Netlabels as Dispositives of Sound

For the last half year I have been doing research on netlabels for my Magister’s thesis. Although I wanted to cover several websites and communities which distribute or present music for free, I focussed mainly on netabels because they are a more distinct and well-established phenomenon. Instead of fighting with the commercial music industry over copyright and intellectual property, netlabels open up an alternative realm of original music outside the traditional market. Netlabels as we know them came into being already in the middle of the Nineties and are important actors in the development of a different mode of cultural production in connection with the Internet. I wanted to examine how they work specifically and how they might transform cultural and aesthetic practices and concepts. Therefore I used the aesthetic categories of authorship, work and reception as focal aspects to determine the model of culture netlabels operate upon.

From a Sound Studies point of view netlabels are also an interesting phenomena. They broaden the scope of music available, because they can select and distribute music without having to take into account the potential of this music to be sold. Since the costs of distributing music on the Internet are minimal nowadays, financial aspects do play a role in the activities of netlabels, but are not crucial for the central trait of netaudio: sharing music non-commercially. Instead, the personal tastes of the netlabel owners is most important for the decision of releasing a piece. Netlabels are not needed for promoting and hosting an artist’s music on the net, so they conceive of themselves often as curators rather than traditional publishers, as filters of quality for the vast amount of available music online. Matthias Rheinwarth of the important netlabel tonAtom draws this self-portrayal exemplarily in an interview on the German Phlow magazine, which was important for the netaudio scene a while ago:

Ich verstehe Labels heute mehr denn je als Filter und das auf den Ebenen Quantität, Originalität, Qualität (Musik, Mastering, Artwork) und Stil. Das Internet ermöglicht es heute jedem, zu publizieren, sei es als Künstler oder als Netlabel. Das Großartige an dieser Möglichkeit kann man gar nicht genug betonen. Die wohl wichtigste Mission für ein Netlabel aus meiner Sicht ist es nun aber, einem interessierten Hörer unter einem Labelnamen – bei mir eben tonAtom – regelmäßig stilistisch interessante und qualitativ hochwertige Releases von faszinierenden und ungewöhnlichen Künstlern anzubieten. (

In my work I tried to analyze netlabels using Michel Foucault’s concept of the dispositive (sometimes also translated as apparatus). I applied the concept on various levels of my phenomena, but as well for netlabels themselves. I wanted to describe them as dispositives of sounds and determine which practices, concepts and components of the dispositive constituted the specific configurations of sound published by netlabels. Without the confining influence of marketability many netlabels might be viewed as encouraging and amplifying innovative and experimental sonic practices. In my upcoming blogposts I want to present some of these projects and practices I discovered during my research in more detail.