name your price – ‘value’ underground in the age of bandcamp

August 31, 2019 at 6:44 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 10 Comments
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name your price – ‘value’ underground in the age of bandcamp


(Note 1 of 2: I started thinking about this piece almost a year ago – time passes as nothing, eh? – and have been inspired to dust it off and get it finished by RFM comrade Joe Murray’s article on ‘value’ in the no-audience underground published in TQ Zine issue #24.  Back issues and subscriptions available here.  Highest possible recommendation!

Note 2 of 2: I’ve illustrated this piece with some pictures of rocks I took on St Bees beach, Cumbria, during a recent holiday.  The alternative was screengrabs from Bandcamp which I couldn’t get to look interesting.)


In January 1990, as my 18th birthday present, my folks gave me a boombox incorporating a CD player – the first in our house.  The first disc I bought to play in it was i by A.R. Kane which cost, I think, about £12.  According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator that is equivalent to an astounding £26 in ‘today’s money’.  In contrast, a while back I spent about £18 on the download of 50 releases by RFM favourite Stuart Chalmers.  I raised this money by selling downloads of most of my own back catalogue which I offered at a minimum cost of 50 pence for THE LOT.  As I started writing this article, noise Twitter was frothing over a deal whereby Kevin Drumm’s digital back catalogue of 113 albums could be had for $22.60 – 20 cents a pop.  And yet elsewhere I followed up on a random recommendation and found a physical release on tape that could be had for £6 but the download on its own was priced at a comically off-putting £1000.  Blimey!  What fuckery is this!?  In short: Bandcamp.  Its structure, its wild west pricing options, the implications of its very existence – raise all manner of questions about entitlement and respect, scarcity and giganticism, cost and value.  I’ll dance around the latter in this article.

In the last Zellaby Awards post, RFM’s round-up of the best from 2018, I said of Bandcamp that…

My routine is well established: during the day I follow recommendations, mainly garnered from twitter, dutifully keeping a browser tab open for each.  On retiring to bed those that are ‘name your price’ are downloaded to my ‘phone, either paying nowt or an amount depending on proximity to payday or whether my paypal account contains anything I can pass on.  Those that require a specific fee are placed on my wishlist, triaged and either discarded or purchased according to taste and resources.  Releases acquired this way are listened to mainly via (surprisingly good) wireless headphones as I nod off, walk to and from work or busy myself around the house.  The huge majority of my life in music is now comprised of this process and I find it magical.  The efficiency, the frugality with which I can navigate an unimaginable catalogue, dizzying myself with novelty, whilst offering direct support to artists (who are sometimes also friends) is borderline miraculous.  I guess I can almost still understand preferring the physical exercise of crate digging – the rush of discovery, the thwap of sleeve on sleeve, tape hiss or run-in groove crackle – but I’ve no time for anyone who scoffs at my alternative.  There are problems of course – some big – but that doesn’t stop this being the most interesting thing to happen to music distribution since the mainstreaming of digital piracy in the 90s.

Since then I’ve started the radiofreemidwich show and, to feed that beast, have added clicking on interesting looking ‘supported by’ avatars and seeing what those people have in their collections too.  I highly recommend doing this – it’s an excellent way of revealing connections between sub-genres and geographical locations.  I should also mention that – full disclosure – I’m not arsed with physical objects anymore.  All I really want is to hear the music.  Sure, I appreciate a thought-through aesthetic and packaging can be fun and/or impressive but if your object comes with a download code then, to be honest, what you are really selling me is a slip of paper elaborately presented in kipple.  OK, let’s crack on with the ISSUES.

Occasionally I see twitter threads by artists bemoaning the fact that they can’t make a living from their music anymore.  ‘We’ve spent $3k on equipment and Spotify pays pennies’ was the gist of one particularly mind-boggling one I read recently.  My initial reaction is almost always the same: ‘well, who asked you to?’  If Spotify had commissioned their album then refused to pay an agreed fee then, sure, the anger would be righteous but it’s never that.  It’s usually more a burning sense of entitlement, propped up by narcissistic solipsism, wishful thinking and some garbled pseudo-memory of the ‘good old days’.  ‘I work so hard at this’, goes the thought, ‘why aren’t I being paid?’ followed by lashing out at piracy or streaming services or ‘the business’ and doom-mongering about the death of new music or whatever.  Lucky for me, the definitive rejoinder to this shite has already been written.  Allow me to quote at length from the best thing The Quietus has ever published:

It surprises many people that members of bands considered successful are also in full-time work, which personally I love – no one has a god-given right to make money from entertainment and, arguably, to make money you have to sell a crucial part of what you do down the river.

