The traditional reasoning for buying music used to be “if you want to hear something you like, whenever you like, you need to buy it”. Well, that reasoning doesn't really exist anymore. You can basically hear whatever you want, whenever you want, for the low cost of nothing. So why buy anything?
This “why buy anything” question is especially true when one talks about digital music. Obviously, if you want something to spin on your record player or pop into your tape deck, you're gonna have to shell out some money for the physical artifact. But since moving over to England and having to leave my record player & collection behind in Canada, I've pretty much only been buying digital music. But I've been buying a fair bit of it. Why do I do this (when the actual listening of that music wouldn't cost me a penny)?
If I were in a pub or coffee shop with the person / people responsible for the album that is filling my headphones with such enjoyable sounds, would I buy them a pint or coffee? If they asked me if I could spot them a couple bucks, would I do that?
And the answer to that question is often “of course”. I don't know about you, but if I'm out drinking with a buddy or having a coffee, it's a very common practice to say “this one is on me”. Now, I do that partly because they've done or will do the same for me, but mostly, what's a couple of bucks between friends?
So with the distance between an artist and fan being closer than they ever have been, what better way to figuratively say “this one is on me” than buying their music? It doesn't matter if the artist is not actually my friend. They've taken the time to share their thoughts and feelings and stories in some songs that help me get through my day, and that's at least on the same level of having one of those rare deep conversations or memorable nights out with one of your IRL friends (and often it takes the buying of a few pints before that stuff ever happens).
When you add in the fact that buying music on a site like Bandcamp sees most of the money going directly to the artist's PayPal account —and you could consider the % Bandcamp takes as the tip you'd leave the friendly barkeep— opening your digital wallet to make an ‘appreciated gesture’ rather than a ‘personal purchase’ feels like a better way to think about it, especially in these ‘Everything Ever Released Can Be Listened To For Free’ times.
So next time you're pondering whether to download for free (or not purchase at all), ask yourself the “would I buy them a pint / coffee if they were here in person?” question. Because when you look past the music you're enjoying and realize that there are people a lot like you behind the digital curtains that have made those tunes (and they're going about their day to days just like you, struggling with the same shit you do), doesn't sharing a metaphorical pint together sound nice?
And artists, consider the same analogy when someone buys your music. If you reverse the scenario, there are people a lot like you in front of the digital curtains buying your music (and they're going about their day to days just like you, struggling with the same shit you do). The fact that they've decided to actually buy your music, when it'd be so easy to not, means something. I get that it's impossible to personally thank people who buy your music on iTunes (or stream your music on Spotify, or buy your record in the shop), as you don't know who those people are… but when someone buys your stuff on Bandcamp, you actually get their email address sent to you (and with fan accounts, you can also see who has bought your music / said nice things about it). Take a minute and say thanks. There are humans on both sides of this fence.
At the moment, I'd say that 95% of my Bandcamp purchases come with only the “thank you for your purchase” email that is automatically generated… but every now and again, the artist themselves actually send a personal email to give a genuine thanks (most recently, Candy Says & Alex Highton). And that kind of stuff matters.
Because it's one thing to metaphorically buy an artist a pint for the trouble of filling your head with a beautifully soundtracked internal dialogue, but there still needs to be a “cheers” involved.
PS - this way of thinking works best when digital music is priced using the ‘name your price’ / not following the iTunes $1 per track model (and Bandcamp's still the best place for fans & artists to meet up for this ‘pint’)