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.