Yet the structure of our world is so based around wealth. When I’m at work as a postman one of the first questions I get asked the morning after a Hey Colossus gig is: “What money did you get?/How much were you paid?/Did you lose money?/MONEYMONEYMONEY!” It’s how most people judge success and failure. The band I do, with five friends, makes no money. For 14 years we have made no money. Every single penny goes into recording and rehearsing and new strings and mending broken things. We all have jobs. We write and record music because it’s fun, we’re lucky enough to play shows throughout Europe and we’re over the moon to drive to shows and play to 30 people… or more if the weather is right/no other bands are in town/there’s nothing on telly (these are the top three Promoter Excuses, straight from the handbook). Kind people will put the show on and feed us and let us stay in their houses or put us up in the venue. We’ve stayed in squats with no toilets or showers and we’ve stayed in surprisingly swanky hotels (spending the night pinching ourselves and taking photos like tourists), but both are greeted with open arms. More often than not the squat sticks in your mind for a longer time, often for positive reasons. This network, a spider’s web, holds us up. It’s built over time, handed down through the generations. Money is nothing to do with what we do, and the minute it has anything to do with what you create you’re done for, you’re a spent force.

Inspiring stuff, eh?  This is a big chunk of a short article by Joe Thompson from the band Hey Colossus published in 2017 (which echoes thoughts I’ve published before).  I’ve always had a soft spot for this lot partly because my oldest friend, Tim Hall, used to be their drummer and partly because of this wholly admirable attitude (Joe has a book out about the band which I’m itchin’ to read).  I’m not sure I go the full Bill Hicks but Joe is pretty much right on all counts isn’t he?  Do it because you love it, do your best to make it sustainable: no-one has a god-given right to make money from entertainment.  This does not mean that it is OK for streaming services or unscrupulous promoters to rip people off, nor that money should never change hands, nor that grants or other financial help should never be available, nor that everyone is not entitled to a level of security and dignity no matter who they are or what they do (talk to Toby Phips Lloyd about that).  The answer to the question ‘Do they owe us a living?’ is, as we all know, ‘Course they fucking do!’ but those bewildered, angry artists on twitter aren’t arguing for universal basic income are they?  And if they choose to make selling their art crucial to their financial wellbeing then there are unpleasant consequences that the DIY scene, as personified above, doesn’t even have to consider because its priorities are elsewhere.

Bringing this back to the subject at hand, Bandcamp strikes me as a pretty solid attempt to square the circle.  Whilst casting side-eye at the cut taken by both Bandcamp and the egregious PayPal, this platform provides a way of expressing your support by buying from what is basically a digital merch stall.  Artists and labels get to sell their art on, more or less, their own terms (certainly less restrictive terms than are traditionally allowed) and pocket the dough, minus the rake.  This seems a healthy turn – sure, money is changing hands for product but the directness and immediacy seem to shift the emphasis from ‘selling something’ to ‘supporting the act’.  The exchange is disentangled from the ‘business’.  Which brings me to the strange and exciting topic of value in a world where cost is almost free-floating, attached to content largely by whim.


It has always been the case that ‘success’ in what I have termed the no-audience underground is not measured by traditional material yardsticks.  There is no money, obviously, no fame, no retiring to a life of boat drinks.  I have spoken before about the true currency circulating being goodwill and it is more analogous to lifeblood oxygenating the scene than actual cash changing hands.  Joe Thompson mentions the wider DIY scene being ‘a spider’s web’ which is a poetic image and, I’d add, it is goodwill that keeps those freaky glands pumping fresh silk into the mesh, repairing holes and stringing new loops.  Whilst we do get very excited when something fantastic suddenly appears fully formed (*cough*) it is difficult for hype to take hold as kudos is garnered organically, through word of mouth and the hands-on involvement of scene members.  Thus respect has been (largely) uncoupled from competition and, as such, is both robust and available to everyone.  No-one gives a fuck about your sales figures.

