You’re probably going to need an hour-long EP to get through this, so start listening.
Anyone remotely connected to the indie music world knows that Sufjan Stevens surprised the world last Friday by releasing an hour-long EP completely unannounced. Even more surprising was the mode of release. Instead of putting it on iTunes (although it did reach other digital stores on Monday), Sufjan and Asthmatic Kitty Records decided to upload the EP on Bandcamp. And it was probably the smartest decision they could have made, considering Sufjan’s usually tech-savvy fanbase who, if the EP had premiered on iTunes, would probably have pirated the EP if only to avoid the awkward file format used by iTunes.
To compare the world of digital music stores to the world of Internet browsers, the iTunes Store looks more and more like Internet Explorer–widely used but antiquated in many ways, rendering them completely unusable to anyone who does not use iTunes. iTunes has also faced numerable phishing scams, including a very recent one that came about the same time as Sufjan’s EP.
Bandcamp, in keeping with the web browser analogy, is the Mozilla Firefox of digital music stores–not necessarily the fastest, but the one with the most customizable options. On Bandcamp, the musician or label simply uploads their master files, and the service converts them to any file format you could possibly want: 320 kbps mp3, VBR mp3, FLAC, Apple Loseless, Ogg Vorbis, and more. The uploader names their price, including the option to have the customer name their price à la Radiohead’s In Rainbows. In addition, the uploader can stratify the prices; for example, an album may be a free download at 128 kbps mp3, but for higher quality files, the customer has to pay $5. The uploader gets their own page that they are free to design, though Bandcamp’s player and general format is consistent throughout each page. Furthermore, Bandcamp is strongly tied to social networking, easily the strongest force for promoting new music, as demonstrated by Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” and The Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder Song”, the latter of which made the Billboard Hot 100 charts once released on iTunes. Posting to a Bandcamp album page on Facebook or Twitter embeds the entire album for streaming directly on that page. For more information on Bandcamp, view the video at the bottom.
What does this mean in context of the All Delighted People EP? An interview with John Beeler of Asthmatic Kitty on the Bandcamp blog, posted two days ago, demonstrates the potency of such a high-profile release on a digital music store focused on social networking and new media. Today, the Billboard 200 placed Sufjan’s EP at #48, based on sales from Tuesday, August 17 through Monday, August 23. Do the math: Sufjan’s EP came out on Friday to a fanbase that probably pirates more than any other fanbase. Yet the $5 price tag for completely open, high-quality price files, combined with a well-known, well-respected artist allowed Sufjan to sell over 10,000 copies of his EP in one weekend. When’s the last time you earned $50,000 in a weekend?
Now, let’s theorize for a second. Let’s say Kanye West releases his new album on Bandcamp. With his new media-centric promotion style, this isn’t entirely out of the question (P.S., the URL kanyewest.bandcamp.com is taken). Kanye could release the album digitally for $8, the CD version for $12, and an LP version for $15. While the album will undoubtedly leak before the release date and piracy rates will still be high, I guarantee that Kanye would see incredible sales for his new album. He has a strong, dedicated fanbase and a one-man Twitter promotion machine in himself.
It disappoints me that Asthmatic Kitty seems to be going with a more traditional method for releasing and promoting Sufjan’s new album, The Age of Adz. It seems that they were happy with the way All Delighted People hit the blogosphere (and who would be disappointed?), but still, they do not see Bandcamp as the way to promote The Age of Adz, despite the fact that it has the same pre-order capabilities as the package they are offering. Then again, I haven’t gone through the entire pre-order process. Perhaps Bandcamp is connected in some way. In all other aspects of Sufjan’s discography, they seem to have made the switch, as you can buy the rest of his discography on the Bandcamp page (except, oddly, Michigan and Seven Swans).
Still, Sufjan’s release of All Delighted People marks a milestone for the fledgling digital music store. Sufjan is easily the most high-profile release they have seen, especially for something released exclusively on Bandcamp. Hopefully, other artists will use Bandcamp as a way to release their music instead of the restricted iTunes and the out-of-touch traditional method of a record store. The music industry needs a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Bandcamp, or something similar that will be released in the future, is that light.