netlabels-header.jpgSome time last year I followed this link from Cool Hunting to Alex Young’s Milieu blog about netlabels. Little did I know the world of new music it would open. A netlabel is is similar to a record label, except that it distributes its music primarily via the internet, often for free. I was suspicious at first about this concept. Wouldn’t it simply be a recipe for really bad music? Surprisingly, as I found out from the releases highlighted on Milieu, the answer is not always. In fact I’ve discovered some jaw-droppingly good music coming from netlabels — mostly electronica, but occasionally other genres are represented.

At first I waited patiently for new posts at Milieu but new reviews came in at a trickle (I know all about how hard it is to keep blog output consistent). I was curious to hear more since these first few albums had been so good.’s netlabel section appears to be the nexus for this stuff. At first I poked around, looking at the various netlabels listed on the front page, or looking for artists on the same labels as the ones I liked. This yielded some interesting music but eventually I just drank from the fire hose directly and subscribed to the recent additions rss feed. Now I see new albums as soon as they appear, about 5 – 15 per day. There are certainly plenty that either aren’t that great or just aren’t my thing. I’ve learned to quickly weed out what I’m not likely to be interested in based on the description. The first thing that entices me to listen to a release is the artwork. Good album art is often a pretty good indicator of the music’s quality, believe it or not.

What possesses talented artists to send out into the world the fruit of their hard work for free? Downliners Sekt, one of the first netlabel groups I heard about, have this to say about it: “We bored as fuck with the music industry. We give our music away. We aim to share not only the music but the whole experience.” This is an interesting motivation and one which gives the netlabel thing a subversive edge. There seems to be something vaguely rebellious (dare I say revolutionary?) about circumventing the almighty dollar in this transaction between artist and listener. There’s also something pure and even generous about it. In the removal of the chase after profits, artists are completely free to express themselves without regard for the market. I can’t imagine there’s much money to be made in some of these out-there genres anyway, so it lightens the load to not worry about even trying. “Don’t quit your day job” is no insult in this context but rather a way to keep ones artistic freedom intact. I have enormous respect for these artists because I’ve kept my day job but still struggle to keep the other end of the bargain (namely, continuing to make music after hours).

From a listener’s standpoint, I feel like I’ve discovered something really special when I hear some of this music. I suppose it’s a kind of elitism — there’s delight in knowing I may be one of very few people in the world enjoying it, except that I’m excited to share it. I imagine this is what DJs who collect rare records over many years must feel.

One question I’ve had is why even bother with a netlabel if you can upload your tracks directly to anyway? A traditional label provides up-front money for recording expenses, etc. and marketing, and to some extent, a brand to identify with. As far as I can tell a netlabel really just offers the last one. But perhaps that’s even more important in this realm: in a sea of free music and finite time to evaluate it, netlabels are like audio curators. If I see a release from some random guy in Estonia I may pass it by. But if it’s with 1 Bit Wonder, a netlabel who has released some great albums that I’ve enjoyed, with their signature orange accented monochrome album artwork, I’ll be much more likely to give a listen. Some netlabels will produce compilation albums which is a great way to get an idea of their aesthetic and to learn about related artists.

I’m not sure what this all means for the record industry. I would imagine (if they’ve even heard of netlabels in the first place) that Radiohead’s newfound independence, and their experiment with online album downloads, where fans can literally name their price, is making label execs far more nervous.

There are grey areas between free online downloads and commercial CDs. In addition to Radiohead’s big splash, some traditional labels have an online-only branch that sell albums by (perhaps) unknown artists for almost free. For example en:peg, an offshoot of n5md, sells all its albums as high quality mp3s for $2 a piece. I discovered en:peg when looking for more information on Virculum, a bassist who contributed the beautiful track “wwlit alma” on the Electronica Unplugged compilation by the Aerotone netlabel. I purchased his album songs for insomniacs from en:peg for two bucks. It’s great stuff and it made me happy to send some cash to an artist I appreciated.

What is the value of an hour or so of carefully crafted recorded music? Some say it should be free in the first place — just an ad for a band’s live act. I see real problems with this attitude. I’ve always seen these as separate entities. I think an album has its own intrinsic value and not all music was even meant to be performed live. But putting music online free of charge would seem to indicate that these artists feel their music is worthless. That assumes that worth is only measured in dollars. But there’s a different kind of transaction going on when a listener downloads and enjoys free music. The listener is getting something, but the artist is too — knowledge that somewhere someone has been affected in some way by their expression. Music (and art in general) at its most basic level is a communal experience and although the community in this case is invisible and incredibly dispersed, netlabels may be a new expression of this traditional function of music.

Perhaps a way of contributing to the “transaction” when downloading free music is sharing my discoveries and adding my impressions back to the ocean that is the internet. Come back soon for reviews of my favorite netlabel albums.