Bandcamp’s flexibility in pricing allows for this attitude to be reflected and retained.  Whilst there are material factors that have to be considered when flogging physical stuff and no-one should begrudge anyone raising dough to cover costs and time, there is no further cost to the artist associated with selling digital copies of their work aside from the slice of pie that Bandcamp/PayPal take (I have concerns about the serious environmental impact of all that humming machinery in climate controlled server farms, of course, but am reluctantly leaving that to one side for today).  This has led to some bewilderment as a bunch of punks attempt to negotiate supply and demand at its most slippery, no more so when discussing the gloriously divisive ‘name your price’ option.  Before we hike into that wilderness, however, we have to examine a few of the other digi-sales strategies I’ve seen on Bandcamp.

The first is simply not to have any.  Take, for example, the wonderful Asta Taunus by Culver on Invisible City Records.  Craig of ICR has an exceptional ear and his roster is rock solid (including – full disclosure – me) but he won’t mind me saying that his ‘model’ is absolutely standard: everything listed on a Bandcamp page, physical editions of 50, name your price if you just want a download.  Lee Stokoe’s Culver fits right into the aesthetic but is resolutely, pathologically offline so what to do about the digital?  Easy – just don’t offer it.  No streaming previews, no download thrown in with purchase of the physical object, no download option at all.  If you want to hear it you buy the tape.  It’s perfectly possible to set up a Bandcamp listing like this and whilst it might aggravate us toga-clad future people with our ‘food pills’ and ‘flying cars’ and ‘smart phones’ there is a bloody-minded purity to it that I respect.

The second option for artists and labels who wish to prioritise physical editions over downloads is to create a regular looking listing but charge a comically enormous sum for the download only option.  For instance, after being transfixed by Yoni Silver’s performance at the Hijinks Ensue all-dayer at Wharf Chambers here in Leeds I rushed to Bandcamp to secure further listening.  Immediately I tripped over the solo album Ape on Hideous Replica, described as ‘strangulated bass clarinet’ – perfect! – but the download was priced at £666.  I get the joke and I guess it’s to encourage people to buy the physical edition but, oddly, a download is still included alongside any purchase.  The sidebar suggests that if a listener wants a download they should contact and pay the artist directly but no contact details for any artists are provided!  It’s on you, mate: off to twitter and google you go for a bit of stalking then send your sheepish email/DM explaining the situation and asking for a link.  Bit embarrassing, innit?  I suppose it could be argued that the artists thus have autonomy to set prices and benefit accordingly from the arrangement but they have chosen to go through a label and not self-release these albums so is it too much to expect the label to handle digital distro (which costs nothing) and some bookkeeping?  I’m not throwing shade here – Hideous Replica do fine work, releasing intriguing music by terrific people – just genuinely perplexed.  Hideous Replica already has a perfectly functional website on which releases can be bought without downloads and snippets can be heard via embedded Soundcloud links.  I understand wanting a presence on Bandcamp – it’s where it’s all happening – but why not just replicate this there?  Culverize the listings – no downloads, physical merch only – and include links to the Soundcloud snippets in the release descriptions.  It is also possible to have releases available to stream but not for sale or download, the only option being to ‘share’ it via social media.  Stick a link to the existing website for purchasers in the description and all bases are covered. Huge prices for downloads don’t make any sense.

So what would be appropriate?  Charging exactly the same amount for the download only option as for the physical object?  I’ve seen this many times and there is a near-Culveresque bloody-mindedness to it that I can almost get behind:

How much is the tape?


…OK, and how much is just the download?


…err, hang on a minute…


…but there is something about this strategy that makes the outside corner of my right eye twitch.  Earlier I mentioned that nobody should grudge an artist or a label recouping costs when flogging physical goods but a flat price seems to ignore this reality. Producing and posting a tape involves time and money at each step, selling a digital copy of the same content (after the Bandcamp listing is created) does not.  As such, it’s hard not to think of yourself as a ‘mark’ if you don’t want the tape, a listener to be milked for max profit in order to subsidise those that do insist on their STUPID CLACKY PLASTIC BOXES.  *Sigh*.  Anyway, the best thing about divorcing price from production costs is that, for the first time so far, a notion of value independent of objects can be inferred.

