On bandcamp, gumroad, and itch.io

So, recently there’s been a lot of upset in the world of independent creation, because of some very questionable moves taken by Gumroad and Bandcamp, two of the beloved platforms for sharing download-based content.

I’ve already written some of my thoughts about Gumroad, but the recent Bandcamp announcement is still very much in the gnashing-of-teeth phase.

As is the case for both platforms, the general consensus should be that everyone using those platforms should move to itch.io. While itch is a pretty good platform for a lot of things, it’s not a perfect replacement for Gumroad or Bandcamp, and I don’t think that making it a good replacement for those things would be very well-aligned with what itch excels at.

The good

First, let’s talk about what’s good about itch.io.

Probably the biggest thing is that it puts the vast majority of control into the content creators' hands. You can customize your page layout and CSS as much as you want, you can opt in to different forms of community/discussion on your content (including a rating system or the ability to have a fully-fledged forum if you want), and you’re not restricted into a particular format for things. You can even decide what payment cut to give to itch itself!

There’s also pretty good discovery with a search engine which actually works.

Another really nice thing about itch is that it lets you provide different versions of things, even at different price points; for example, you can do the Bandcamp thing and have a low-quality streaming preview embedded into the page and then higher-quality downloads at different prices (e.g. $5 for mp3, $7 for FLAC).

The ability to create a bundle of content that spans multiple creators is also incredible, and it’s lovely how multiple artists can make a compilation or anthology, for mutual benefit or the benefit of a charitable cause.

The ability for folks to start up a jam where people are challenged to create based on a theme over a certain time period definitely appeals to me.

These are all very powerful, wonderful things and it shouldn’t be downplayed at all. They are absolutely advantages over the more purpose-specific storefronts, even.

itch also provides really amazing analytics when it comes to determining how people are finding my stuff, which format(s) are being downloaded, and so on.

But itch has a lot of functionality missing that’s important to various things. Some of it can be covered easily, others not so much.

Missing pieces: music

Bandcamp provides an easy-to-use uploader that makes it very easy for a musician to provide the raw audio and the metadata, and then Bandcamp generates all of the versions with the absolutely best metadata in the industry.

In my experience, indie musicians are generally pretty bad at making id3 tags, or setting up their mp3 encoders correctly, or whatever. And I mean, that’s fair! It’s hard to do. So bandcamp does an amazing job of filling in that gap.

Bandcamp also provides a pretty good web player. The UX on it isn’t that great from the listener’s perspective, but from the musician’s perspective? It’s amazing. You can embed it just about anywhere, you can tell it which track to start on, and it also gathers enormously useful analytics. Here’s a peek behind the scenes at some of what those analytics are:

Bandcamp player analytics dashboard

Those playcount statistics (which are, at the moment, rather disheartening, as an aside) tell me a lot. They track which songs people listen to, how much people listen to them, which songs just get skipped over, and so on. This helps me to know which tracks are and aren’t working as a “featured track” for an album, or whether anyone’s even bothering to listen to a preview at all.

Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to get that level of analytic integration into itch; it’s something itch would have to provide directly, most likely, and I don’t think they’re going to want to pivot into going full-force on being a music store.

Another big thing that’s missing is easy merch/physical sales. itch does have the ability to offer physical rewards as part of a digital purchase, but it’s incredibly clunky and doesn’t cover a lot of what’s needed for music merch sales.

On the plus side, it would be possible for tools to make things easier to do. Suricrasia already has a tool for producing an itch-friendly embedded player, and I can definitely see a world where there’s a one-stop shop sort of tool where you provide your wav files and metadata and then end up with a bunch of itch bundles that can be uploaded using buter. That could even be a nicer setup than what Bandcamp provides.

There’s still a few other gaps in itch, athough they’re mostly cosmetic; for example, itch doesn’t have a way of selling “an album,” rather their closest unit of material is a “soundtrack.” But that’s a terminology thing which itch could address in some other way.

Another thing that would be really nice to see is the itch app directly supporting music playback from someone’s collection, or having a mobile streaming player that’s analogous to Bandcamp’s mobile app. (Why Bandcamp doesn’t have something like this for desktop is also a mystery.)

Oh, and this is probably not that important to most people who would be putting their music on itch in the first place, but Bandcamp provides sales tracking and statistics to the various sales reporting platforms, which can be important for folks with aspirations of mainstream listenership or record labels. Probably not a concern for anyone reading this article, but still worth noting all the same.

Missing pieces: comics/ebooks

All in all, itch is actually really good for comics and ebooks. I actually originally signed up there to sell my comics, and had no intention of putting games on there.

But, the big missing thing, just as with music, is physical sales. Print editions are very difficult to support properly on itch, as are merch items which don’t neatly fit in with a single specific digital comic. For example, if you have a whole series of comics and then want to sell enamel pins or plushies based on characters which appear in multiple comics, itch just doesn’t really have a clean way to handle that. This is something that Gumroad did a great job of.

Concern about itch itself

itch itself is a very small company; it’s basically a profitable passion project run by one person who has hired a few others to help out. Their priorities are in keeping the site running and adding the features that appeal to them. They are not focused on music or on comics, they’re focused on games.

I’m not sure I’d trust itch to ever add in functionality to make the experience better for musicians et al. I doubt that they’d want to. I’m also not sure they even have to, though.

But I also worry about the longevity of the business. If leaf decides to just shut it down because he’s retiring and doesn’t want to deal with a continuation of business plan, then we’re all right back where we started.

The Nirvana fallacy

I don’t want to fall into the Nirvana fallacy here. Obviously you have to pick your battles in terms of what you want to support and what features are important to you. Much of what I said above is just irrelevant to a lot of folks, and itch is totally fine as-is.

But on the flip side of that, a kneejerk reaction to something that’s less-than-perfect about a platform shouldn’t be a reason to completely run away from it. I’m worried about the future of Gumroad and Bandcamp, but that’s not enough for me to just like… immediately destroy all the work I’ve put into establishing myself there (on Bandcamp especially).

Another common thing I see is people dismissing Ko-Fi out of hand because they don’t allow adult content (because they’re limited by their payment processors). For a lot of people this is a very valid concern! But that doesn’t mean that folks who don’t have that concern shouldn’t use Ko-Fi if it suits them.

Decoupling platforms

Really, what it all boils down to is that we shouldn’t ever be in a situation where the whims of one single platform completely destroys our lives. We should be able to pick and choose which platforms we sell stuff on, and not have to go through an enormously difficult workflow in doing that.

What would be great is only needing to prepare content for distribution once and then being able to easily upload it to a bunch of sites. Even our own!

To that end, I think my next priority for music distribution will be to build a tool that takes a directory of music files and transforms them into a bunch of renditions (web player, mp3, ogg, flag, etc.) with good metadata, in a way which makes it easy to upload them to itch and possibly other digital distribution sites. It would also be helpful for preparing a submission package for Resonate, a cooperative stream-to-own service which has gotten more attention thanks to the Bandcamp buyout (and which has its own fussy submission process to deal with which could absolutely be automated better, but it also has a lot going for it as far as their business model).

And the great thing about this setup is that if my tools aren’t well-suited for someone? Maybe some other tool will be better for them.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying overall is: itch.io is not a perfect replacement for Gumroad or Bandcamp, and maybe it doesn’t need to be. Let’s get to a world where we don’t have to rely on a single marketplace to begin with.


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