Web-based music labels and distribution have gone largely unnoticed by the record industry and the general public until relatively recently. We’ve seen an incredible wave over the past several years beginning with the demoscene, to online music file sharing, and now with the rise of netlabels as independent record ‘companies’ themselves. Along with this, we’re seeing a rise in scholarly publications and writings regarding the netlabel movement. In this article, I’d like to highlight some of the more interesting writings to emerge in recent years that deal with the netlabel/netaudio scene as arranged by categories on which these writings tend to focus.
Google Scholar was my main source of information for this article. Typing “netlabels” into a Google Scholar search yielded over 100 hits — a relatively low count compared to many other popular and scholarly topics out there. Nevertheless, I did find articles published in mainstream journals, some theses and dissertations, and some books of interest. Categories of these writings include history, social and economic impacts, and technological implications of the netlabel movement. I also replicated the search for “netlabels” through two different universities on their library search engines with no significant results.
Most articles or books dealing with the history of the netlabel phenomenon would be incomplete without a mention of the demoscene. In his thesis, entitled Making a Case for Sharing, Adam Porter (2005) identifies the demoscene as a “subculture of hackers, computer programmers, and musicians who make ‘demos,’ or audio-visual presentations that run on a computer” (Porter 2005:49). It began in the early 1980s among programmers who held informal events to demo their hacked or cracked softwares and any modifications they may have made to the original programs. By 1985, the demoscene was producing not only hacked or modified demos but also original works. In addition to the technical programming and graphic design aspects, soundtracks often accompanied the demos that eventually led (at least in part) to the emergence of a netaudio scene independent of the demoscene. Over time, these electronic musicians began to make music for its own sake, with the help of “tracker” programs which created music files that could be read by certain music playback software. This exposed the musical source code for other mod users and electronic musicians to openly see, hear, and scrutinize (Porter 2005), thus reinforcing the open-source spirit of the early netaudio movement that we still see today via the Creative Commons and the free, open-access nature of most netlabels.
Patryk Galuszka is one who is often cited for his research on netlabel topics. In his paper, “Summary of research on netlabels” (2009), in which he received survey responses from 339 netlabels world wide, he found that very few had begun in the 1990s with a notable increase in netlabels each year beginning in 2003 (Figure 1). Most netlabels to respond to his survey (the response rate was nearly 60%) were from Europe and North America. Germany had the most, followed by the USA, Italy, and Spain, among several other countries. Of the 339 surveyed, there were 259 netlabels found across Europe, with North America containing 50 and the rest found in South America and Asia.
Another interesting find from this same research demonstrates what genres these netlabels release (Figure 2).
Social and economic impacts
Other research has revealed discussions regarding the impact netlabels have on society and the record industry, and vice versa. The emergence of netlabels has even been attributed to the “consequence of the introduction of new technologies and legal solutions which enable free music distribution” (Galuszka 2012a:8). As copying and sharing music files from commercial record labels began to be heavily criticized (e.g. Napster) by the mainstream record industry, netlabels became a place not only for music-producing “demoscenesters” of the 1980s and 1990s but also a place for independent artists to follow their creative impulses unmotivated by commercial gains. Rather, and as pointed out by Galuszka (2012a), many netlabels and their artists are motivated by symbolic capital such as recognition by peers or critics, an ‘art for art’s sake’ focus, and brand loyalty to their label, artists, and music. As such, netlabels and their artists are engaged in cultural production largely free from a controlling, commodity-focused industry.
In addition, netlabels and online electronic music have been said to resemble a collectivist approach to a means of production not unlike the emergence of independent artists and labels during the 1970s punk rock era. Hwanho Choi (2009:15) argues that “the democratisation of the music industry initiated through the DIY movement is now being realised online.” And even though some online distribution models (e.g. iTunes) have in the past restricted use to proprietary formats via Digital Rights Media (DRM), the trend now is to respect the end-user’s rights to play the music or media on multiple platforms of choice. Other authors have suggested the music industry must radically change even further, perhaps even by considering some albums or songs to never be finished (becoming an extended culture industry) and released under limited licenses as defined by the artists (Timmers 2004). Interestingly, this essentially resembles the sort of licensing that the Creative Commons (CC) now offers (for example, see the remix offerings a few years ago by major artists on the CC website).
