The History of Japanese Netlabels
This is an edited and translated excerpt from “The History of Japanese Netlabels,” included in MaltineBook: Maltine Records 2005–2015 10th Anniversary Issue (Switch Publishing Co., Ltd.), published in August 2015.
This article is intended to provide a broad and surface-level introduction to the historical and geographical contexts surrounding Maltine Records, which was founded in Tokyo in 2005. Music labels like Maltine Records that depend heavily on the internet have come to be called “netlabels.” The basic premise of a netlabel is a music label that operates wholly online, distributing its music free of charge as MP3s or other music files. However, due to the highly-fluid nature of the online platforms they base their culture around, the systems and appearances of netlabels are constantly in flux. This makes it quite difficult to explain clearly what a netlabel actually is. We may as well dispense with that impossible task and flip our perspective, instead endeavoring to examine the diverse online subcultures linked to netlabels, with Maltine Records as our central focus point. This is what I hope to achieve with this article. It means, though, that I will be casting a far wider net than may be imagined. Temporally, I will look back toward the dawn of internet culture in the 1990s, and in terms of place, I will divide attention between Japan’s netlabels and those originating in English-speaking countries. The reason for this approach is to show how netlabels emerged as a new form of culture, developing over time throughout different spaces.
For the purposes of this article, as I describe the disparate netlabel movements that developed according to the specific internet cultures of English-speaking countries as well as of Japan, I will refer to them as “English-language netlabels” and “Japanese netlabels” respectively.
The History of English-language Netlabels
English-language Netlabels and the MOD Scene
When exactly did the word “netlabel” come into use? Many English-language researchers have written on this matter from a historical perspective. Most have concluded that the word has its roots in the computer subculture known as the “demoscene.” The demoscene grew out of programming subcultures that thrived in northern Europe and North America beginning in the 1980s. Young self-styled hackers focused their efforts on producing and sharing programs they called “demos,” which played music and displayed images in real time. These demo creators inserted music into their programs using the MOD music file format. Setting aside the technical details of the MOD file format, it was well suited for creating sampling-based music with a very small file size that could be distributed over the narrow bandwidth connections of the time. Demoscene creators, or demosceners, soon began banding together as music groups that worked to produce and share their music, and these activities grew into a new scene partially independent of the demoscene. This scene, which could be considered a music distribution platform, was known as the “MOD scene.”
You cannot tell much of the story behind MOD files and demos without mentioning The Hornet Archive. It was a server established in September 1992, collecting the diverse data being created by the demoscene. Until it closed in September 1998, The Hornet Archive reigned as the largest site for sharing MOD files. The next entity to take up this undertaking was the website Scene.org. It started in 1996 as a server established by the music group Five Musicians for hosting their own MOD files. In the following year, they began archiving the overall work of the demoscene, and the site also took in the massive collection of data from The Hornet Archive when it shut down. It should be noted here that the sites supporting the distribution of MOD files were called “archives.” Simply put, when combined with the websites and FTP servers that served as indexes for these archives, these systems formed repositories of publicly available files. Labels, which release music under a certain brand, embody a very different concept.
The Style of English-language Netlabels as Seen in Monotonik
Along with the growth of these large-scale archives forming the foundation of the MOD scene, websites that consciously curated released files also began to appear. These sites could be considered the forefathers of English-language netlabels. One such example is Kosmic Free Music Foundation. A music group active in the demoscene, they began operating their own website in 1994 for releasing self-produced MOD files. Tokyo Dawn Records, which launched in 1997, is similarly well known in this respect. Another such MOD release website which worthy of mention in this context is Monotonik, which launched in May 1996. This site contributed greatly to the spread of the concept of netlabels in the English-speaking world.
Monotonik continued releasing music as it added several sub-labels to its roster up until it ceased operations in 2009. At first, it only released MOD files, but starting in 1999, it shifted toward releasing music files in the MP3 format. While no hard timeline exists, this change in distribution format happened gradually between January and May of 1999. In any case, the last MOD release took place in May of 1999. From there onwards, all of Monotonik’s releases were distributed as MP3 files. To make a finer point, I see this shift as happening around the same time that English-language netlabels began to emerge. In other words, the netlabel movement distanced itself from the MOD scene (within the larger demoscene) in terms of media technology when it adopted this new music file distribution format. As MP3s became the format of choice for releases, a style of packaging emerged with multiple tracks distributed as an EP, complete with album cover art and liner notes. Other sites soon followed Monotonik’s lead in adopting these changes. 
