When Epic Games acquired Bandcamp in March 2022, fans of the music streaming and distribution platform in Oakland, California reacted with alarm. Since its inception in 2007, Bandcamp has evolved into an artist-friendly alternative to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, appealing to independent artists and labels by giving them control over the way their music and merchandise is consumed (and im compared to its competitors) become a more hefty portion of profits). Epic Games, on the other hand, is one of the world’s largest video game and software development companies. Chinese technology group Tencent owns a 40% stake in their operation. A year later, Bandcamp is still Bandcamp, but its employees say changes are needed. That’s why they’re joining the ongoing wave of creative workers in tech, media, nonprofits and other industries and have become the first music streaming platform to form a union called Bandcamp United.
“Many of us work at Bandcamp because we align with the values the company holds for artists: fair pay, transparent policies, and using the company’s social power to empower marginalized communities,” said Cami Ramirez-Arau, who works as a Support Specialist has worked at Bandcamp for two years. “We organized a union to make sure Bandcamp treats its workers with the same values.” The proposed bargaining unit will include 62 people — the aggregate of non-senior, non-senior workers at Bandcamp in the US — and the organizing committee will represent workers from all of them departments.
The new union’s mission statement underscores workers’ commitment to uphold Bandcamp’s stated values, while emphasizing that the company must do the same. “Bandcamp United is powered by us: designers, journalists, support staff, engineers and more, all dedicated to Bandcamp’s mission,” the mission statement reads in part. “Many of us are independent artists, label owners and promoters ourselves, and we are all fans involved in our own local music communities. We started working here as an expression of our own love for independent music and believe that a site like Bandcamp that purports to offer an ethical and fair alternative to the streaming economy should reflect their mission internally.”
The organizing effort has been quietly underway since last summer. The organizing committee eventually voted to follow their tech peers at Kickstarter United and join the Tech Workers Union Local 1010 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). OPEIU currently represents approximately 88,000 employees in the US and Canada and became the first union to gain a foothold in the tech industry through the organization of Kickstarter in 2020. “We spoke to a few different reps from different unions and liked OPEIU because they had a dedicated place for organizing tech companies and the unions they organize seem to be similar to Bandcamp both in terms of their responsibilities and relative size” says Eli Rider, data analyst and founder of affinity group Queer at Bandcamp. “They also seemed keen to prevent burnout in their organizers, which was important — we’re people outside of that too.” (A company representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Bandcamp United was also inspired in part by previous efforts by collaborators at the intersection of technology and culture such as Kickstarter United, Secretly Group Union and Google contractors at HCL America. “It’s an exciting moment for organizing across all industries — I’m a longtime IWW member and I believe in solidarity throughout the working class,” said Todd Derr, software engineer at Bandcamp. “But it’s fantastic that workers in these industries are also organizing and gaining some control over their working conditions; You spend too much time and energy there to leave it to anyone else!”
By organizing a union, workers hope to address several key issues that will be familiar to those who have fought for a seat at the negotiating table. One of their main goals is to create a more equitable and economically stable status quo. “My number one priority is the pay gap between our departments,” says Ramirez-Arau. “As a member of the support team, the lowest paid team, I sense that financial insecurity and injustice are increasing every year. I’m committed to negotiating guaranteed pay rises that match the rising cost of living so that regardless of our team, we are secure in our future.”
Additionally, workers are hoping to address the general lack of management transparency, especially after the Epic Games acquisition. “When we were acquired by Epic, we got new employment contracts and we had a limited time to sign them with no room for negotiation,” adds Jared Andrews, a mobile app developer. “It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t transparent. As a marketplace, Bandcamp is known for valuing fairness and transparency when it comes to how artists are compensated using our site. The same values should be reflected in the workplace where Bandcamp is being built.”
For now, workers are enjoying the newfound sense of solidarity they have built among themselves and hope Bandcamp will offer fair and timely elections. (Bandcamp officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“I like working here and would love to continue working here,” says Rider. “The way the tech industry works is that you change a title and a pay grade every year or two. It feels like games and music expect everyone to burn out. I think workers deserve fair representation and a decent seat at the negotiating table when it comes to better working conditions. It’s not enough to just make small wins; I want everyone to flourish.”