What is a metalabel?
Reviving the Dischord Records model for the Discord era, with Yancey Strickler and Austin Robey
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Remember when being a music fan meant falling in love with a label and collecting every single release? Today we’re going to be talking about labels, and the special role they play in the creator economy — past, present, and future.
These days, when you hear about record labels, it’s usually in the context of a high-profile artist going on social media to speak out about being locked into a terrible deal, or some jaw-dropping headline about how the majors are generating a million dollars of streaming revenue in an hour as artists struggle to make rent.
But until relatively recently, record labels — and especially independent record labels — occupied a much more influential position in the zeitgeist. In the years before streaming became the de facto mode of discovery, one could argue that they served as a sort of organizing principle for musical knowledge, crystallizing scenes and movements under a recognizable banner that pointed listeners in the right direction and amplified artists operating outside of the commercial establishment. Think: How Dischord Records nurtured D.C.'s rich hardcore scene, or the role that Mac Dre's Thizz Entertainment played in ushering in the Bay Area Hyphy movement, or how Wax Trax! helped define the sound of Industrial music in Chicago.
In the platform era, that feeling of being part of something larger than yourself, and being able to benefit from the support of a community that has your back, can be increasingly hard to come by. Which is why Yancey Strickler, a former music journalist and the co-founder of Kickstarter and The Creative Independent, had something of a eureka moment recently while revisiting Michael Azerrad’s groundbreaking chronicle of the 1980s punk and indie scenes, Our Band Could Be Your Life: What if, instead of operating like independent economic agents, vying for our attention, streams, and clicks, artists squadded up and released work together?
Before long, Strickler had teamed up with some friends to start Metalabel, an organization that describes itself as a “growing universe of knowledge, resources, and tools that inspire creative collaboration, cooperation, and mutual support.”
The group, which includes musician Anna Bulbrook, Etsy co-creator Rob Kalin, designer Ilya Yudanov, developer Lauren Dorman, and collective internet culture expert Austin Robey, has yet to reveal what those tools consist of, or what the business model will be, beyond hinting that the project will involve blockchain in some way. (Austin told The Culture Journalist that the company has plans to become collectively owned.) But, like Other Internet’s “Squad Wealth” article and Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon’s “Interdependence” idea before it, the Metalabel concept offers some useful language for describing a paradigm shift that is clearly already underway. You can see it in how independent artists are teaming up to form DAOs, or media pundits hyping up the so-called “great rebundling.”
Naturally, we couldn’t help but want to dig deeper into the idea: Whether you’re a musician, a writer, a fashion designer, or an activist, how might reframing our creative output as releases on a label free us up from the diminishing returns of the platform economy?
Today, we’re excited to welcome Yancy and Austin — one of the brains behind the digital musicians’ cooperative Ampled, as well as Unnamed Fund and Dinner DAO — onto the show. We discuss what The Whole Earth Catalog, the creative studio MSCHF, and the centuries-old science academy The Royal Society have in common (hint: our guests say they are all examples of a metalabel), Yancey’s “Dark Forest Theory of the Internet,” and how trying to keep up with the constant churn of content warps our priorities and values as creative people.
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Metalabel presentation at ETHDenver 2022
“The dark forest theory of the internet” (Yancy Stickler)
“What coops and DAOs can learn from each other” (Austin Robey)
“Squad wealth” (Sam Hart, Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti)
“Hyperstructures” (Zora’s Jacob Horne)
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