10 Essential Japanese Netlabels


December 3 2014
London online label PC Music has become a much-buzzed-about—and divisive—entity over the course of 2014 via their wonky dance-pop releases, Web 1.0 aesthetics, and gratis distribution model. Yet there’s at least one place on Earth where PC Music’s sonic and visual input wouldn’t be jarring, but rather commonplace among an ever-growing community going strong for more than a decade now: Japan’s netlabel scene. A "netlabel" is a music imprint existing primarily on the Internet, where users can download all releases for free in digital format. In most cases, netlabels license all songs under creative commons licenses, encouraging fledgling producers to remix them however they’d like. PC Music is the first Western netlabel to make significant waves in the English media, but the most influential Japanese netlabels have already helped shepherd a new generation of producers to greater awareness while shaping the future of popular Japanese music.
"Daisy" (via MarginalRec.) — USYNVia SoundCloud
The first Japanese netlabel, Minus N, emerged in 2003, and welcomed submissions from all countries, making it far more popular outside of Japan than within. Subsequently, plenty of Japanese netlabels emerged and continued embracing a no-borders mindset, but the appearance of Maltine Records in 2005 helped birth the country’s contemporary online-music scene. Started by two high school freshmen who just wanted to share their fidgety dance music, Maltine reached out to budding producers sharing tracks on MySpace and the popular image-board 2chan (the inspiration for America’s 4chan), offering them a chance to release EPs and albums via their Internet-only imprint. Maltine embraced all mutations of electronic music—starting out favoring breakbeats and gabber, but soon welcoming house, techno, and sliced-and-diced anime music into the fold—eventually creating a musical universe all their own. Soon enough, others followed their lead, taking advantage of this limitless new realm.
The movement wasn’t necessarily a kickback against popular J-pop—many artists on netlabels support mainstream acts—but rather a chance for amateur producers with no real way into the Japanese music industry to try to be heard. And the digital door isn’t open to just music makers: many young visual artists and graphic designers have had their work used as album covers within the netlabel community, while others have helped design the colorful, attention-monopolizing, and sometimes-browser-crippling websites for certain full-lengths.
"††† yAmAgAtA †††" (via Trekkie Trax) — mitsushigeVia SoundCloud
The netlabel scene grew larger thanks to the rise of social-networking sites, and the more established outfits started crossing into real life with parties featuring artists who once only shined in .ZIP form. Even live, the Internet isn’t absent—at Maltine’s club nights, there are always designated computer corners where punters can use their devices and charge phones, while more daring attendees clutch their laptops on the dancefloor and livestream themselves enjoying the event… often to people across the floor from them.
Watch footage from a Maltine Records party from earlier this year in Tokyo:
Now, netlabel culture and artists are crossing over to the mainstream. A new generation of producers who got their start through Web-only labels such as Avec Avec, Yoshino Yoshikawa, and Fazerock have earned work producing music for major-label pop stars. Maltine has collaborated with popular J-pop group Tokyo Girls’ Style for the Maltine Girls’ Wave project, while also hosting releases from non-Japanese artists like England’s bo en, Texas’ Xyloid, and Los Angeles’ Meishi Smile. Yusuke Kawai, aka tofubeats, has become the biggest crossover performer to date, joining Warner Bros. Japan as a solo artist, teaming up with Mad Decent singer LIZ, and offering a mix for the BBC’s "Diplo and Friends" show in the process.
"Bit by Bit" (via Maltine Records) — Pa's Lam SystemVia SoundCloud
Despite these success stories, the Japanese netlabel community tends to be very transient. New labels start all the time and vanish into the digital ether just as quickly; browsing the "links" pages of still-thriving netlabels leads to lots of 404 errors or domain-for-sale pages. Minus N’s site is now riddled with script mistakes. But despite the fleeting nature of these smaller operations, the Japanese netlabel scene has created a welcoming online world where anyone with wi-fi can create a unique aesthetic and then set it free.
The following list runs down the 10 most noteworthy contemporary Japanese netlabels and some of their best tracks:

