Spotlight: Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond on Putting 'Artists First' Amid Coronavirus

Ethan Diamond Bandcamp
Richard Morgenstein

Ethan Diamond, Bandcamp's co-founder and CEO.

"We all have a responsibility to work towards a better world. As a community, we can have a lot more impact than we would individually."

Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond doesn’t like talking about his company’s fundraisers. He’s worried that doing so could make it seem like he’s capitalizing on a national catastrophe. But, he says, the online record store where artists around the world sell their music directly to consumers simply wants to do the right thing.

“I just have always preferred, ‘Let’s just do it and we don’t have to talk about it very much,’” Diamond explains.

On March 20, Bandcamp waived its proceeds (15% on digital sales, 10% on merch) for 24 hours, with all money going directly to artists in the wake of the worldwide coronavirus shutdown. The fundraiser was the streaming platform and physical sales website’s biggest to date, netting $4.3 million total and selling 11 items per second at its peak, sending at least $430,000 of potential profits back to artists and labels. And it was just the latest in a series of similar campaigns, following days of support for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Transgender Law Center and the Voting Rights Project over the last three years. In each instance, Bandcamp saw a community in need and decided to help.

“We’re an ‘artists first’ service and the reason we are is because of this belief that music is essential to humanity,” Diamond says. “My feeling has always been that if you believe that music is essential, then the welfare of the artist is also essential too.”

It’s not just Diamond who espouses these values at Bandcamp, which he co-founded in 2008 and now sells about 50,000 records per day across physical and digital formats. “As soon as it was clear that all shows were being canceled and artists were in this position… everyone’s mind [at Bandcamp] was in the same place,” he says. And because the company had experience with these sorts of fundraising events -- beginning with ACLU Day on Feb. 3, 2017, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from several majority Muslim countries -- Diamond and his team were able to pull together the COVID-19 fundraiser in a week.

In order to prepare the website for such a huge spike in traffic -- which ended up being about 15 times heavier than the average Friday -- Bandcamp’s systems, development and support teams all needed to pivot to focus on the project, putting in overtime until the site was prepared. But, Diamond says, everyone involved stepped up because they felt strongly about what they were doing -- and customers responded in kind.

“That kind of direct support, it was also just a huge affirmation of everything we’ve been working towards,” Diamond says, noting their live sales feed on their homepage allowed them to watch the amount raised in real time. “The idea is ‘Hey, the best way to support an artist with music you love is directly giving them some money.’ It’s not to do all these things that’ll hopefully trickle down. Seeing that click for so many more people than it does on the average day was really cool.”

For Diamond, these fundraising events are a "moral obligation." Bandcamp has been profitable since 2012 -- “We worked towards becoming profitable as a company really early on because we wanted to continue to be able to set our own goals and our own priorities,” he says -- so giving back to the artist community and music consumers in general is of utmost importance to him.

He continues, “I feel like we all have a responsibility to work towards a better world,” recalling the nationwide airport protests after Trump implemented Executive Order 13769, his so-called “Muslim ban.” “As a community, we can have a lot more impact than we would individually. When that happened, to respond to something like that and only act individually, it wouldn’t be squandering an opportunity, but essentially it’d be ignoring a moral obligation.”

That sense of moral obligation permeates all the work Diamond does as CEO, and it has helped inspire others in the industry. After Bandcamp announced its COVID-19 initiative, dozens of indie labels -- many of which are also struggling amid the pandemic -- waived their own proceeds without any urging from Diamond. “It [was] really pretty heartening to see it happen over and over again,” he says.

SPOTLIGHT:

It was always obvious to me that the best way to support the artists you love is by directly giving them money.

The great thing about structuring our business around a revenue share of sales is that it ties our success to the success of our community -- we only make money when artists and labels make a lot more money.

What's changed is the passive, disengaged experience of streaming has led to a disconnection between artists and fans, but more and more of them are now using services like ours to create a deeper, more mutually beneficial relationship.

The easiest thing is deciding what to work on next, because it’s always whatever we think will benefit our artists and labels the most.

Working with artists is a tremendous privilege and I feel incredibly lucky that this is what I get to do every day.

Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

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