Bearing that in mind, we move to what seems to be the sensible option but is actually the most philosophically interesting so far: selling downloads for what feels like a fair and reasonable fraction of the full price of the physical object.  The psychologically acceptable sweet spot seems to be around two-thirds, or half once postage is taken into account.  Thus if a tape priced at £6, or £8 including postage, has a download-only option on sale for £4 then we all fold our arms and nod in approval of this obviously fair and reasonable state of affairs.  There are no costs to cover so it is fair and reasonable that an amount accounting for those costs be removed from the price.  Simple, eh?  But there is a magical weirdness gathering in these sums.  If costs relating to production and distribution are removed, and what remains is not a joke (£666) or a denial of reality (8 EURO), then what is it?   I’m tempted to say what remains is an honest attempt to put a value on the content alone.  That £4 is for THE ART.  Thus art, in this case recorded music, is something that can be valued, and on this platform paid for, independent of the costs of production or the existence of an edition on a physical format.  The means of doing so – money – is crude but the principle is established, which is the philosophically interesting turn.


Finally then, having hacked through all this undergrowth, we get to the jungle temple that is ‘name your price’ – the option to pay what you want for a download, which can include helping yourself to it ‘for free’.  The usual, expected exchange is financial, of course, and most seasoned Bandcamp users must have rules-of-thumb about what they can/will throw into the hat (see the account of my routine above).  However, this option is not universally appreciated.  I’ve seen one tweet calling for it to be axed (seriously) and other conversations in which punters have expressed unease that it is ‘on them’ to decide what a release is ‘worth’.  Not only that, it occasionally brings on a ‘quo vadis?’ moment of existential plummeting for some artists too: if a listener can legitimately offer no money in exchange for your work then why are you doing this, what even is it that you are doing?

I have some patience with the first of these concerns. If price is divorced from production then the listener is just as well placed to determine value as the artist or label so they need to think it through (or at least read to the end of this article) and figure out a responsible rationale for their consumption.

I have more sympathy for the second. If an artist or label has got as far as choosing the ‘name your price’ option then they are already likely beyond the whiny narcissism I dismissed earlier. I understand, though, that it can be disheartening to shape a work of art around your soul and have no fucker even tip you pence when taking a copy for themselves.  It is possible, I think, to wholly agree with Joe Thompson on why we do what we do, or with my account of the no-audience underground’s self sufficiency, and still be fed up about it because a) most people in noise are skint and b) the idea that value = money is so beaten into us by society.

This despair is often expressed in what I’ll call the ‘coffee argument’. People think nothing of dropping mad quids on unnecessary luxuries like, for example, fancy takeaway coffees but won’t pony up for music, goes the complaint. This always causes much puzzled head scratching on my part.

Firstly, no, they don’t. Well, some do, I guess, but speaking as a perpetually brassic music obsessive with family responsibilities I measure every purchase.  Secondly, if coffee was freely available from public drinking fountains it would not be unreasonable for people to take it.  Or, to use a more accurate analogy, if a bunch of coffee enthusiasts shared a coffee delivery platform on which they could offer the results of their experiments in roasting and blending to coffee drinkers in return for donations, we might expect the more palatable to take the largest share of the business and those that taste like sump oil and hagfish slime to find a niche audience of skint coffee perverts at best.

Thirdly it occurs to me that most of the art and music that has inspired me I’ve bought in sales, charity shops, second hand or bartered for.  I’ve also borrowed stuff from libraries and friends, soaked up what I’ve heard on the radio and seen in galleries and, of course, in the modern era helped myself to a lot of music via Bandcamp.  A work of art’s value to me seems to be an entirely separate matter to its originally assigned financial value.


