The Rise of Netaudio
Across the fields of traditional publishing media, a debate is raging, and its most hotly contested battleground is music. On one side, the old guard – those involved in the entrenched power structures of traditional labels. On the other side, the rising tide of musicians who release their work independently, either through platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, or through their own boutique netlabels.
So what is the value of a netlabel, or a music career run entirely through social media and websites? Does sidestepping the traditional industry offer artists more creative freedom, or merely a life of being underpaid and exploited? 2011 saw Death Grips release an incredibly popular debut album for free via their Third Worlds site. Subseqeuntly they signed to Epic Records; part of their deal involved Epic making their album The Money Store available as a torrent. Interviewed this issue, Ben Butler & Mousepad sells some of his music via Bandcamp, some via labels; meanwhile Canada's Purity Ring have gone from blog-hyped independent artists to 4AD signings in less than a year.
Boutique labels run online, via sites like Bandcamp and BigCartel, are successfully selling both physical and digital downloads – Phantasma Disques and Clan Destine Records have made a name for themselves releasing short runs of deluxe vinyl, tapes and other specialist formats, by artists like Mater Suspiria Vision, Ela Orleans and I††. California's Tundra Dubs recently had their albums listed for sale on music site Boomkat, further blurring the line between traditional and net-based labels. Other labels such as Aural Sects (and, incidentally, my own – Black Lantern Music) release both physical albums and digital, some being offered for free, and others for a small fee. The money tends to go straight to the artist.
There is anxiety attached to the netlabel model – it is hard for artists to make serious money unless their music is virally embraced by the online community, and even then, making a profit is still difficult. Mainstream press often have a policy of not reviewing free releases, even though they now account for a huge proportion of the music being made worldwide. A netlabel release carries no guarantee of quality, but netlabels are beginning to function less like traditional labels, and more like magazines or blogs; curating the work of bedroom producers and bands, becoming trusted brands.
So if you've not really dipped your toe into the world of netmusic, where should you start? First of all, Soundcloud is the main place where independent artists showcase their new work. Create an account and search for your favourite music by genre – you'll find more established artists on there, whose work will lead you to the up-and-comers. Secondly, check out local bands you may have seen in support slots or at smaller gigs – you'll find many of them, like Glasgow's spectacular CUR$ES, offer their music for free on Bandcamp. Check out US site Free Music Archive for a wealth of independent and established artists' work.
Finally, check The Skinny next month, where I'll be starting a new online column running through some of the best netlabel music available. You'll find that beyond the scenes covered in traditional media, there are a wealth of microgenres and mini-scenes, and of course artists in a category all their own, just waiting to be discovered. Good hunting!