 Vince Fugère, president of Camomille, describes this transition in an interview (“Don’t Take Drugs, Take Camomille!”) in the online MP3 scene online magazine phlow. In it, he explains how the term “netlabel” started to be used among English speakers around the same time as MP3 distribution took off.
The Category of Netlabels is Created for the Internet Archive
An even greater turning point was when Monotonik started using server space on the Internet Archive, the world’s largest web archive which was established in 1996. From August 2003, the sub-category “Monotonik” was created within the “Audio” category of the Internet Archive, and Monotonik began releasing MP3s onto the archive’s servers. In the same year, sites of other labels distributing MP3s such as Kahvi Collective and 8bitpeoples had their own sub-categories registered under the “Audio” category of the archive. These labels were registered as sub-categories in increasing numbers until October 2003, when a new sub-category “Netlabels” was created, consolidating these separate labels. From that time, the word “netlabel” has come to describe the concept of websites that distribute MP3s for free over the internet.
Another important aspect of netlabels joining the Internet Archive was that they also adopted the Creative Commons License as part of their model. From its early stages, the Internet Archive had applied the Creative Commons License to its archives, and as such this license was also used for the “Netlabels” sub-category. This meant that MP3 sites registering with the Internet Archive tended to share Creative Commons licensing as one of their features. At this point, the concept of netlabels solidified within the English-speaking world. In other words, it came to be regarded that “netlabels can be defined as platforms for online distribution and promotion of music released under Creative Commons or similar licenses”. 
 This is how netlabels were defined by the Polish researcher Patryk Galuszka, who has published several papers on the phenomenon. These papers are presented in “Netlabels and democratization of the recording industry,” which was published in the online journal First Monday. It includes material applicable for in-depth research of netlabels.
Japan’s Connection to Netlabels
Here we can finally broach the topic of Japan’s online culture as it relates to netlabels. There are already many connections we can draw to the concepts established among English-language netlabels. The development of Japan’s unique online culture in the 1990s was influenced largely by the vagaries of the country’s language. By the end of the 1990s, the MOD scene had reached Japan and related activities were underway. However, there was no comparable large event to drive further growth of the movement in Japan. We would have to wait until 2005 to see how the English-language netlabels that had emerged from the MOD scene would lead to developments in Japan.
In 2005, the Japanese netlabels －N and Bump Foot launched websites in, respectively, March and May, and at the same time they registered on the “Netlabels” category of the Internet Archive to use its servers. Both websites were written in English as these Japanese netlabels wanted to communicate with the English-language netlabel fans that visited the Internet Archive. It was clear that the goal of the first Japanese netlabels was to connect with the English-language netlabel scene, to represent musicians not only in Japan but also worldwide. These developments mark the beginning of the actual history of Japanese netlabels. The design of their websites show how they referenced formats popular with English-language netlabels, and their focus on communication with English speakers demonstrates how the history of Japanese netlabels originated in these connections to English-language netlabels.
Maltine Records and the Japanese Netlabel Era
The same year also saw the launch of Maltine Records. However, their history as related to English-language netlabels differs from the other Japanese netlabels introduced so far. Compared to－N and Bump Foot, for example, whose connections to English-language netlabels were clearly conveyed, Maltine Records developed as a netlabel operating in Japanese for users in Japan, with hardly any relationship with the English-speaking world. It could be said that the appearance of such Japan-specific netlabels with no particular connection to English-language netlabels was the independent formation of a new, localized cultural domain.
For label owner tomad, who began DJing around the same time Maltine Records was founded, CLUB VIP became an important site for his activities. This online club streaming his DJ sets started in July 2005 as the culmination of a thread of messages on 2channel, the largest and most active Japanese-language internet forum. He would also go on to distribute the compilation CD “Hardcore Taxi” in the fall of both 2007 and 2008 at M3, a convention for musicians that independently publish and sell their own music (a practice referred to as doujin ongaku), as well as contribute articles on J-core music to the indie magazine Yomu Ongaku (“music you can read”) published by DJ TECHNORCH. The human relations that emerged from the Japanese online cultures of nerdcore techno, doujin ongaku and 2channel served as the background for the establishment of Maltine Records.
