As HMV – the last remaining high street music giant in the UK – goes into administration, it’s not just bricks and mortar distribution that’s going to be affected; whether HMV was a cultural centre or not, the digital analogy for record store culture has never been more important.
Bandcamp for Fans?
Bandcamp has avoided bolting on social media functionality to its website for a couple of years, but this week unveiled the latest addition to its feature set. Bandcamp for Fans is social without sycophantism, following without fawning. With Bandcamp for Fans you can share music you love, with people who want to listen, without the ugly business of reciprocation ever needing to get in the way. Follow other Bandcamp users and you’ll find out about the music they’ve added to their collection (or have on a wishlist of music to buy when a fiver turns up during spring cleaning), and other users can do the same to you. Your popularity will increase on the strength of your community involvement, and there’s no direct ‘video gamey’ reward; your awesome taste may result in people trusting you to recommend music, but beyond that leveraging that popularity is your business.
We love this idea, and here’s why.
Engagement (or Why Cynicism Spoils Community)
Myspace, as distant a memory as it seems now (although if Justin Timberlake has his way that’s about to change any time now), actually did a few things really right. The most meaningful was perhaps the ‘Top 8’ system, which allowed users to promote eight of their friends’ pages directly from their own. The reason this worked so well was because of the engagement required from the page owner; with a maximum of eight pages to choose from, with no guarantee of reciprocity or indeed any other incentive, Top 8 selections tended to be honest, considered recommendations from artists and fans. In fact, and ironically, getting this so right appears – from my perspective at least – to have been a big contributor to the cracks that started to appear in Myspace’s foundations.
Synchronous ‘friendships’ were abused wholesale as Myspace’s popularity grew, with friend farming (and the comment spamming that followed) becoming the norm for artists who both craved attention and had an hour to kill every evening… and the previously manageable and often educational dip into Myspace for new music gradually fell apart at the seams.
SoundCloud’s asynchronous ‘follow’ system sidesteps all the issues with friend farming as a technique to artificially increase exposure, but has always seemed, in my book at least, to be a little confused about exactly how its engagement system works. The big thing for SoundCloud is commenting, and ‘timed’ comments – the ones that pop up over the track’s waveform while the song plays – are huge. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why this is such a central feature to SoundCloud, though, because when listening to music I have my own critical faculties to exercise before I’m particularly inclined to pay attention to someone else’s thoughts in 140 characters or less. Commenting is a courtesy, or compliment, to the artist, and realistically it’s not important to Listener A to see that Listener B and C wrote ‘nice’, and ‘sick’, respectively, around the time the bassline drops. But people do it, and whilst the optimist in me wants to think that all comments are genuinely from well wishers there are two pertinent facts that make that questionable. The first is that, at its heart, SoundCloud started out as and realistically is still a site for artists and so promotion is on a huge amount of users’ agenda – being visible sometimes feels like it’s more of a focus than a happy side effect of many comments. The second is that, well, some people are completely transparent about what they’re doing with comments like ‘nice track! please check out my music/blog at…’ making their motivation somewhat clear (and for the record, yes, OD has left comments for people to let them know we’ve featured them in the distant past. We’re hypocrites, okay?!).
Bandcamp’s Fan page is a great way to allow music listeners – and as artists, you’re listeners too – to catalogue what they’ve bought (or, if free, liked enough to download), recommend tracks, and generally show off what you actually listen to. It’s standing next to someone looking at your record shelf and excitedly telling them how they need to listen to track seven on this LP, and, oh, if you like this then you’ll love… and so on. But it’ll only work, on its own first of all and as a model later on, if we don’t break it. Wield your power wisely, and don’t break things before they even get rolling with incessant, cynical downloading for the sole purpose of stamping your digital footprint onto someone’s art. Maybe you really are a taste maker – you won’t know unless exercise your taste!
Of course, things aren’t perfect with Bandcamp for Fans yet. The progress bar that usually accompanies Bandcamp music is currently absent (although I have a terrible habit of dancing the progress bar through tracks before they’ve had a chance to choose their own pace, and maybe this will stamp that out), and tracks don’t lead into each other, requiring manual ‘play’ on each track. Right now, there’s not even a dashboard to let you know what’s going on with your new found muso friends; Bandcamp will email you a summary of what’s been happening in your social circle “every now and then”, in their own words. A feed is coming, but perhaps Bandcamp have thought about all the above and are being extra careful with their design to make absolutely sure they give their model as much chance as possible…
If there’s one thing that Bandcamp doesn’t do well, it’s precisely what SoundCloud excels at: single tracks. Whether they’re polished and pretty or rough and ready, SoundCloud is king when it comes to getting that one sound out there, and the ability to do that when twinned with the informal nature of a simple play button and absence of overly ‘official’ looking structure seems to lead to a cultural incubation situation. Circles of people sharing what they’ve been up to in a nurturing environment is like a jam session at a public bar, and just as much as the finished EP and LP that Bandcamp’s structure caters to so well so too is this approach important to share and promote. Now all we need is someone to bring all this together. Now that Justin Timberlake’s got his comeback fully in swing maybe the new MySpace will have a hand in things… they might have to sort out that weird horizontal scrolling first though.
Works for us!
In an encouraging display of galactic syncronicity, Bandcamp might just have provided a piece to the ever evolving puzzle that is Oh Drat. In the past we’ve prided ourselves on showing you music that we think will inspire you for particular reasons, and regular readers will hopefully feel a sense of narrative in our decisions from week to week. I want to keep that up – indeed, we want to step it up – but I also want to make sure that the most important things are given pride of place and things shift from ‘filler’ to ‘bonus’ when it comes to the rest. If you’ve any ideas you think we’d like, let us know below…