"Miss You" — bo enVia SoundCloud
The biggest and most well-known netlabel in Japan started life as a way for a pair of high school freshmen to share their homemade tracks. Launched in 2005 by Tomohiro Konuta and a friend going by the name Syem, the online imprint served as a way to release dance and pop music made by like-minded artists found online. Today, Maltine boasts over 130 releases —all available here for free download—and has garnered enough clout to collaborate with major-label J-pop singers and put on big IRL events. They’ve become a favorite of various non-Japanese artists as well, including Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, who regularly features the label’s music in his live sets and mixes. Despite growing attention, the label’s open-minded attitude remains, allowing Maltine to release electronic music blurring all sorts of lines, from 2-step to Jersey Club approximations to indie-pop while weaving in nerdier aspects of Japanese pop culture through video game noises and anime samples.

"hitomi" [ft. Abigail Press] — mus.hibaVia SoundCloud
Alongside Maltine, Bunkai-Kei is the other big-name netlabel going in 2014. In a scene where digital outlets tend to disappear as quickly as they pop up, Bunkai-Kei has lasted for years and also achieved the netlabel milestone of hosting live shows around Tokyo, most notably the Out of Dots show at the capital’s famous club Womb. Unlike Maltine’s cartoon-embracing spirit, though, the artists on Bunkai-Kei give off a slightly more serious air, with most releases leaning towards ambient and glitch. Still, they aren’t afraid to highlight whatever electronic music catches their attention, and they’ve even released an album courtesy of famous Vocaloid producer kz, albeit one where the character’s digi-singing was sliced up. Recently, they’ve also embraced more human voices, ranging from Tokyo singer Smany, to adult-video-actor Yura Sakura, to Brooklyn-based Abigail Press, who appears on Bunkai-Kei’s latest album, courtesy of woozy producer mus.hiba.

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Bump Foot boasts the most intimidating catalog of all Japanese netlabels—more than 400 releases appear in their archives, which date back to 2005. The people running the site make it a tiny bit easier to navigate through their stacks, dividing albums up into two types. "Bump Side" uploads are based on techno and house music, though the producers featured in that category aren’t afraid to bend those definitions—as long as someone could dance to it, it’s bumping. "Foot Side," meanwhile, highlights music meant to be absorbed. Bump Foot resembles early-day netlabels in its sprawling selection, and is the most international of the bunch, with the number of foreign acts well outnumbering the domestic side.

"Beyond the Night" [ft. Chanmomo] — SearchlightVia SoundCloud
One of the key concepts of Japanese netlabel culture is connecting people who normally wouldn’t have a chance to interact, and Tokyo-based MarginalRec. takes that principle very seriously. They sometimes throw parties, dubbed Another Weekender, at clubs as a way for listeners to come together and hear their take on electronic music. They also stream these nights out live online for those who can’t experience it in person and put on a weekly Ustream show every Monday. The label’s music runs from remixes of popular J-pop songs, to anthemic floor fillers, to fidgety built-for-headphones numbers.

"Green Night Parade" — fu_mouVia SoundCloud
"entrance" — LeggysaladVia SoundCloud
There’s a heavy overlap between Japan’s online music scenes and anime communities, and the art direction many netlabels embrace can sometimes skew a little too moe. For those who still raise an eyebrow at Japanese animation, ALTEMA Records strikes a nice balance between otaku and general-audience serving. Co-founder sir etok doesn’t shy away from his love for anime, and the covers of many of their albums feature cutesy drawings, but the music within takes many shapes. Some are built around nothing but samples from ‘90s programs, while others swerve into brostep territory, or heady IDM.

