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When NewsCorp dumped MySpace for nearly one-quarter of its purchase price, it marked the dawn of a new era in internet music hosting. Over the past few years, artists have grown increasingly frustrated with the clunky layouts, unappealing design, and the growing irrelevancy of the once-dominant MySpace. The new start-ups have given greater focus on meeting artists' needs rather than delivering a one-size-fits-all music-hosting platform. ReverbNation, Facebook, and the recent expansion of Spotify are just a few varied examples, but two of the current heavy-hitters who have found their niche are Bandcamp and SoundCloud. These sites have built their approach around the needs of individual bands and listeners, offering higher bitrate downloads, full-song streaming, and ease of embedding throughout the web. Additionally, the artists themselves make sales instead of the parent corporation.
For a scene such as the Twin Cities', where the majority of artists are independent, having resources aimed at broadening their audience at a low cost is essential. Bandcamp has been a remarkable resource for locals, eliminating almost all of the pitfalls of MySpace: the slow load times, the unfriendly interface, the spam. A look through the site's Minnesota charts will show artists such as Jeremy Messersmith, Haley Bonar, and much of the Doomtree crew near the top. As Messersmith explains, "Every time I log onto MySpace it feels like I wandered into an abandoned ghost town, complete with digital tumbleweeds." The site was bogged down by its design. In contrast, Totally Gross National Product's Drew Christopherson explains, "Bandcamp is a very focused experience. The user is not overwhelmed by other things on the webpage. It's just them and the music."
Beyond the interface, Bandcamp also offers a retail outlet. Artists can upload music immediately, whereas MySpace could take hours to work properly for a new stream, and retail outlets like iTunes can take weeks to post a new release. Artists can set their price, including free. Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresdon Dolls, made headlines when she self-released Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele via her Bandcamp page, earning more in a single day of name-your-price sales than she had made from the total sales of her previous major-label release. A further testament to the site's growing relevancy comes from indie darling Sufjan Stevens, who broke the Billboard 200 with his latest Bandcamp-only release. The site charges a minimal fee, but the direction and marketing of the music is completely in the artists' hands. The site strives not only to help a casual listener by streaming an entire song instead of a 30-second clip, but it even offers flac downloads, album artwork, lyric files, and old-fashioned physical purchases and digital download codes for vinyl items. "Your site is powered by Bandcamp," founder Ethan Diamond said in a 2010 interview with AbsolutePunk, "but it's about you, not us." While it offers numerous tools, most artists stretch their marketing across various means, cherry picking the features they prefer.
SoundCloud takes a different approach. The Swedish-owned, Berlin-based company considers itself a "Flickr for music." A community of users can share their work and offer comments, both privately and publicly. It was born from musicians who wanted to share large files and found their options limited. Rather than trying to re-invent the music distribution ring, they developed a system that fosters communication and sharing. One of the most-utilized features of SoundCloud is the ease of embedding across multiple web applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Mobile Roadie. The average music fan may not actively visit soundcloud.com, but they have undoubtedly streamed hosted material on a blog or social networking site.
Ultimately, the new startups have focused on serving artists. Agitprop folkster Billy Bragg once sued MySpace over ambiguous language in its disclaimer. In contrast, Bandcamp announced its fee structures months before enacting them, and site founder Diamond regularly blogs in casual, personable terms. Likewise, SoundCloud was created by musicians.
With the traditional marketing paradigms becoming fragmented and uber-specialized, music hosting on the internet has followed suit, offering ample tools. Different artists have different preferences: Messersmith notes the name-your-price sales and simplicity of use while, from a label perspective, both Christopherson and Doomtree's Lazerbeak note the back-end tasks it assists, such as lyrics, artwork, and file formats. A key development in the platform is that all of these traits serve the artists' needs instead of offering a bulletin board and "friend" count for fans to chime in. While SoundCloud and Bandcamp are business-first enterprises, the musician-friendly attitudes have fostered greater artist control. Bandcamp's business development coordinator Jen Elias explains, "We want to support artists as they grow and not be another drain on their resources." Simply put, "we make money when artists make money."