If You’re Thinking of Starting a Netlabel …

If you’re thinking of starting a netlabel, don’t let anyone stop you. The movement — it does feel like we’re far along enough to call netlabels a “movement,” and have been for some time — continues to build. But for all its cultural momentum, perhaps because of that momentum, there’s no clear template for how netlabels function, not beyond the shared idea of delivering freely downloadable music with the permission of the artists involved.

Netlabels function in various ways: as standalone websites, as subdomains of prominent services (.soundcloud.com, .bandcamp.com, .blogspot.com), as side projects of traditional record labels, as thinly disguised podcasts, as fly-by-night operations, as slick enterprises with all the procedural rigor assumed of commercial businesses. The absence of consistency is a good thing, at the heart of the movement’s vibrancy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to learn from all the netlabels that came before yours.

As a longtime listener to and observer of netlabel music, I propose the following to serve as an initial checklist while you get your HTML, CSS, RSS, and release schedule in order. Feel free to question these suggestions, and to add your own, in the comments section below. I’ll update this list accordingly:

• Have a dedicated URL. No hosting service is forever.

• Have an RSS feed. And if you make a conscious decision not to, please explain why. The absence of RSS feeds on numerous netlabels is one of the great mysteries of the field.

• Allow for streaming in addition to downloading of your individual tracks. Don’t assume that just because you’re giving music away that anyone actually wants to possess it. Allow each song to find its own audience, and to bring that audience back to the album.

• Consider making your netlabel singles-only. There aren’t anywhere near as many singles-oriented netlabels as there are album-oriented netlabels. The disparity suggests that album-oriented netlabels are easier to maintain. Challenge yourself and your musicians to whittle their releases down to an individual, singular statement.

• Allow for downloading of the complete album as a set (that is, when you ignore the previous instruction and proceed with an album-centric approach). It’s a hassle to download each track individually.

• Have a “look,” a consistent visual approach, even if what’s consistent is that every release is drastically different than what preceded it.

• Don’t model your releases on traditional record-industry releases. Look to television, movies, animation, comics, newspapers, magazines, radio, and other serial media for models, lessons, inspiration.

• Don’t be afraid to try to charge money. Give the releases away free, certainly, but consider a “pay what you will” interface (in which zero is one option among many), make snazzy limited-edition physical objects, add a donation/tip link.

• Make your site HTML5-friendly. If you don’t know what that last sentence means, there’s a good chance the rapidly expanding cultural consumption taking place on the iPad and iPhone is passing you by.

• Include with each release a brief text document containing key information (personnel, location, date, instrumentation, perhaps even a descriptive statement of intent on the part of the musicians).

• Link from the release’s page to artist information (biography, discography, web presence, etc.).

• Make each release memorable, not just sonically and visually, but how you describe it, how you promote it.

• Consider multiple services for file hosting. When archive.org (or sonicsquirrel.net) goes down, you don’t want your audience to have to make a conscious decision to try to remember to try again later.

• Consider your copyright options. Read up on Creative Commons, and perhaps follow the lead of a netlabel that you admire.

• Don’t put out too much or too little music. Don’t leave your audience wondering if you’ve ceased existing, and don’t overwhelm them.

• Tags, not genres. Repeat: tags, not genres.

• Don’t be louder than your music. You aren’t going to convince anyone to like, let alone listen to, your latest release by over-promising on its transcendent genius. Just be factual, and the audience for those facts will find it.

• Develop a sense of community among your netlabel’s contributing artists. Have them remix each other, and let those remixes lead one artist’s audience to check out another artist’s album. Combine like-minded tracks into themed samplers. Provoke collaborations.

• Don’t be insular: develop a sense of community with other netlabels.

• Consider having a secondary RSS feed to function as a proper podcast, perhaps with the full album or select tracks sewn into a continuous whole, with opening and closing thematic music for consistency, perhaps even little interview segments.

• Surprise people. Break all these suggested rules in creative ways.

56 thoughts on “If You’re Thinking of Starting a Netlabel …

  1. As both a netlabel consumer and a newbie producer, I’d like to emphasize the importance of TAGS (as in metadata). IMHO, this is the only rule on Marc’s excellent list that should never be broken.

