Major record labels were once famed for dominating the music industry, and getting their fair share of the artists’ cut. And while stodgy insiders blame rampant internet file sharing for the downfall of this model, a new breed of savvier A&R men are staking their claim on the digital frontier.

By Kyle Mullin

A recent Pitchfork article pointed to an emerging trend in the UK—one example was the netlabel “PC Music,” which grew white hot in 2014 by releasing underground dance pop online for free. But the piece goes on to describe the true pioneers of this scene: forward-thinking Japanese netizens, some of them only teen-aged, who began this futuristic distribution scheme a decade ago.

“The distribution style of netlabels is no longer a new thing in Japan,” Seimei Kawai, who co-founded the Trekkie Trax netlabel in 2012, says during a recent interview with Tokyo Weekender of the established, yet still fledgling scene that is helping once marginalized artists gain mainstream attention in Japan and beyond. Kawai adds: “Five years ago, even in Tokyo, it was quite strange for a DJ to play this ‘geeky’ type of music. However, now it is becoming more popular and trendy. My brother [who records under the name Carpainter] has a lot of tunes which contain a lot of ‘video gamey’ style sounds, was supported by Ryan Hemsworth, an iconic producer from LA. Thus, such a trend helps me as a DJ or a label owner to get into the scene in US. People in here are really interested in Japanese music, which they probably have never heard before.”

“I do believe the great songs will be easy for non-Japanese listeners to accept.”

Kawai, who is now based in San Francisco but hails from Yokohama, founded the label in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood at a party dubbed “Under 20” because, according to Pitchfork, “the DJs hosting the get-together were still in their teens.” After releasing a slew of juke, 2-step, and war dub dance compilations, Trekkie Trax gained an even bigger following—ironically—through old-fashioned means: the buzz from their burgeoning online label prompted Tokyo’s radio station to invite them to host radio programs.

Trekkie Trax is not the only Japanese netlabel coupling futuristic and nostalgic distribution. Tanukineiri doesn’t just offers its dance, folk, and lo-fi experimental artists’ releases online for free—it also sells those tunes on a format that seems to be headed for the audio format graveyard: compact disc.

Naoya Noda, the head of Tanukineiri, tells us, “I believe that there will be a devoted group of people who will continue to purchase CDs. These fans will be the ones digging through online services such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud for new music.” However, Noda warns that these compact disc devotees will never move beyond a niche market, amounting to only a smattering of sales on Japanese netlabels and speciality online music outlets. Instead, Noda says the “majority of the music will be streamed through free video services such as Youtube and streaming services like Spotify. The difference between indie labels and major record companies will become ambiguous, as major record companies will no longer be able to afford to spend as much money on recording and promotion as before. This will result in many new netlabels thriving.”

“Our releases with them eventually pushed our music to the world. Now, we have more opportunities to do something creative and fun”

Dai Ogasawara has forged a unique link between these eras. The director of Ano(t)raks—a long running netlabel that also maintains an eclectic collection of indie pop—Ogasawara was hailed by Pitchfork for creating “a stepping-stone for groups such as Kyoto’s Homecomings and Osaka’s the Paellas en route to larger-label distribution opportunities.” But Ogasawara explains that netlabels are by no means dominating the Japanese music industry. “I think the demand for distribution will increase,” he says of the scene’s growing popularity, before adding, “Japanese still like albums and more traditional forms of music. I think that it will still take some time for our form of distribution to become mainstream.”

Ogasawara is also hesitant to applaud the international popularity of netlabels. While he is excited by the notion of “charming non-Japanese audiences,” he cautions that “If the songs have too many Japanese lyrics, they won’t do well overseas. But I do believe the great songs will be easy for non-Japanese listeners to accept.”

However, the fact that netlabels are an unprecedented mouse click away—compared to the North American DIY punk labels that thrived regionally throughout the 80s—gives the nascent digital scene a promising global reach. Kawai says this allows all “Japanese netlabels, not just Trekkie Trax, to have so many listeners from outside of Japan, and those labels sometimes collaborate with non-Japanese producers or collectives using the Internet.”

Kawai adds that Trekkie Trax has already collaborated with top European labels like Top Billin and datafruits, a much buzzed Tokyo-Seattle based netlabel. Kawai adds: “Our releases with them eventually pushed our music to the world. Now, we have more opportunities to do something creative and fun, and I often contact those non-Japanese listeners and artists online. I’m really enjoying this globalized online world.”

Main Image: The VJ/Composer HALOiD, who releases on Trekkie Trax