Ten years on, Maltine sticks to its guns on free music


Special To The Japan Times

Tomohiro Konuta sometimes imagines an alternate world where he’s not running a music label.

“In high school, I enjoyed studying philosophy and modern thinking, and focused on that in university,” he says. “There was a time I thought I could become a philosopher.”

Instead, Konuta (better known by his online moniker “Tomad”) put all of his energy into Maltine Records, an online music imprint he and a high school classmate started as an experiment.

“Doing a netlabel turned out to be a bit easier than philosophizing,” he says with a laugh.

What Konuta has accomplished, however, is no easy feat. He has taken Maltine (pronounced Malti-nay) from a project where two teenagers simply uploaded MP3s online and turned it into one of Japan’s best sites for great, wonky electronic music. Maltine has released more than 140 collections of music — all as free downloads — that veer off in many stylistic directions, but aren’t easily defined as one genre or another. There are elements of house, rap, video game music and pop, often sprinkled with samples from anime series and video games. The imprint has done well domestically; a handful of former Maltine acts have made it onto major labels, and the “Maltine sound” has begun creeping into mainstream pop — both here and overseas.

This year marks Maltine’s 10th anniversary and to celebrate the netlabel will hold a special event in Tokyo on Aug. 2 that will bring back artists from throughout the imprint’s history. Later this year, Maltine will also release a 150-page book that details its history. [Full disclosure: The author of this article has been asked to contribute a piece to that book.]

“I had no idea it would come this far,” Konuta says while sipping ice coffee at a Shibuya cafe near his home. When he and his friend Syem launched Maltine Records, he says they just wanted the experience of “playing record label” online. The netlabel scene was already going pretty strong a decade ago, with the first Japan-based digi-imprint, Minus N, having launched in 2003. That format inspired the pair and seemed like the best way to release their earliest creations, which leaned toward frantic breakcore and sample-heavy tracks.

“I was inspired a lot by music that depended on the use of samples, so I was a bit cynical toward major label output at the time,” Konuta says, referring to Japan’s strict copyright laws that make it difficult for artists to use samples in their music. “I wasn’t against those labels, I just wanted to make art the way I wanted to (with samples).”

The netlabel scene copied aspects of the mainstream recording industry with a dose of irony, which resulted in the only regret Konuta has ever had regarding Maltine.

“At the time, everyone added ‘records’ to the name of their netlabel, kind of as an inside joke,” he says. “It looked so cool at the time! But today all the coolest labels don’t use the word ‘records’ — like Mad Decent and LuckyMe — so now most people just call us Maltine.”

Whatever the name, Maltine soon stood out for releasing off-kilter EPs and mixtapes from artists across the country. Producers such as Imoutoid and DJ Newtown (who would eventually record as tofubeats) brought a pop edge to the label’s initially hard-hitting vibe, and by 2010 Konuta says his operation achieved the Maltine sound: a blur of J-pop catchiness and club music.

That year was a turning point for the netlabel. It began getting more attention from people in the music industry, starting with major label acts (Momoiro Clover Z, Shiho Nanba) requesting the netlabel’s acts for remix work. The year culminated with “MP3 Killed the CD Star?,” a compilation of Maltine music that was released via Sony Music Japan. Konuta remembers a lot of other netlabels starting up around that time and suspects this was due to his success.

Many Maltine-linked producers have been scouted by the majors, and last year Maltine collaborated with idol group Tokyo Girls’ Style. But one area Konuta and company hadn’t been thinking about was developing an overseas following.

“We had no idea people outside Japan even listened to Maltine, even though we had released music by (British producer) Submerse,” Konuta says. “We were also using a lot of social networks, of which SoundCloud was the most important. It was music based, so there was never really a language barrier.”

Then American musician Meishi Smile sent a demo tape to the label — a demo tape Konuta remembers as being “very influenced” by the Maltine sound — which surprised him.

“The possibility of Maltine being accepted in other countries started to become a bit more real after that,” he says.

Waking up to the wider world has worked in his favor. Maltine started releasing tracks by more artists from overseas, including Meishi Smile, England’s bo en and Indonesian city-pop revivalists Ikkubaru, and popular North American producers such as Ryan Hemsworth and Porter Robinson became vocal fans. In March, Konuta and a handful of Maltine-associated acts went abroad for the first time for a small club gig in London.

“It was good, but I wish more Maltine people could have been involved, and I wish we could have done our proper stage setup,” he says. “I wish we could have flown everyone over in a private jet.”

Though Maltine originally just existed online, Konuta says he soon became curious to meet the kind of people who were listening to the music he was putting out. It inspired him to hold live-performance events in Japan, including a decadent gig at a bubble-era cabaret in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district and an all-day show at Liquidroom in the Ebisu area. The Liquidroom show featured Meishi Smile and bo en, and was the netlabel’s biggest event yet. Konuta says the upcoming anniversary show will be a step back in terms of size, however, because planning for a 1,000-person venue like Liquidroom was the hardest thing he has ever taken on.

“I also underestimated the challenge of bringing international artists out for the show and the costs that come with it,” he says. “But watching Meishi Smile and bo en play live — that was my happiest memory with Maltine.”

Konuta says the stripped-down anniversary show will feel like a matsuri (traditional festival) and a walk through Maltine’s history. It will include artists who started out with the netlabel and have infiltrated mainstream pop (tofubeats and EDM-leaning producer banvox), but will also feature more underground early acts who helped shape Maltine’s identity.

Moving forward, Konuta says he’s planning a West Coast tour of the United States and prepping the next Maltine release (from electronic act LLLL). With all the changes, though, Konuta says the core philosophy — release all music for free online — won’t change.

“I want to help teach artists who release through us how to move forward with their careers,” he says. “Since we release everything for free, you can’t make much money, so I want to teach our artists how to support themselves. And I really just want to share as much Japanese music with people as I can.”

Maltine Records 10th Anniversary Event takes place at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo on Aug. 2 (3 p.m. start; ¥3,300 in advance; 03-5459-8630). For more information, visit maltinerecords.cs8.biz.