Sitting at the water’s edge near the Embarcadero in San Francisco, Camille Safiya sings a soulful melody from behind large, square, pink-tinted sunglasses. She’s strumming a white acoustic guitar, and has placed a tin bowl in front of her for passersby to drop spare change. The word “Oakland” is proudly printed across the back of her green camouflage jacket. A stranger, also dressed in large retro sunglasses and a long, flowy shawl drops a vintage stopwatch on a long gold chain in Safiya’s bowl. Instead of receiving money, Safiya is given the gift of time.
Though almost two years old, the first 40 seconds of The Futurelics music video for “Down N’ Out” serves as a good metaphor for how the coronavirus pandemic has affected musicians in the Bay Area. With the gift of extra time, many are devoting more energy toward their creative pursuits — as proven by surging musical instrument sales and a surge in home recording.
And yet, at the same time, opportunities to make money are scarce. Every indoor live music venue in the city is closed, and unless you’re willing to risk your life to play a party or underground warehouse show, making a serious profit performing is out of the question. Most musicians are left to make ends meet with album and merch sales and the occasional digitally streamed concert.
For an 8-piece jazz-funk band like The Futurelics, not being able to jam out with an audience means listeners miss out on a major part of their artistry. It also means they get a lot less word-of-mouth buzz. “Our bread and butter is on the underground,” says Safiya. “We have to use all our creative abilities now more than ever to create new opportunities for our community and ourselves.”
One relatively new opportunity for independent musicians has come from the Oakland-based music-hosting website Bandcamp. A platform for sharing and selling original music, Bandcamp has made a conscious effort to help artists in a time when their entire industry has been thrown into disarray.
Starting in March, Bandcamp began waiving their revenue share of all sales on physical and digital media on the first Friday of every month. They call the special 24-hour period “Bandcamp Friday,” and in May, the event saw fans spending more $7.1 million on the site. That money went directly to musicians.
While streaming music’s major players — Apple, Spotify, and the Oakland-headquartered Pandora Radio — employ thousands around the world, Bandcamp is run by a crew of 63 total staffers, only 17 of which work regularly (in non-pandemic times) at the company’s main office, record store, and live concert space near Lake Merritt.
Their size informs a far-from-corporate, DIY philosophy. The Futurelics, for example, played a First Friday show at the Bandcamp offices back in November. And just like they might book a show at a local bar, they secured their slot through word-of-mouth recommendations — not through a brand partnership, marketing gimmicks, or a power-lunching A&R man. In short, Bandcamp keeps it real.
“We’re a place for people to support artists directly,” COO Josh Kim told KQED when Bandcamp’s Oakland headquarters first opened. That’s a particularly popular mentality now, as conversations about coronavirus relief and systemic racism have created an increased interest in mutual aid. Audiences want to pay artists directly, and The Futurelics have actually had multiple fans offer to directly pay them to help record their next album.
“We’re talking about artists’ rights,” says Camille. “We’re talking about how Black and brown people are the culture, and are being paid pennies for what we actually bring to the table. Those conversations are to my benefit and to the benefit of my Black band,” she says.
Doctor Popular, an electronic music producer, video game designer, artist, and dramatic yo-yoist based in San Francisco, says Bandcamp has always been the best way to support artists. In fact, he buys music on Bandcamp whenever he can. “My relationship with Bandcamp is mostly as a fan,” he says.
This is because financially, buying an album on Bandcamp will put more money in the artist’s pocket than listening to their music on any other major platform. On a normal day, Bandcamp takes 15 percent of digital sales and 10 percent of merchandise — so for the average $10 digital album, the artists take home about $8.50. Compare that with Spotify and Apple Music, where artists are compensated on a “pro rata” system, and are paid out for a proportion of overall streams on the platform. For example, if The Futurelics or Doctor Popular comprised 1 percent of Apple Music streams, they would be awarded 1 percent of the revenues Apple Music has set aside for artists. On average, a musician only makes 0.006 to 0.0084 cents per listen.
Doc also says that Bandcamp is one of the most direct ways artists can connect with their audience. Not only does the platform give artists more useful data about who listens to and consumes their music than other platforms, but also listeners who “follow” artists on the platform are notified when an artist is playing a streamed or live concert, releasing new music, or selling new merch. Audiences clearly feel more connected to the artist as a result: though DocPop’s music is usually listed at a suggested donation of $1, so many buyers overpay that he makes an average of about $2 per sale.
During the pandemic, this kind of direct audience connection has only grown on the platform. In fact, quarantined musicians have started making music specifically to release on Bandcamp Fridays to keep audiences engaged. Doctor Popular’s latest album, Quarantined Beats (and Inside Voices), recorded in May, was released just in time for June’s Bandcamp Friday, and his single “Printer not Printing” was released in July. Now that Bandcamp is continuing the Bandcamp Fridays program for the rest of the year, Doctor Popular has planned new music releases through October. His single “Thriftstore Scores,” a nerdcore rap about second-hand clothes, is out this Friday, Aug. 7. “That regular content creation really makes your fans used to buying stuff and looking for what’s next,” he says.
The most valuable benefit of the Bandcamp Fridays program, however, may be the way it builds community between musicians in this time of isolation. Not only are musicians releasing their own music, but they’re promoting and discovering each other, too. Every month, artists post Twitter threads of other musician’s work, in an effort to spread the love. Because artists aren’t paid pro rata, and because listeners must overcome the introductory hurdle of creating an account on Bandcamp to purchase anyone’s music, bringing fans to the platform is a win-win for all the artists involved, not to mention Bandcamp itself.
Finances aside, all that music making and listening is also a lifeline for many who miss other forms of person-to-person communication, too. Music can be a way for us to process emotion, empathize with one another, and move together despite the distance. Maybe we can’t see our favorite artists live, but we can share an album with a friend, and show our appreciation for the music makers all the same. Safiya says that The Futurelics are trying to “hold that vibration” from their live shows in recordings, on social media, and through streamed performances, to get people through these trying times. Bandcamp Fridays promotes that mentality, and gives artists an excuse to reach out to their listeners on a regular basis.
“We provide people with soul and funk and music to dance and heal to,” Safiya says. “We’re the frequency that is needed right now.”