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The history&philosophy of Netlabels + documentary video

ab009During the early to mid-1980’s, a collective of primarily teenage boys “formed possibly the earliest transnational networked digital subculture that centered around creating artifacts: the demoscene” (Carlsson, 2009, p. 16). The demoscene is essentially a subculture of hackers, computer programmers, and musicians who make “demos,” or audio-visual presentations that run on a computer. This networked culture of creators historically shared their demos through Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which were computers with special software that were run by a sysop, or systems operator.


These BBS computers allowed other users on other computers to connect through a phone line and a modem. Users could then send and receive messages, upload and download files, and read bulletins. Walleij states that “already in 1979, North American Apple II software crackers were organized in modem networks to exchange data” (as cited by Carlsson, 2009, p. 16). This was essentially a pre-Web version of peer-to-peer networking. Everyone involved in this community freely shared their work with others with no restrictions attached, as the main goal was respect among their peers, not financial gain.

The earliest examples of demos were known as crack-intros or cracktros, which were the graphical signature of a cracker that was added on to the start of a “cracked” game, or a game that had the copy protection removed. Over time these signature intro-screens became more elaborate as crackers saw an opportunity to show off their programming skills. By 1985, stand-alone demos started to emerge that were not in any way associated with cracked games, hence the beginning of the demoscene as we know it today (Carlsson, 2009). It is important to keep in mind that this scene was using computers as their primary production and distribution tool for creative content, several years before the World Wide Web had even been developed. The computer of choice among this scene was the 8-bit Commodore 64 which was released in 1982, a computer intended for gaming that ended up selling more than 20 million units by the time it was discontinued in 1993 (Collins, 2006).

Demos were developed by demo groups, which were groups of programmers (coders), graphic artists, and musicians who would pool their talents together to create demos. The music was made using tracker software, and was usually added after the code and graphics were complete (Carlsson, 2009). Tracker software “offered simple arrangement and effects processing capabilities for a limited number of sample based instruments. Constraints of computing power imposed a distinct low-fidelity aesthetic on most productions” (Hartmann, 2004, Flashback section). This aesthetic is still visible today within the chip music scene, a sub culture that creates 8-bit music, sometimes with machines that have limited capabilities (like phones or hand held gaming devices), pushing the boundaries of the hardware to create interesting music. The chip scene is still thriving today, with over 16,000 registered users at 8bitcollective as of February 2010, which is “the first completely open chiptune-related media repository and file sharing community,” allowing for all music contained on the site to be downloaded and shared freely (8bit, 2010). As computer technologies got better, and the 16-bit Commodore Amiga was released, tracker music began to thrive. “The tracker scene got started when Karsten Obarski developed the first tracker program for the Commodore Amiga: Ultimate Soundtracker” (Timmers, 2005, par. 1.1). Communities of tracker musicians and fans began setting up networks for sharing their musical works, leading to the creation of Internet module groups such as KFMF, Monotik, and Tokyo Dawn (Sauer, 2008). These module groups represented the early seeds of netlabel culture, and Monotik and Tokyo Dawn would actually go on to be two of the most well known netlabels ever. Vince Fugère, who ran the now-defunct Camomille netlabel, talked to Phlow (Sauer, 2008) about his roots in the BBS scene. Fugère mentions the underground community feel of the scene, and how excited he was after first discovering music disks containing strange file extensions like .mod or .it that could be played back using special Mod players, which by nature “exposed its musical source code – the complete sequencing information as well as any sound samples employed – to the public for inspection” (Hartmann, 2004, Flashback section). While Hartmann (2004) argues that because of this and the lack of financial stakes in the scene, music was freely shared and re-used. However, Carlsson (2009) counters that argument by saying sampling and re-use of music was actually frowned upon within the demoscene and Internet module groups. Carlsson’s research stressed the necessity to be “original” in the scene, and that the samples a tracker musician used in their pieces essentially defined their sound. Regardless of the sampling issues, tracker music was completely free to be shared.

By the late 1990’s, the module scene started to take advantage of new technologies like mp3, music production software such as Cubase and Reason, and of course the Internet. Fugère goes on to say that “as we all got better (Internet) connections, the module started to die out and hence, when the group owners stop calling their organizations music groups or tracker groups, the name netlabel surfaced” (Sauer, 2008, p. 2). The mp3 format not only gave these musicians the freedom to add analog sounds to their creations like synthesizers and vocals, but also took up less amount of space than the previous Mod format. The mp3s could also be played back using standard media players that most Internet users had access to, as opposed to the Mod files which required a special player. This opened the door to reaching a much larger audience, thus lifting these musicians out of the hidden corridors of BBSs and FTPs and making their music available to a global audience.

Netlabels now exist in a digital environment where a large amount of people are sharing creative works freely online. However, netlabels differentiate themselves from an individual artist or band releasing music on the Internet. Using an academic analogy, I like to think of netlabels as the peer-review of free music culture, as mentioned before. While anyone can post their works on the Internet and share them freely, which is a good thing, there is a still a need for filtering and aggregation of high-quality music that people are interested in downloading and supporting. Netlabels can fulfill this role, acting as distribution portals for certain niche styles of music like electronica, house, dub, glitch, lo-fi, acoustic, and experimental.