 In 2008, the researcher Patryk Galuszka carried out a large-scale survey related to netlabels which was published online as “Research on Netlabels by Patryk Galuszka.” Even though at that time a number Japanese netlabels were active, their isolation from the larger netlabel movement meant their numbers were not accurately reflected in this data. The proof of this lies in the fact that only 3 Japanese netlabels were counted in his survey.
The Netlabel Boom
The growth of human relations that served as social capital for Maltine Records led to an increase in their numbers of releases and would lead to the netlabel distribution format being recognized in Japan. Maltine Records was further propelled into the spotlight with the October 2007 release “ADEPRESSIVE CANNOT GOTO THECEREMONY” by imoutoid, who was working with CLUB VIP under another name at that time. Japan’s cultural magazines such as Quick Japan and STUDIO VOICE would feature imoutoid, introducing Maltine Records in the mass media for the first time. Another musician who would later find success as a net-based musician is tofubeats, whose music was released by Maltine Records under the name dj newtown in July 2008. It was around this time that the term “netlabel” came to be known among Japanese speakers. Also around this time, Twitter became popular in Japan. The online platform quickly became a primary means of disseminating and gathering information related to the netlabel scene. There was a noticeable increase in the number of labels starting in 2009. While it would be impossible to name them all, notable standouts include Bunkai-Kei records and Vol.4records. The netlabel boom had arrived.
It appears to this author that the initial interest peaked in 2011. This is evident in the February 2011 release of the “Japanese Netlabel Map ver. 20110219” by Akami Records and the June 2011 opening of the netlabel-focused news website, Netlabel.jp. The success of netlabels is reflected in these responses to a demand for the mapping of the Japanese netlabel scene.
Netlabels and Club Events
Another practice that unmistakably supported this boom was a series of club events organized by various netlabels. The labels would promote these events and then event-goers would spontaneously send tweets about them, further increasing the buzz. Maltine Records held its first club event in February 2009, and would go on to hold events at a pace of several per year. Their success paved the way for the use of club events as a promotional tool for netlabels.
Another development concurrent to the events held by Maltine Records was the club events organized through the cooperation of multiple netlabels. Notable such events include Netlabel Warfare, held in March 2010, and bootoff in March 2011. The popularity of netlabels began to peak in 2011, culminating in the Netlabel Grand Festival at the end of 2012. This large-scale festival, co-organized by Maltine Records, Bunkai-kei Records and Sabacan Records, also included appearances by musicians from other labels such as ALTEMA Records, MarginalRec., NoDiscoRecords, and Vol.4records.
Through jointly-organized events and heavy user activity on Twitter, Japan’s netlabels could build and share a vision for their activities that was uniquely Japanese. These efforts resulted in the creation of a context markedly different from that of English-language netlabels, with Japanese netlabels firmly establishing themselves as part of Japan’s distinct online culture.
The Evolution of Netlabels and Discovery by the English-speaking World
The series of events describing the historical development of Japan’s netlabel scene up to this point have centered on Maltine Records. However, as hinted at the beginning of this article, the high level of fluidity of online cultures would soon bring change to this trend. The netlabel format would also begin to take on various new forms starting in 2012. In conclusion, I would like to briefly discuss recent developments which are (re)connecting Japanese netlabels to the English-speaking world. Following the unique development of netlabels in Japan, new routes leading to the English-speaking world are opening, and the changes these connections bring are becoming evident.
The Global Platforms of SoundCloud and Bandcamp
Up until this point, both English-language and Japanese netlabels had espoused the file download method of distribution. However, in recent years, distribution has shifted away from the MP3-sharing format. Instead, streaming has become more popular through the growth of services such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp. By 2010, the popularity of these services in Japan had grown substantially.Maltine Records’ first release on the SoundCloud platform was in April 2011, and today a SoundCloud player is embedded into the home page of their website. The adoption of such platforms, which can be easily embedded into posts on social media, brought major changes to Japan’s netlabels. In an approach where Japanese musicians shared their work specifically with Japanese listeners, most of Japan’s netlabels had developed within an isolated ecosystem. Only a few standouts, such as －N and Bumpfoot, were dedicated to interfacing with English-language netlabels. Most Japanese netlabels did not make use of the Internet Archive as a distribution platform, and as such had gained hardly any attention overseas. Furthermore, the users of the World Wide Web, where the primary common language is English, could not easily access Japanese-language websites to listen to the music cataloged there. However, this situation soon changed. Global platforms such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp are playing a large role in bringing Japan’s netlabels to international audiences.