    I download stuff every day, and nearly every day I get sound files with no tags — especially from podcast feeds. Unless I am feeling particularly passionate about that particular set, and am willing to do the tagging myself, my tendency is to immediately delete the files.

    Identify your work! Don’t let the lack of metadata be a barrier to your (potential) listeners, or leave the impression that your work is unprotected due to a lack of copyright/licensing declarations!

    1. Thanks to Dave and everyone else who mentioned the importance of tags.

      The funny thing is, I wasn’t even thinking of metatags when I wrote that.

      I was thinking of how “drone, minimal, field recording, voice, classical” is more meaningful than “ambient.”

      I will update the list, to include a line about the importance of metatags.

      1. archive.org is partly at fault here, in my experience. i spent more time trying to get my ID3 tags to carry over on my uploads than i spent making the music a couple years back :)-~ until i just gave up.

      2. just out of couriosity: is anyone here able to name a free id3tag-software for MAC OSX which allows all those tag-options which “mp3tag” (windows) and “puddletag” (linux) have?

  2. I agree with the many points Marc has mentioned in his “breakdown of rules” for running a netlabel! Great mind! Thanks!

    Especially the point “Don’t be louder than your music” is an interesting point as I still stumble upon netlabels or musicians that simply are too quiet with releasing their music. Very often they lack a describing text or tagging at all in the entry on their website and just offer a cover picture without providing the music to listen to in the first place. Too often one has to download the music first, before having his ears on it.

    Something else which I found absolutely important is: To properly tag the download tracks (mp3, flac, ogg etc.) – it doesn’t matter if they are ID-2 or 3. Artist’s name, title, name of album, track number, album cover and so on. Also additional info about the artist or label can be enclosed. There are still great great netlabels out there that miss that opportunity to deliver meta data…

  3. One thing that irks me is having music play automatically when I arrive at a netlabel site. Please don’t do that. One of my favorite netlabels does this and grrrrr.

    I cannot over-emphasize using Archive.org and Sonic Squirrel enough. Please use both and please set up a netlabel at Archive.org. Don’t post your releases under Community Audio.

    Too little, too much music. Please, for the love of god, if you are releasing ten or fifteen albums a month, I’m not listening to them all. If you are releasing one album every six months, I’ve forgotten about the netalbel.

    Lastly, if you are running a netlabel already, read Marc’s post and these comments and adjust your netlabel website accordingly.

  4. if you’re thinking of starting a netlabel… … you must neccessarily be a sophisticated: 1. listener (demos) 2. librarian (id3tags) 3. communicator (email) 4. animateur (A&R) 5. sales manager (promotion) 6. sound engineer (mastering) 7. internet user (www) 8. pensioner (it’s free :)

    1. @ artin menderlein

      You also need to be an educator. For example, when I curated the tribute to Muslimgauze called “El Tafkeera” there was a lot of resistance to my doing mastering on the tracks because a lot of people don’t know what mastering is.

      1. oh yes! 09. teacher

        and you’ve also got to be a 10. lawyer

        ha, it’s also good to be able to create cover artworks, just in case… 11. graphic artist

  5. I would also add to this to see if you can get your material on another site like Free Music Archive – mostly because the traffic there is simply amazing, and if Archive.org ever does go down, there is another option. Plus it’s just a great community to be a part of.

    ID tags are must too – as well as filename conventions – I read a complaint once from a listener who just downloaded tracks willynilly in one large folder, and whenever all the filenames had the track-number first, they couldn’t find the correct order of the tunes (100+ files all starting with “01-“). So I’ve tried to make sure it’s artist-album title-track#-songtitle whenever possible.

    And echo streaming in addition to downloading – a lot faster way of seeing if I want to hear the whole thing.