"Kick Back" — CarpainterVia SoundCloud
Few netlabels have shot up the ranks as quickly as Trekkie Trax, a Tokyo-based crew who have gone from cramped clubs to having their own radio show in just two years. Trekkie Trax started as a party held in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood called Under 20, because the DJs hosting the get-together were still in their teens. They soon established an online outpost to release their music, and began recruiting new producers. The artists released by Trekkie Trax embrace contemporary forms of dance music—among their catalog are releases devoted to juke, 2-step, brostep, and grime-descendant war dub. In 2014, they’ve been getting even more attention both at home and abroad, as members of the label now host occasional radio programs on Tokyo’s block.fm, while the Helsinki-based dance label Top Billin released a special compilation of Trekkie Trax songs this spring.

"You Only Fuck Twice" — KlitoriXVia SoundCloud
"divorce" — gigandectVia SoundCloud
Far and away the most aggressive-sounding Japanese netlabel going, Otherman Records emerged in 2010 as an online stop for breakcore music. Though, even from their very first compilation album, it was never that simple. Otherman highlights all abrasive dance music, from manic chiptune to drum ‘n’ bass freak outs that push the boundaries of what a club goer could actually dance to. (Most extreme of all may be their chiptune Christmas album.) Some of the label’s earliest contributors have gone on to increased attention as of late, including producers Miii and Gigandect (the latter being invited to take part in Maltine’s collaboration with popular J-pop group Tokyo Girls’ Style), as they continue to seek out exciting young track makers who aren’t afraid to get confrontational with their music.

Most netlabels veer towards electronic music, but Ano(t)raks takes the online-label model and applies it to another genre built on the spirit of "let’s just make something and put it out there" indie-pop. Started in 2012 by Dai Ogasawara, Ano(t)raks acts as a curator within a type of guitar-focused pop that never goes out of style across Japan, sifting through the twee masses to find the most interesting young artists around. They achieve this most clearly on their compilation albums, large collections casting the spotlight on all sorts of groups, hailing from Tokyo to tiny corners in the Western-most parts of Japan. Ano(t)raks has also served as a stepping-stone for groups such as Kyoto’s Homecomings and Osaka’s the Paellas en route to larger-label distribution opportunities.

Whereas Ano(t)raks focuses solely on the Japanese indie-pop landscape, Tokyo-based Canata Records expands the boundaries of the genre generously. Founded by Azusa Suga and Yoshiki Iwasawa, the netlabel spotlights indie-pop from all over the world, with releases coming from America (Randy Johnson), England (Along Came December), and Argentina (Aguas Tonicas), among others. Yet the bulk of releases come from Japanese outfits who aren’t afraid to push Sarah-Records-inspired pop into weird directions, like recording a twee album using the synthesized voice of Vocaloid star Hatsune Miku. Co-founder Suga also fancies sub-genres such as chillwave and vaporwave, ignoring the perceptions of "coolness" abroad in favor of playing around with the sonic pillars of each. In the case of vaporwave, he’s taken a niche corner of Internet music populated by Westerners goofing around with Japanese music, samples, and language, and turned it into an achingly nostalgic look back on youth.

"Last Words" — House of TapesVia SoundCloud
Tanukineiri is one of the newest netlabels in Japan and it might point at the future of the scene. While the majority of Japanese netlabels—certainly the long-running ones—have had a central identity that shines through regardless of how wonky the (largely electronic) music gets, Tanukineiri ditches that template and simply releases whatever they fancy. They’ve uploaded dense four-on-the-floor dance music courtesy of Nagoya’s House of Tapes, rapturous folk strumming from Tokyo’s may.e, and lo-fi experimental sketches from Zaiden. They are globally minded, too, somehow becoming the place to go to hear Indonesian indie-pop such as HoneybeaT and Tokyolite, and aren’t afraid to sell CDs of certain releases while giving the rest away for free.

Via Pitchfork / Artwork by inumoto and featured on the cover of Go-qualia’s Girl of Synesthesea, the first release by Japanese netlabel Bunkai-Kei Records