When Epic Games acquired Bandcamp in March 2022, fans of the Oakland, CA music streaming and distribution platform reacted with alarm. Since its founding in 2007, Bandcamp has become an artist-friendly alternative to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music that caters to independent artists and labels by giving them control over the way their music and merchandise is consumed (and, compared to its competitors, sharing a heftier chunk of the profits). Epic Games, on the other hand, is one of the world’s largest video game and software development companies; Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent owns a 40% stake in their operation. A year in, Bandcamp is still Bandcamp, but its workers say that change is needed. That’s why they’re joining the ongoing wave of creative workers in tech, media, nonprofits, and other white collar industries, and in a first for a music streaming platform, have formed a union called Bandcamp United.
“Many of us work at Bandcamp because we agree with the values the company upholds for artists: fair pay, transparent policies, and using the company’s social power to uplift marginalized communities,” says Cami Ramirez-Arau, who has worked as a Support Specialist at Bandcamp for two years. “We have organized a union to ensure that Bandcamp treats their workers with these same values.” The proposed bargaining unit will include 62 people — the entirety of non-managerial, non-supervisory workers at Bandcamp — and the organizing committee represents workers across all departments.
The new union’s mission statement underlines the workers’ commitment to upholding Bandcamp’s stated values while emphasizing that the company needs to do the same. “Bandcamp United is powered by us: designers, journalists, support staff, engineers, and more, all dedicated to the mission of Bandcamp,” the mission statement reads in part. “Many of us are ourselves independent artists, label owners, and promoters, and all of us are fans who are involved in our own local music communities. We began working here as an extension of our own love for independent music, and believe that a site such as Bandcamp that purports to offer an ethical and fair alternative to the streaming economy should reflect its mission internally.”
The organizing efforts have been quietly underway since last summer. The organizing committee ultimately voted to follow their fellow tech workers at Kickstarter United’s lead and join Tech Workers Union Local 1010 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). OPEIU currently represents about 88,000 white-collar workers in the U.S. and Canada, and by organizing Kickstarter in 2020, became the first union to gain a foothold in the tech industry. “We talked to a few different reps at different unions and liked OPEIU because they had a specific local for tech organizing, and the unions they’ve organized seem similar to Bandcamp both in terms of their missions and their relative scale,” says Eli Rider, a data analyst and founder of the Queer at Bandcamp affinity group. “They also seemed mindful of preventing burnout in their organizers, which was important – we’re people outside of this, too.” (A rep for the company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
Bandcamp United has also been partly inspired by prior efforts from workers at the intersection of tech and culture like Kickstarter United, the Secretly Group Union, and Google contractors at HCL America. “It’s an exciting moment for organizing across all industries — I’m a long-time IWW member and believe in solidarity across the entire working class,” Bandcamp software engineer Todd Derr says. ”But, it is fantastic that workers in those industries are also unionizing and gaining some control over their working conditions; you spend too much of your time and energy there to leave that up to anyone else!”
By organizing a union, workers are hoping to address several core issues that will sound familiar to others who have fought to win a seat at the table. One of their primary goals is to create a more equitable and economically stable status quo. “My top priority is the wage disparity across our departments,” says Ramirez-Arau. “As a member of the Support Team, the lowest paid team, I feel financial uncertainty and inequity grow every year. I am committed to bargaining for guaranteed pay increases that match the rising cost of living so that no matter what team we’re on, we are secure in our futures.”
In addition, workers hope to address what they view as an overall lack of transparency from management, especially in the wake of the Epic Games takeover. “When we were acquired by Epic, new employment contracts were given to us and we were given a limited amount of time to sign them with no room for negotiation,” adds Jared Andrews, a mobile app developer. “This was not fair and it was not transparent. Bandcamp as a marketplace is known for valuing fairness and transparency with regard to how the artists who use our website are compensated. These same values should be reflected in the workplace where Bandcamp is built.”
For now, the workers are enjoying the newfound sense of solidarity they’ve built amongst themselves, and are hoping that Bandcamp will voluntarily recognize the union. (Reps for Bandcamp did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
“I like working here, and I would love to continue working here,” Rider says. “The way that the tech industry works is that you job-hop every one to two years for a title and pay shift. It feels like in games and music, everyone is just expected to burn out. I think that workers deserve fair representation and a proper seat at the table, as equals, in bargaining for better working conditions. It’s not enough to get small wins alone; I want to see everyone thrive.”