Last weekend, Bandcamp’s death knells started ringing out on Twitter. “Amazon has started putting things up on bandcamp now,” wrote Jeff Treppel, a contributor to Decibel and Noisey. “It’s over.” Sure enough, amazon.bandcamp.com linked to a Bandcamp storefront claiming to be under Amazon’s domain; it used the megastore’s logos and linked back to its homepage. Amazon seemed to be dipping into a space typically used by independent bands and microlabels, infiltrating Bandcamp’s music-selling infrastructure with a few thousand volts of corporate power.
The albums for sale on the storefront came from major labels, and a click of the “play” button proved that the uploads were legitimate — you could stream Disturbed’s new LP or the Fellowship of the Rings soundtrack for free. But those who saw Treppel’s original tweet quickly weighed in with skepticism. Why would Amazon want to use Bandcamp when it was already pushing a robust music delivery system of its own? What could it possibly gain from slipping into its younger, indie counterpart? Why were most of the albums for sale high-profile metal releases? Why were all the album descriptions sloppily written, some in German or Russian?
The storefront sold .mp3s, but its “merch” tab also offered vinyl packages, CDs, and even stickers. The Amazon Bandcamp page was a thorough operation. If it was a scam, it was a detailed one; if it was real, it was a mess. Whatever it was, people were using it — the “supported by” info on certain album pages pointed to a few users who had purchased LPs. Some had even pre-ordered the forthcoming Megadeth album, which doesn’t release until January. The storefront functioned, but the big question remained: Why would Amazon move in on one of its most minor competitors?
It could have been a branding exercise. Amazon could take up space on Bandcamp for the same reason Starbucks takes up space on Manhattan’s most expensive blocks where it can’t possibly make money: because the ubiquity of the brand is more valuable than the profits of any individual store. The existence of amazon.bandcamp.com could have been an attempt at luring people over from the more social, artist-oriented environment of Bandcamp to the all-encompassing library of Amazon — if you like what you see here, wait until you sign up for Prime.
The more I looked into it, the more amazon.bandcamp.com seemed like a fake. Neither Amazon nor Bandcamp had acknowledged a partnership, and Amazon has never been one for guerilla advertising. Neither company responded when I reached out for clarification. And then Noisey heard back from the people behind the storefront: “We produce vinyl discs, we Russian fan site, and our prices are cheaper.”
The scam was almost as baffling as the idea that amazon.bandcamp.com was a legitimate instance of brand synergy. The storefront had been up for days, illegally selling and streaming highly protected major label albums that would be ripped from YouTube or Soundcloud in a flash. Bandcamp finally responded to the storefront’s existence on Monday, and it vanished from the web without comment.
That it took days for Bandcamp to respond to a fairly transparent bootleg operation illustrates the continued openness of their infrastructure. Unlike Soundcloud, which came under fire earlier this year for wiping out fair use remixes and mixtapes without warning, Bandcamp appears to rely on human judgment when it comes to taking down copyright-infringing material. There’s no algorithmic filter, no hard database of copyrighted music against which it compares user uploads, no bots trawling the network for infringements. That trust is great for artists, who don’t have to worry about a robot deleting their own music like they do with Soundcloud. But it leaves a wide loophole open for abuse.
If Bandcamp’s only recourse for illegitimate uploads is waiting for user-provided feedback, plenty of bootleg operations could simmer under the radar. Artists who don’t use Bandcamp could see their music uploaded and sold by an anonymous third party. As of now, there’s no easy way to report abuse using Bandcamp’s existing infrastructure; unlike Facebook or Twitter, which let you report inappropriate content, you can’t flag a song for abuse. Bandcamp outlines a process for reporting copyright infringement in accordance with the DMCA, but it’s laborious compared to Soundcloud’s setup, which lets you report a track using a built-in form.
The looseness of the system is good for artists, but it’s got to be a leaky situation for Bandcamp. Like a digital hydra, the Russian bootleggers who opened amazon.bandcamp.com have apparently popped back up with discogs.bandcamp.com, selling a few of the same albums they had on display the first time around. A cheap, fake version of Megadeth’s Dystopia is available for pre-order as a “web exclusive” — though I doubt it’ll be around long enough to ship out in January.
Counterfeit media is nothing new, but it’s rare to see a popular music vendor so easily hijacked by bootleggers. Despite its growth over the past few years, Bandcamp still trusts its users not to abuse its system. Its response time to infractions is slow, and its built-in protections against scams appear minimal. At least it’s still better than Soundcloud.