In world of digital downloads, what’s happening to the album – not only as a cohesive work, but as a physical product? Is it still relevant? Who wants to buy it?
Of all the people to contemplate that question, you wouldn’t expect one to be the founder of Bandcamp, the kick-ass digital music publishing platform that allows any band to adopt the recent Radiohead model of “pay what you will” and “choose your own file format.”
Yet, last month Bandcamp released their first ever physical record as an unlabel, an album by ukulele-ist Sophie Madeleine. It’s literally a record – a beautiful piece of red vinyl with screen-printed artwork, along with a digital download of the album. The release is limited to a mere 500 copies.
Not only is their unlabel model intriguing, and not only does founder Ethan Diamond have great taste in collateral (including Edward Tufte’s beautiful Visual Explanations), but the Bandcamp folks have a mind towards music as anthropology and not just noise:
[The album] must somehow be made into an object that every one of your fans has to own, has to hold while they listen to your music, and has to show to all of their friends. It must be transformed from a disposable good into something your fans will fetishize.
Ethan raises a point that will dominate this decade of music sales. People don’t cultivate large physical collections of music the way they used to. My friends are typically shocked when they witness the number of shelved CDs in my living room.
To get someone to buy an album instead of downloading its contents – legally or illegally – the media has to be more than a vehicle for the music. Record companies have it only half right when they stuff on video clips and re-purposed press kits. They tend to be of a “use once a destroy” value.
The whole point is to create something no one would destroy – something they want to keep, touch, share, and revisit.
Clearly, Bandcamp isn’t just about digital music distribution – it’s about musical modernism. Providing pain-free downloads and designing killer album packages both serve the same purpose: promoting music.