The Internet is, of course, the most essential infrastructure for enabling netlabels. Galuszka (2012a) points out that before the Internet, many independent record labels had difficulty staying in business considering the contradiction of needing money to record and distribute their music while also maintaining a DIY ethic. With the Internet, distribution has been made so simple that most of the cost of maintaining a label is limited to monthly or yearly fees to an internet service provider. In many cases, this has resulted in a downturn of physical media sales (e.g. CDs, vinyl, etc.) while simultaneously flooding the web with millions of tracks of music potentially worth exploring. Entire websites are now devoted to reviews and articles on the topic (such as Netlabelism) and online repositories such as archive.org have become popular for netlabels and offer free storage and distribution potential. Other online impacts can be seen with sites like Bandcamp, which offers artists a chance to set their own prices (if any) and licenses for downloading their music.
In another case (Ricardo and Serrao 2011), an open-source software called Nutch was used to search and index free online music. Used in conjunction with other software plugins, it was developed to search mp3 metadata so that music could be found based not only on keywords but also on artist, album, and/or genre description.
In conclusion, we’ve seen an increase of research and writing on the subject of netlabels over the past few years as well as the people and technology that contribute to the overwhelming amount of free, open-access music. The beginning of what we now call the ‘netlabel scene’ stems back over 20 years, and in that time it has influenced (and been influenced by) the socio-economics and technology surrounding the music industry. Below is a list of references made in this article as well as some other links you may find interesting. As always, feel free to comment if you’ve come across others, or if you’ve done some investigations of your own. [NC]
Choi, H. (2009). The New Wave of Independent Labels. Dissertation. Available at http://enoughrecords.scene.org/netaudio/Hwanho_Choi_-_The_New_Wave_of_Independent_Labels__Dissertation_.pdf
Galuszka, P. (2009). Summary of research on netlabels. Working Paper. Aavailable at http://pga.blox.pl/resource/Research_on_netlabels_Patryk_Galuszka_CC_BY_NC_SA.pdf.
Galuszka, P. (2012a). Netlabel: Independent Non-Profit Micro-Enterprise or Just Another Player in the Music Industry? ECONOMY IN CHANGING SOCIETY: CONSUMPTIONS, MARKETS, ORGANIZATIONS AND SOCIAL POLICIES, p. 173, M. Nawojczyk, ed., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2026503
Galuszka, P. (2012b). Netlabels and democratization of the recording industry. First Monday, 17(7-2). Available at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3770/3278
Porter, A. (2010). Making a Case for Sharing: An Analysis of Music Copyright, New Technologies, and how Creative Commons and Netlabels are Facilitating a Free Music Culture on the Web. Doctoral dissertation. Available at http://infojustice.org/download/gcongress/ccr/porter%20article.pdf
Ricardo, A. and C. Serrao (2011). Using open-source tools for web crawling and indexing of open content. Information Society (i-Society), 2011 International Conference. Available at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=5978485 or full thesis available at http://repositorio-iul.iscte.pt/handle/10071/2871
Timmers, Bram (2004). Netlabels and Open Content: Making the Next Step Towards Extended Cultural Production. Academic Research Paper. Available at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.95.8715
Book about the early demoscene (focuses mostly on Scandinavia and Europe):
Tasajärvi, L., Schustin, M., Stamnes, B., & Tolonen, A. (2004). Demoscene: the art of real-time. Even Lake Studios. Website: http://www.evenlakestudios.com/
Also, for a podcast interview with Patryk Galuszka, go here.