Timmers (2005) explains,
Netlabels are a protest sign against the over-commercialized music industry where money talks, and against the decreasing public sphere. They turn the spotlight on important music that was ignored by the commercial four (i.e. four large companies owning ninety percent of the industry), and put the artists again both in control and in touch with their listeners. (p. 9)

Some netlabels build reputations over time as having a certain niche audience, while others are more diverse in the styles of music they release. Either way, the netlabel model provides artists with a way to come together as like-minded creative people, and create a venue for displaying their works to a larger public. Timmers (2005) goes on to say, “netlabels are enlarging the public domain – decreased by copyright laws – by using creative licenses to offer artists the chance to showcase their work without any legal limitations or artistic restrictions” (p. 5). It needs to be understood that all netlabels release original music by artists who are willingly sharing their works freely with the public. Over ninety-five percent of netlabels use Creative Commons to license the music that they publish on their sites (Galuszka, 2009). By releasing music on a netlabel, you are encouraging people to download, share, and spread the music as wide and far as possible, and in some cases reuse and remix the original work.

Patryk Galuszka (2009) conducted an Internet survey on netlabels in 2008, sending surveys to 650 functioning netlabels that he identified on the Internet. He received completed surveys back from 339 netlabels from around the globe. He has made his research available on the Web under a CC license, allowing me to freely access the document and draw valuable data from his findings for my own research. According to Galuszka’s (2009) findings, there were only ten netlabels surveyed that existed before 1999. This picks us up right where Fugère (Sauer, 2008) left off, with his description of the music groups and tracker groups changing to netlabels in the late 1990’s. However, with the growth of mp3 and p2p technologies throughout the next couple of years, that number quickly rose to 76 by 2003, and then boomed into the hundreds over the next few years. Galuszka (2009) attributes this to the “introduction and growing awareness of Creative Commons licenses” around 2003 (p. 2). Creative Commons provided a licensing system that made sense for netlabels and free music on the Web. By attaching an appropriate CC license to the work, all of the confusion is eliminated for the user in regards to what they can do with the work. This gives a sense of protection to artists that might otherwise be unwilling to release their work on the Internet with no license attached, thus allowing netlabel culture to grow immensely throughout the course of the past six years. In 2004, Hartmann stated that the Internet Archive held catalogs of over 130 netlabels, and a total number of 3,275 recordings available for download (p.1). Now, six years later, as of March 2010, the Internet Archive holds over 1,000 netlabel catalogs, or sub-collections, and has a total number of 23,363 recordings available for download (Archive, 2010). This is a massive jump in numbers for such a small period of time.

Due to the nature of the tracker music scene, the majority of netlabels were, and still are, rooted in electronic music, with Galuszka’s study showing that nearly ninety percent of respondents claimed to have released some form of electronica music (p. 5). Electronic music has historically been an underground genre that rarely sees mainstream success. Due to the niche nature of electronic styles of music, netlabels can play an important role in delivering unique musical works that would not otherwise be available through mainstream channels. As Timmers (2005) explains, netlabels “are diversifying and transforming the music market by publishing kinds of music that previously went undistributed and keeping them open for further use” (p. 5).

Over seventy-five percent of the netlabel respondents reside in Europe, fifteen percent in the US, with the other ten percent spread out across the globe (Galuszka, 2009). “Most of netlabels declare that they are non-commercial organizations aimed at dissemination of interesting music” (Galuszka, 2009, p. 6). As mentioned before, over ninety-five percent of respondents claim to publish the music they release under Creative Commons licenses. The most popular CC license used by netlabels is the BY-NC-ND, or music sharing license, with forty-four percent of respondents picking this option. The second most popular is the BY-NC-SA license, used by twenty-four percent of survey respondents (Galuszka, 2009). The main difference between these two licenses is the right to create derivative works, with the first and most popular option not allowing remix and appropriation.

Many netlabels are run as strictly non-profit organizations, making little to no money from the distribution of their music. However, some netlabels are converting to what I will describe as a hybrid model. These netlabels are offering either paid downloads, exclusive content, or physical products along with occasional free downloads. There are convincing arguments coming from both distribution models. Out of the 339 netlabels that responded to Galuszka’s (2009) survey, only 5 percent stated that earning money is “very important.” Due to this, he claims that “it is quite possible that netlabels should not be compared with traditional record labels at all, as most of them are organized around different, non commercial principles” (p. 9). Timmers (2005) agrees, claiming that netlabels and traditional labels “resolves around a similar core. This center is musical content, but both universe’s definitions of it, and their production and distribution methods, are very different from each other” (p. 9). I spoke with the owner of Peppermill netlabel, Peter K., about his non-profit model of distributing music.

He explained,
I would rather work in the real world for stretches of time, and take those funds and use them to finance my little netlabel. Keep art and money separate. Not that I have anything against artists making a career out of their talents, of course not, but that’s not my world. And that seems to be a defining characteristic of netlabel owners (2010, Personal communication).

This philosophy along with a knack for bringing together interesting collaborations, Peter even gets commercial label artists to release music for free on his projects. He told me that he likes “to encourage the pros to exercise their creative muscles in doing something purely for art’s sake,” and at the same time he says he wants to do the reverse, “to get more amateur talents to push themselves and possibly make connections with people that can help take them to the next level” (2010, Personal communication).

On the others side are netlabel owners that are going against the defining characteristic of the netlabel model, music with a free price, and looking for ways to make money while still embracing shared music ideals. Volker Tripp of the netlabel iD.EOLOGY told me that he sees monetary incentives for netlabel artists as an important aspect for the future of netlabel culture. He states that, “a monetary perspective will help netlabels to be perceived as a full-blown alternative to, say, conventional independent-labels. It will help bind quality musicians to them (netlabels) instead of seeing them (artists) wander off to conventional labels once they have built up a considerable audience” (Tripp, 2010, Personal communication). While I totally respect and understand the viewpoints of netlabels that want to keep music and money completely separate, I definitely see the positive aspects of creating a netlabel model that can facilitate free music culture while also providing opportunities for monetary incentives to artists.







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