Which brings me, at last, the the point where I can name my price.  The first thing to say is that if I have any money spare then you are welcome to it.  Dipping into funds remaining at the end of the month to fuel a hobby that means the world to me or passing on anything in my PayPal account seems as natural as reusing jiffy bags and *ahem* unfranked stamps back in the pre-digital era.  I’m also more than happy to pay for compilations in aid of charity or help friends out who are in a financial bind by purchasing something if I can (*sigh again* one day I’ll fit into that medium sized Penance Stare t-shirt, ONE DAY).

However, in other circumstances I have no qualms at all at naming ‘zero’ as my price.  In doing so I mean no disrespect.  In the absence of available cash I’ll lean on other definitions of value and payment that are native to the DIY/no-audience underground scenes.

The first thing I can offer is barter.  I have dozens of releases available on Bandcamp – as midwich, as see monsd, in collaboration with others via my page and others – and almost all are freely downloadable.  I’d be delighted if you helped yourself.  It’s (almost) taken over from the archaic practice of swapping CDrs and tapes at a show as our way of shaking hands.  The most popular release I have posted, by some distance, is the midwich/earth trumpet collaboration which has been downloaded, at the time of writing, an amazing 139 times. Grateful as I am to the 12 punters who also paid money for it, I bear no grudge against the 127 who didn’t because, well, it’s like being given indulgences that forgive my own downloading-for-nowt of others.

More important than this possibly contentious notion of ‘credit’ is the pleasure to be had in knowing that someone is listening.  It might seem preposterous to say ‘I’ll pay for your download by listening to it’ but in our world, where projects can be profoundly personal and many attract a double digit audience at most, knowing someone is paying attention can be very gratifying and validating.

I use the word ‘attention’ deliberately because the quality of that listening is important too.  In the paragraph about my Bandcamp habits quoted earlier I mention listening on headphones as I go about my business but if, say, I am walking to work then aside from the 5% of my brain I am using to avoid treading in dog shit I am ALL YOURS.  In return for a download I offer full, respectful, contemplative, open-minded attention.

Which of course devours time, the most valuable currency of all.  As part payment for a download I will put down every concern I can let go of and give your music exactly the amount of time you have decided it needs. At least, usually more.  Think about the crap we wade through every waking fucking moment in order to survive and yet still being able to command a section of someone’s day like that.  It’s magical.

It needn’t stop with the time taken to listen attentively though.  To keep the goodwill oxygenating the scene, or the spider’s web in a good state of repair, part of the price of a free download is the tacit agreement to boost it if you dig it, to pay it forward.  Some cultural heavyweights might publish a blog running to three quarters of a million words amassed over a decade, or have recently started a modest but appreciated internet radio show on mixcloud but there is no hierarchy here and, frankly, a positive tweet is all it need take.  That’s how I find the majority of the new music recommendations I follow up on and taking part strengthens a virtuous circle linking both the new and the established.

Paying the minimum, 50p in the UK, is useful too if you can manage it.  A common gripe from artists is that they’d rather listeners just took their release for free instead of paying such a small amount but that is missing the point.  For those listeners with a Bandcamp account, doing this adds the release to their collection thereby making it more convenient to listen to (well, marginally – the Bandcamp app isn’t good), makes it viewable as a purchase to those browsing that collection and adds their avatar to the ‘supported by’ list.  As I recommended earlier, clicking these avatars and snooping around the collections of others is a great way of forging connections and, again, finding stuff new to you.  Yes, yes – you may roll your eyes at the jaunty email notifications Bandcamp sends about the 34p that’s on its way but perhaps instead you could try getting over yourself?  This is cheap, friendly gesture that benefits everyone.  That you get a share of what is basically a service charge is not a reason to moan and, despite it being tiny, once you’ve collected a couple you can do the same favour for someone else.

(Aside: a similar line can be taken on the purchase of whole digital catalogues at discounted prices.  I’d argue the main points of buying one is to get the lot into your collection, with the benefits described above, and to support the artist with a financial boost to morale.  It’s a show of good faith.)


So where are we at? Has this all been a self-serving ruse to justify me being a cheapskate?  Hmm… perhaps I shouldn’t have planted that thought.  No, let’s say: no.  What I hope I have shown instead is that whilst money is, to state the obvious, useful, welcome and necessary if you wish to recoup the costs of producing physical editions, it needn’t be the the only measure of value in the DIY/no-audience underground.  Striking a balance is difficult, as the examples I’ve used establish, but it’s when we get to ‘name your price’ that the air-cushioned sole of theory meets the sticky pub floor of praxis.  Payment – any payment – being optional forces an examination of motives and priorities, both for artists and listeners.

