Tomohiro Konuta didn’t have lofty ambitions when he and his friend Syem started the online music label Maltine Records in 2005. They were just two teenagers looking for a little attention.
“Syem and I were making tracks at that time and needed a place where we could release them,” Konuta says. “We were freshman in high school. Before we started Maltine, we were just ordinary students.”
Six years on, Maltine has morphed from a means for a pair of adolescents to self-release their songs into a dozens-strong collection of electronic artists responsible for, at the moment, 92 releases — all of which can be streamed and downloaded for free at the label’s official website.
Maltine isn’t the only music-maker turning to this “give it away” distribution model. Many independent artists—highlighted recently by the rise of Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future—have simply released tracks or entire albums online for free in an effort to build their own audience without the help of a major label. Konuta says this decision was driven by a desire to have Maltine’s music heard by more people and to “make more exciting things happen.”
Maltine initially scoured the Web looking for similar-minded artists to join their roster. “In the beginning, most of our releases were from artists we met on 2channel, which is the biggest (Internet) bulletin board system in Japan,” Konuta says. “I listened to each track and asked some artists I liked to release through our label.” From there the label grew, thanks to a combination of reoccurring musicians and one-off releases.
Konuta, who goes by the nickname “Tomad,” and Syem, who prefers to keep his real name private, describe the songs Maltine releases as “tracks based on pop and dance music”—”based” being the key word. Though some offerings stand as straightforward interpretations of electronic music subgenres like house, breakbeat and dubstep, many more take the conventions of these styles and push them to stranger places. One popular trick across the Maltine universe is to drop dialogue from anime over otherwise normal dance tracks, resulting in faster releases imagining a world where Aphex Twin really liked Sailor Moon and decided to incorporate it into his music. Frequent Maltine contributor Gassyoh built a house track primarily using sounds from the 1990s video game “Earthbound.” One of Konuta’s early releases under the name DJ Tomad featured a neck-snapping remix of Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam.” Some releases are described only as “???”
Besides mining video games and the “Space Jam” soundtrack for ideas, the artists on Maltine also turn to J-pop for inspiration. “I think J-pop has influenced almost every artist on Maltine because it was the closest music that we heard around us through TV and other media (growing up),” Konuta says. None of the songs scattered across Maltine’s website resemble AKB48, but rather are a re-imagining of Japanese mainstream pop created for the dance floor rather than an ice-cream commercial.
Recently, the label has started exploring new ways of sharing its music. Last year, Maltine released a physical CD of Maltine music appropriately titled “MP3 Killed The CD Star?” The label also released an iPhone application allowing users to play any song posted to the site. It’s free to download.
“The iPhone app and CD are meant to get more people to know and listen to Maltine,” Konuta says before touching a bit more on the CD, which costs around ¥2,000. “Specifically, I wanted people we couldn’t deliver music to through solely online activity to know Maltine by displaying the CDs in stores.”
For a label that has made its mark online, it may well be old-school music marketing that winds up propelling Maltine to the next level.