A Change in Strategy for Maltine Records
By this point, Maltine Records had already taken the initiative and made changes to their approach. Examining their recent releases, it may be surprising to see that most of them are actually by non-Japanese musicians. Compared to when their musicians were drawn from CLUB VIP and other sources closely associated with Japanese online culture, we can see how Maltine Records has shifted their attention to the English-speaking world. Maltine Records has already released music for quite a number of non-Japanese musicians, with artists such as Xyloid from the United States and bo en from the UK gaining a lot of attention. The label’s release for Meishi Smile in February 2013 was a notable opportunity for owner tomad to shift his focus toward the English-speaking market. While he had assumed that Maltine Records’ listeners resided solely in Japan, Meishi Smile spontaneously found his label and inquired for participation in their new release. Meishi Smile had looked Maltine Records as a bridge between Japanese and American pop cultures. The collaboration would thereon greatly raise tomad’s awareness of how Japanese pop culture was viewed overseas. This change in strategy matched the general shifts Japan’s netlabels experienced over time.
Discovery by the English-speaking World
The first direct step bringing Japan’s netlabels onto the wider world stage came in the form of articles that appeared in English. Over the course of several years, Japan’s netlabels, which had been cultivated in a closed cultural ecosystem, started being “discovered” by the English-speaking world. They were first mentioned in English news media and websites that focused on Japanese culture such as The Japan Times and MTV 81. The first English-language article to cover Japan’s netlabels was most likely “Not All Imprints Make CDs – Enter the Netlabel,” published in March 2013. It introduced the movement as a singular scene, mentioning major labels such as Maltine Records and Bunkai-kei Records. In December 2014, the online music magazine Pitchfork published the article “10 Essential Japanese Netlabels,” The article presented Japan’s netlabel culture as a growing movement that was transcending the barriers that had until now existed between the subculture and the mainstream or overseas scenes, introducing 10 labels in this context for English-speaking audiences: Maltine Records, Bunkai-kei Records, Bump Foot, MarginalRec., ALTEMA Records, Trekkie Trax,Otherman Records, Ano(t)raks, Canata Reco, and Tanukineiri Records. This greater awareness of Japan’s netlabels was not limited to these reports and critiques; overseas labels were beginning to emerge that appear to show the influence of the growing awareness of Japan’s online cultures. Examples of such labels include Zoom Lens, run by Meishi Smile, and MAGIC YUME Records, which started in April 2014. Their websites prominently feature images evocative of Japanese popular culture along with many releases from Japanese musicians. Such appropriation is no longer merely “discovery” but enters the realm of “reinterpretation.”
The Future of Japan’s Netlabels
The circumstances surrounding the “discoveries” being made in the English-language world are actually quite complex. This is because Japan being looked at by other countries is by no means a sudden phenomenon. Such perspectives have existed outside of Japan throughout the history of English-language netlabels. Likewise, the contextual uniqueness of Japan’s netlabels is neither a recent development. It is an accumulated culture that emerged from the Japanese online cultures that have developed since the 1990s. The current state of Japan’s netlabels, notably their growing presence outside of Japan, is coalescing as the result of these complex interactions throughout their respective histories. To better grasp this complexity, we need to cast our gaze over a wide span of time and place.
By 2015, 10 years had passed since netlabels began to invigorate and enliven the music culture of Japan. While the future for Japan’s netlabels remains uncertain, stronger ties to the English-speaking world will surely become even more significant. After all, the appeal of the internet lies in how it brings people together across the whole world. And as has been shown, netlabels have come to demonstrate this. It is clear that, going forward, we will see more and more of Japan’s music culture represented in the netlabel movement that now thrives around the world.
Born in 1985. Assistant Professor in the Division of Industrial Art at Tokyo Metropolitan University’s Faculty of System Design. He specializes in the research of media culture and popular music. His interests lie in the cultural changes brought about by digital media technologies and the ways they are utilized, and his work primarily examines the online distribution of music.