In 2012, anybody who starts a band or begins recording their own music at home is probably not quitting their day job and awaiting huge financial returns. If they're good at what they do and the Web helps them build a huge audience, then great, but that's unlikely to be their chief motivator. Of all the ways for artists to make money early in the game, selling music is generally not seen as a cash cow. For many, making their music available for free and getting it on streaming services is a better way to get exposure and monetization is a strategy best saved for later.
The state of online music sales for independent artists may not be as abysmal at it feels though, according to some data recently shared by Bandcamp. The artist promotion and e-commerce site found that some of their paid music downloads were being initiated by users who had searched explicitly for pirated content.
Search terms that combined artist names with words like "torrent" and "rapidshare" routinely showed up in the data, but in many cases those searches resulted in purchases of music. In at least one case, a paying customer had clicked on a link on The Pirate Bay imploring users to support the artist.
Bandcamp didn't offer hard, aggregate data about how often this is happening, so it's largely anecdotal evidence. Still, it appears to bolster the argument that if digital content is made easily available, many of those who want it most will pay for it. It's a notion recently tested by comedian Louis C.K., and so far the results look very positive for artists and content creators.
C.K., just like independent artists on Bandcamp, did not thwart piracy all together. That's not the point. Illegal downloads still take place all day long, and probably always will as long as the Internet is intact. But what's emerging lately are signs that many will in fact pay for content online, if it's easy and convenient to do so. An increase in that tendency, combined with new and innovative ways of monetizing one's work, may well represent the future of some creative industries, or could at least infuse them with a host of new self-sustained talent.
Bandcamp is a relatively new, if quickly emerging, force in the music industry, and it's one that's geared toward independent musicians. So you may want to take its story with a grain of salt. It's entirely possible that people are no less inclined to illegally download blockbuster albums from major label acts. It may just be harder for some to feel guilty about it.
Even so, the digital future of music is still very much emerging and these early signs of economic viability should serve as some encouragement for those looking to be a part of it.