    1. i’d doubt the archive.org will get down before FMA. in fact the FMA uses amazon’s “aws” for distributing which makes other dependencies. plus i think the founding of archive.org is quite good and sustainable. just look how long they’re in the game in comparison to the FMA.

      btw. both lack a proper way to discover the music. i’m actually downloading all the FMA-mixes they put on their main page but refuse to search after tags…

      1. yeah but you know, it’s fine but only if you keep in mind that a netlabel admin != webmaster.. ;)

        a godd netlabel admin definitely must know some webdesign basics, but netaudio is not only about webdesign and rss feeds ;) There are at least other 4-5 fundamental aspects to take care about ;)

  6. Cool article! One thing I have wondered about, which you touched on briefly, was why many netlabels adhere to such a slim release schedule. I suppose this frustrates me more as an artist. One release a month seems very light, even two, to me. Then again, I understand that 10 a week is too many. So I suppose everyone needs to find a happy medium they are comfortable with. But, if you just have one scheduled release per month, you may end up putting off some good music. . .

  7. Good suggestions.

    Things are changing so rapidly in this ‘scene’ in a technological sense that all of this might be hopelessly out of date in 2 years. But for now, it’s a good guidepost. Lately, I feel like my netlabel is constantly behind the times, and I keep trying to catch up when I can.

    A lot of these ideas I haven’t yet adopted, but have been turning around in my head already.

    I defintely think streaming will soon usurp downloadable releases as the format of choice.

    Can anyone suggest an HTML5 friendly streaming widget that works & isn’t ugly? I adopted a flash widget just before I realized that flash was old hat.

    1. Regarding streaming:

      By and large I agree that’s where the culture seems to be headed.

      A lot of factors, however, will play into whether streaming ultimately trumps downloading. Some of them are market-related, which means the effects could be regional. For example, if US telecoms aggressively cap cellphone data usage, consumers might find downloading advantageous for repeat listens. (Of course, some basic infrastructure on the client end, perhaps browser-based, could help mitigate this.)

      Again, this is just one scenario. And, downloads and streams aren’t inherently mutually exclusive.

  8. One of the huge benefits that a RSS reader has is the following:

    As a listener, I can check my my RSS reader in the morning while drinking my coffee, see what new releases are out, download the ones I want and listen to fresh, new music during the day.

    Otherwise, with over 400+ netlabels to follow, I might not get to a netlabel’s release till next month.

  9. One thing all netlabel curators need to be is a consumer of other netlabels. In determining their own website, they should be looking at other sites and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

    It’s very nice to see that some netlabels are publishing posts about what their artists are releasing on other netlabels.

    1. David Nemeth said: “One thing all netlabel curators need to be is a consumer of other netlabels. “

      I could not agree more.

      I also have said in many venues and in many different ways that netlabels/netartists MUST start boosting other artists and other labels other than their own — in my opinion you’ve either got a whole bunch of self-promoters trying to call attention to themselves or you have a community that raises awareness/visibility of the entire scene. I know which of those two models would work best at attracting listeners, and it’s not the ‘every man for himself’ model.

      1. C. Reider, maybe I’m daft, but I didn’t notice this until you tweeted about people’s blatant self-promotion. Now, I am seeing it everywhere. Thanks. ;-)

  10. I’m a veteran of the ‘independent’ (physical product) record label scene, but a newbie to netlabels and everything that goes with them. While Marc’s essay is excellent, and many of the replies equally valuable, there’s one omission I’d like to add.

    As far as I can see, it’s now all about ‘getting my stuff on itunes’, and it’s an echo of ‘everything will be great if we can sign to a major’. It wasn’t the case then, and it isn’t now. Itunes IS a new media ‘major label’ and should be seen as a bit of the big business ‘enemy’, best avoided. Netlabels are certainly the future, and the alchemy of creating a revenue stream from them something that is still to be successfully addressed. I would, however, be thinking long and hard about ever jumping into bed with someone like itunes, who will be profiting (and profiteering) from your and my work. While there may be some mutual satisfaction, it seems to me that it’s still a relatively blank canvas out there, and avoiding a ‘major’ like itunes is something that should be carefully addressed right now.

    1. John Ingram said: “it’s now all about ‘getting my stuff on itunes’, and it’s an echo of ‘everything will be great if we can sign to a major'”

      I’ve heard several people gripe about this, and so I must assume it is a prevalent attitude, but, to be honest, I haven’t seen this at all in recent netlabel culture. It may just be the circle I’ve been running with, but from my point of view netartists & labels are pretty firmly committed to free art to the point of being proud about that stance. Sure, if an opportunity comes up along the way for money making, most artists are pursuing that, but not to the detriment of free work.

