Special

Not All Imprints Make CDs – Enter the Netlabel

March 18, 2013

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For a music label existing primarily online, Tokyo’s Maltine Records sure has an impressive resume.

The imprint has 116 releases to date, puts on raucous live events featuring a wide array of sounds and has even collaborated with J-pop idols TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE for a series of remixes. Yet those bullet points come with Internet-friendly twist – everything Maltine releases can be downloaded for free from their site, while clubbers at their parties tend to bring laptops and aren’t afraid to livestream themselves dancing along to the music.

Maltine find itself at the forefront of Japan’s netlabel scene, which over the last few years has blossomed from a tiny online community to one with more than a hundred labels strong. Netlabels operate in ways drastically different than mainstream labels – whereas the big musical players still put heavy emphasis on physical sales, netlabels focus squarely on online distribution, with the majority of them just uploading .ZIP files for anyone to download free of charge. Despite this course of action, netlabels are starting to have more of an impact on Japan’s music scene.

Netlabels began gaining in popularity outside of Japan around the years 1999 and 2000, Ryosuke Hidaka, a Ph.D candidate at the Tokyo University of the Arts who has written a thesis on Japanese netlabels, says. The first Japanese netlabel was Minus N, which materialized online in 2003. That site didn’t restrict itself to just releasing Japanese artists, as Hidaka says Minus N posted music from artists worldwide, which made it more popular in the Western world than in Japan. Still, Minus N established a few important guiding principals – everything online, and everything was free.

Tomohiro Konuta (who goes by “Tomad”) and Syem (who would rather not say his real name) embraced these ideas when they started Maltine Records in 2005, as high-students. The pair began by releasing a wide array of music from people they had met over online bulletin boards. Maltine slowly gained an audience via a steady stream of releases courtesy of recurring contributors and one-off projects. The majority of music Maltine uploads is based off electronic dance, touching on genres such as drum ‘n’ bass to house to synth-pop. They do explore different sonic terrain, though, as evidenced by a recent rap release by Pr0pose and even ambient music. Many of Maltine’s albums also feature samples from anime or video games dropped into the mix.

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Maltine was one of the first netlabels and has turned into one of the biggest players online, but Hidaka says it isn’t the only big-name imprint in town. He says the other “head” of the Japanese netlabel scene is Bunkai-Kei Records, which is older than Maltine but has been kicking around for a few years. Like Maltine, Bunkai-Kei tends to release electronic music of all types, albeit the artists on the latter label aren’t as into cartoon noises. Though they have their moments – Vocaloid-producer kz contributed a free album, featuring the voice of Hatsune Miku.

Maltine and Bunkai-Kei are just two of the more visible netlabels. Hikada says that five years ago, only about 20 such labels existed in Japan. Today, he estimates that around 150 netlabels exist in Japan, with more popping up all the time. Since Maltine and Bunkai-Kei’s emergence, new netlabels such as Ceramic Records, Altema Records, Vol. 4 Records and Bump Foot have also gotten in the game, releasing a wide range of electronic music for free through their websites. So many online labels have sprung up and achieved success that last December an all-netlabel party was held at Tokyo’s club Womb, featuring aforementioned labels Maltine and Bunkai-Kei along with other electronic imprints such as No Disco and On Sunday Recordings.

The rise of social-networking sites has definitely helped propel this boom, as Hidaka says netlabels almost exclusively use Facebook and, especially, Twitter to promote new works and interact with fans. It has gotten to the point where the lines between reality and social networking blur at live events. Few netlabels can afford to put on a club night, but the ones that do are considered to be true success. Maltine has done just that, but their events don’t look like most nights out. Hikada says party goers spend a lot of time tweeting at these nights, using hashtags to keep up with everyone else there and using the social-media site to toast one another. At one Maltine party in 2012, a large swath of attendees brought laptops with them, and many live-streamed themselves dancing on the floor…to others in the same room.

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Most netlabels make music one could conceivably USTREAM from a dancefloor, but more and more new outfits are trying out new sounds. Tokyo’s Canata Records has been around since 2011, and releases music from bedroom-based acts from all around the globe. Releases range from shoegaze-tinged indie-pop to Vocaloid rock to founder Shortcake Collage Tape’s nostalgic, sample-heavy creations. Last year, the netlabel Ano(t)raks debuted, focusing solely on bands heavily influenced by seminal twee-pop label Sarah Records. They’ve released several EPs and two excellent compilation albums, the latest of which strikes a great balance between guitar-powered pop and synth-heavy detours.

Netlabels now are starting to crossover into the mainstream. More and more artists who have dabbled in the netlabel scene are starting to get more attention, highlighted by Maltine’s recent team-up with idol group TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE. A handful of up-and-coming Maltine contributors – highlighted by music makers tofubeats, Avec Avec and okadada – remixed tracks from the J-pop outfit.

It’s the next logical step for one of Japan’s most intriguing online cultures.