nurturing of an on line fan base are all essential (things I personally have little interests in). Even so there is a more fundamental problem, which is that many of those who previously bought Storm Bugs CDs or vinyl don’t want to buy downloads. Price seems almost irrelevant people want and have emailed asking for something physical ideally vinyl, cassette or even a CDr.
A variety of reasons are given; many might be familiar such as the supposed superior quality of vinyl (a debate for another time but note that no artist puts on their test pressing wondering how their recording has been magically transformed more they listen anxiously hoping that the cutting engineer and plant haven’t screwed up their recording too badly). Other reasons seem all to do with anything but the music such as the size of the artwork, the ritual involved in sitting down and actively listening etc. Having been brought up on vinyl these are arguments that all ring true nonetheless one finds oneself returning to the absurdity of spending months honing a recording digitally to then say OK right at the last moment lets put it on an analogue format such as cassette so we can add tape hiss, wow and flutter, a reduced frequency spectrum and so on. This is not an argument from Mr Lo-fi in favour of Hi-fi but adding in analogue at the final stage is the equivalent of that process whereby photographs can be printed on to canvas to give them a sort of textured painting like quality.
This search for a 3 dimensional authenticity is completely understandable but it is perverse that the lossless file (an exact replica of what the artist recorded) is seen as worthless whereas the petrol-derived plastic is seems as an object of reverence. However when so many files are offered free or pay what you like it is perhaps understandable that no one feels too inclined to pay for a download, though of course many do if not in the same numbers as once bought CDs. It is the avant experimental and indie sector that people are most resistant to the paid for download and most keen on the object. This unfortunately is a large part of the Bandcamp artists.
Bandcamp say they have paid many hundreds of thousands of pounds to artists so maybe others are doing much better, lets hope so as the future as a streaming service in which neither Bandcamp or the artist gets paid seems unviable. Aficionados of all things experimental and electronic you need to get just a tad more modern and digital.