Editor’s note: This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in Dis­quiet on 11 April 2011. There are also Ital­ian and Japan­ese trans­la­tions which is a good exam­ple of the ben­e­fits of using Cre­ative Com­mons when licens­ing your writing.

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.


One thought on “If You’re Thinking of Starting a Netlabel …

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