    2. I’m not sure I agree with getting one’s music on iTunes being particularly equivalent to signing with a major label.

      It’s not that complicated to get one’s music on iTunes, or Amazon for that matter. Doing so is non-exclusive (you can continue to give your music away free, and sell it elsewhere), entails no long-term commitment, and doesn’t involve getting embroiled in a debt-based relationship out of which one must then dig oneself.

      Those are just a few distinctions.

    3. I would, however, be thinking long and hard about ever jumping into bed with someone like itunes, who will be profiting (and profiteering) from your and my work.

      Using iTunes is not in any way similar to signing to a major label. None of the large mp3 distribution stores function like labels. They are distributors. The analogy from brick and mortar sales would be the decision to let Walmart sell your discs. And, of course, there are middle-man services (like Zimbalam, etc.) that make it easy to access these large distribution networks…much easier than getting discs into Walmart.

      One distribution source that gets ignored too often, imho, is Rhapsody. I believe in the medium to long term that music consumers will look to services that give them access to libraries of music rather than downloadable files. Rhapsody, with all its flaws, is currently the closest thing to that idea. Netlabels can, theoretically, function much like smaller versions of Rhapsody, but I think listeners will want aggregation services that pull music from a large array of sources.

      So for netlabel advice, I guess this boils down to saying – provide whatever wider distribution for your artists that you can afford. Make it easy for listeners to find your music. If they want to pay someone else for convenience, let them.

  11. I want to talk about the importance of trusted curation. This is why I am here. Mark is one of a handful of people who are taking the time to shift through a lot of the netlables, and providing a cut.

    This can not be overrated … If you are or want too be a netlable it is in your intrust to both support curation, and to do a bit of it yourself.

    Yes you need all the tools, Streams, RSS, Twitter, Tags, and whatever… But what counts, what moves people, is other people!

    There Is nothing better than constantly good writing. Take the time to find and support those who write about sound, well. Let them know that you read them. No tool alone is going to grow a community.

    This is the secret sauce of all net work. People.

    1. Curation is one of the ‘issues’ that still needs to be solved. In the classical systeem curation had a business model which is shown in every music magazine around the world: we write reviews, you buy ad space. I’m not sure how this is going to work out with services like Spotify, Grooveshark and indeed Rhapsody. But I definitely agree that it crucial for ‘music as a public service (like electricity and water)’ to work. As Clay Shirky stated: the problem lies not with too much information but the lack of a good filter.

  12. excellent discussion here and some great tips, I never even thought about RSS or HTM: 5 for my little netlabel, I figured Facebook would be good enough, which is something maybe you should add to the list? I have around 500 followers on there, every time I release something I post it on there and they get to hear about it plus share it with their friends if they like, also it’s the same on twitter too…

    1. Jonathan said: “I never even thought about RSS or HTM: 5 for my little netlabel, I figured Facebook would be good enough”

      Diversification is key. In my case if Facebook is the only tool or the main tool used for promotion, then I’m not going to see it, since I don’t use Facebook at all.

      RSS has been a must for a while now. Feeds are very, very convenient and allow for users to use their own preferred platform. HTML5 is something we’re all just trying to get caught up on, or at least I am. Stupid war on flash.

  13. I’d like to see a greater commitment from netlabels and their artists toward open culture. It seems that there are many in the netlabel scene who are trying to figure out how to make a buck. Every time I “preach” about free music, someone from the commercial side of culture acts I am taking away their right to earn money. That’s not true. But why as a proponent of open culture do I have to defend commercial culture’s right to exist? Commercial culture does more to harm open culture than the other way around.

    I guess the short version is that there is a philosophy and a hitory behind netlabels that many don’t know of or want to see.

  14. Just to add to the details about correctly tagging your files – the filename and foldernaming convention is vitally important too.