Money can be offered, of course, but we also have the opportunity of reflecting the wider values that hold our scenes together.  Barter reinforces the non-hierarchical nature of our endeavour, attentive listening is profoundly respectful and nothing helps create and maintain bonds better than sharing your time.

I feel sheepish offering this as a conclusion, like I risk coming off as punker-than-thou or naively utopian, but, horrified at the shitstorm of venality that surrounds us in the wider world, it seems important to stress there are non-financial means of payment and of allocating value that are expressions of the same qualities that make our scenes so rewarding and joyous.  That I start each episode of the radiofreemidwich show with ‘Hello comrades!’ and end it with ‘be kind to each other’ is an entirely deliberate summary of my position.

In short: I put a gigantic value on our work, but not one that is reducible to money.


Rob Hayler, August 2019



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  1. Brilliant article…. As the owner of the label which put out the release you mention in yr intro…. The £6 tape and £1000 download, can I just put that in perspective…. the pricing was set to be deliberately off-putting with the view that if the digital version was wanted then the customer was directed to the owner’s BC page… unfortunately BC does not allow a physical product to be sold without a digital version being offered (the link to the artist’s site was clearly visible on the page (. I hope this goes someway to explain what does look like a ridiculous pricing structure

    • Hi Andy, thanks for the kind words and thanks for commenting. Yeah, I meant no shade as your intention was clear, just thought it was a fun example of something that was on-the-surface bonkers that I could then examine more closely later using the Hideous Replica example. With regard to listing physical without digital (download or streaming) I’m certain that is possible because I’ve bought at least a couple of tapes from exactly that type of listing! See, for example, the Culver tape on Invisible City Records that I mention. I’ve never used that option myself and don’t know what check boxes to tick/untick but I’m sure Craig from ICR wouldn’t mind enlightening us if he sees this – or you could drop him a line if you are interested. Will have to have another rummage on Misophonia – that SALTINGS album is one of my favourites of the year! With love, Rob x

      • Cheers Rob and there was no offence taken 🙂 ..I will investigate further but from what I gather bandcamp accounts started after a certain date had that option removed i.e. with older accounts it was possible but I will investigate as it does seem a particularly flawed model. If ever you need promo copies of the tapes or a download code for the show then just drop me a line … Andy

      • Ah, that would explain it – what a drag. Yeah, if that is the case I agree it’s a misstep. Thanks for the offer of promo – no need for physical goods but a download code slid into my DMs always welcome. Love, Rob x

  2. Part of being excluded is the constant inability to pony up for what ‘everybody else’ appears to take for granted. When I was a teenager, 50 years ago, about 4 LPs a year was all i could manage so my listening was largely to the radio (good man John Peel, but also Stuart Henry…) and to the LPs that richer friends seemed to amass like [insert your own image here]. But I could only ever catch on to what THEY were catching on to.

    Now that I can afford stuff, I do pay for what I can – I buy CDs, downloads, I also buy in charity shops, off Discogs etc. which contributes mostly bugger all to the artists concerned. Other stuff comes into my possession (not released in this country but locateable nonetheless on the mighty internet, whatever). Thing is, I still can’t afford to pay full price [if such a thing still exists] for everything I have a mind to hear – but I can generally find a way of keeping my horizons broad and going some way to supporting those that seem to need it.

    Rob has done an excellent job of accounting for how and why one participates as best one can. Thank him for that, because that’s exactly the right approach. It is about how we can support values, not careers.

    • Hi Mark, many thanks for your kind words and thoughtful comment – I recognize the life you describe as will, I imagine, a lot of others reading this piece! With love, Rob x

  3. Hey Rob, great article. And I just uploaded APE to my very neglected bandcamp page. Here it is:
    Hope you enjoy

    • Cheers Yoni – I’m sure I will enjoy! Loved your set at Hijinx Ensue and am very glad you dig the article. Rob xx

  4. Superb article Rob

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