21st Century Underground: Why Bandcamp is the New Tape Trading

Part of the allure of underground music is working to find it. Popular music is very easy to come by. It’s on the radio, it’s on TV, it’s played over the PA at malls, it’s used for commercials, it’s pinned at the top of Spotify and other streaming services, it is literally everywhere. And I mean, of course it is. You have huge companies like Sony and Warner dumping millions of dollars each year into their top acts. Money makes the pop world go round and round.

But underground music doesn’t have this sort of overhead. Even metal’s top acts do not receive nearly as much advertising money as pop acts. Unless you are Metallica, you are never going to compete with Rihanna or Taylor Swift.

But we’re heavy metal. And I know some will complain and disagree, but we know that metal is not going to be pasted all over the place like big mainstream acts. We fucking know that a band with a name like Necrosadistic Goat Torture is going to be played on the radio. You’re never going to see Goatwhore share the stage with Kanye West. Heavy metal is fucking silly AND YOU ALL KNOW IT.

Back in the day (even before my time) we had tape trading. Fans of underground metal would trade bootleg copies back and forth with each other in an attempt to keep up with all the great music flying under everyone’s radar. Tape trading was the underground. In the advent of the internet age, tape trading (mostly) faded away as services like Kazaa and Napster allowed heavy metal fans to download MP3s of bands from all over the world. And regardless if you can see the connection between tape trading and MP3s, MP3s were here to stay for a long time.

As the age of the internet continued on, the service became faster, more streamlined, and crept deep into all facets of our lives. We went from taking hours to download a single low-fi MP3 to being able to torrent a 5gb movie in minutes. Everything was at our fingertips. This greatly changed how we consumed music. It became very easy and very fast to download huge and sprawling back catalogues of our favourite bands – even the incredibly underground bands. The internet made underground music very accessible.

Bandcamp was founded in 2008. The online music service is headquartered in California and was created by Ethan Diamond, Shawn Grunberger, Joe Holt, and Neal Tucker. The service allows small labels and even unsigned individual artists to upload their own music and artwork and sell it for whatever price they want to. Small bands now had the ability to disseminate their art online in a controlled fashion. That long hard wait to “be discovered” by a huge label was over – the little guy could get his music out there himself. And while the presence of MP3 pirating is still here and still very real, we finally have a proper follow up to tape trading.

Bandcamp has become such an integral part of the underground that I am actually shocked when I find a band that doesn’t have one. Having direct control over your releases is an amazing feeling. It’s very easy to share Bandcamp links and very easy to update album information yourself. And unlike tape trading and MP3 torrenting, you are 100% in control of what your music sounds like. There is no worn out fourth generation re-re-rerecorded bootleg cassettes with terrible hiss and distortion. There is no worry that you are about to download half of a mislabelled MP3 from someone in Idaho. These are the tracks the artist themselves has uploaded.

There is a lot of nostalgia for the tape trading days. It was the beginning of a great time in underground metal. But that time is now gone. I won’t argue for or against if this is a good thing, but we don’t have a time machine – those days have ended. And the days of poorly ripped MP3s are slowly coming to an end as well. This is an age that won’t be missed by many, but you do still have online communities aggregating and hosting MP3 collections on their own sites. I really do believe Bandcamp is the next generation for us.

Go support your favourite underground bands by grabbing a few albums and some merch off of Bandcamp.

Richard Weeks is the founder of Blackened Death Records. Check out their Bandcamp here.

Words: Richard Weeks

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