    I host an online radio show, and spend hours every week searching for new and interesting music. To download a zip file, open it, and find that the contents are a folder labelled “IDM0001” and files labelled ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, or just tracktitles is incredibly frustrating. I’ve lost count of the number of times i’ve played a track during my show, and had to go online to remind myself of the label name / artist name / ep title. Example – I recently paid for a bandcamp release. Every file name contained the name of the album (a huge 100 character monstrosity) and track title, but no indication of the artist. This was a various artists compilation, and there was no cover art or text file included. I knew the name of the track I played, but no idea who it was by, and having to go to the bandcamp page for that info every time… It makes me not want to play the track.

    1. Ah, yes unfortunately bandcamp renames all their files automatically using the username name and album title – perhaps as a way to combat those who don’t name them correctly, but it also doesn’t help us that do.

  15. Excellent guide.

    I’ve been producing original podcasts of my own music since 2004 and they’ve been very successful at attracting listeners, so I can’t stress enough the important of doing this – whether you’re a netlabel, musician, etc.

    My server stats go back 3 years, and some shows are above 20,000 downloads. New programs are getting about 3000 downloads in the first month. It’s taken time to build that up since I rarely play live and never tour, but I always encourage every musician with a reasonable amount of recorded or live output to try to do something like this.

  16. A very good topic, Marc! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but in the much wider context of music2.0. You refer to certain aspects in a few items as well. I think that the culture of net labels lacks “relationship”. When I visit a net label I feel like I’m a lizard sneaking in, lurking, probing and then retracting with or without downloaded files. What I liked about record shops (remember those?) was the feeling of being together with people, sharing the love for music (even if they were hunting for different ‘genres’). I have been designing a plan of a new net label where people can also download FLAC files (next to streaming mp3’s) but the main difference would be that the focus would not be on the label but on the artists and on the artist-listener relationship. That relationship can be much deeper than the (biweekly?) release. Lack of time prevents me from launching this really but I;m waiting for the first site where this concept is implemented.

    1. let me play devil’s advocate: is the netlabel as a concept even (what’s the opposite of anachronistic .. chronistic?) anymore? Compare to a coscientiously curated soudcloud group: you get the filtering, you get the variety and singles aspect Marc brought up, you stream, of course, and can download if you want, and if you find an artist interesting, more is just a click away. And you get the discussion and interaction, in theory at least — not a lot of discussion happening on soundcloud yet, it seems.

      1. Soundcloud targets on the music producing community, not the consuming community. I wonder what their business model looks like, actually.

  17. Great article and agree with all points, strongly on the curation aspect and overall branding/look to the presentation of the label.

    ID tagging! Yes, a lot of what you’re written Marc can be applied to the paid model labels as well. The amount of labels that are lacklustre and half assed with their entity is staggering. If you’re not going to bother doing it properly, why bother at all?

    Again, sterling article.

  18. I use genres mainly for SEO and for visitors to find the style of music they are looking for. So, what benefit would i see to adding tags instead? Would it be more visitors via search engines or for the visitors benefit?

    1. Genres may help people find your pages for the time being, but will they be happy when they get there?

      If a track is labeled as “country” or “jazz” or even “dubstep,” the variety is still so broad that the listener won’t necessarily be interested in what they discover. A constellation of tags is a much stronger determination of sound than is a genre, or even sub-genre. So, I’d say it is for the visitor’s benefit, as you describe it.

      Thanks for weighing in.

  19. Hi Marc!

    Your article is very interesting and clear. I guess I’ll note some details. I launched a small netlabel to share my tracks and the tracks from my bro-in-law, on last August (yep, we’re very young!). :)

    I particularly like the sense of community you’re talking about and I could already noticed this sense on Twitter between netlabels. Hope it could continue. :)

    I’d like to have your opinion. I already posted our contents on BandCamp and some on SoundCloud to promote. I opened a Facebook page and Twitter account for communication and also a blog for netlabel main page, and finally Internet Archive for older tracks.

    I was wondering if it’s needed to post music on Spotify or ReverbNation or any other music sharing site?

  20. Hi,

    wonderful and very useful article. I write music for trailers, films and tv, and I want to get my little own space where to publish what I want. What I need (if I need) to do LEGALLY in starting a new label? Even if I publish with sites like Distrokid?

    Thank you!


Leave a Reply to Mark Rushton Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *