Maltine & Me

Earlier this year, I was asked to contribute an essay to Maltine Book, a special publication celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Japan’s Maltine Records. I wrote it in English, but the final draft was translated into Japanese for the final collection. I wanted to share the English original I wrote, and after asking the label’s owner/the book’s editor-in-chief Tomad if that would be OK, here it is. Not sure what has changed during translation, but here was my final draft, submitted to the book back in late May.

I had no idea I was being asked to send someone money through song. I was sitting in my apartment in Nabari city on a regular weeknight, most likely browsing Twitter. Situated on the western edge of Mie prefecture, Nabari was a pleasant enough place to live, but hardly an exciting one. Nights spent staring at my computer looking for interesting Japanese music were common. And, for whatever reason on this nondescript evening, someone shared a link to a site called Maltine Records.

I clicked on the digital label’s newest offering, and was surprised right away. It was an EP from a group called Mikeneko Homeless called Kanekure, and I had never heard anything like the title track before. Over a sweet synthesizer melody, someone sang about…well, I didn’t really know, as my Japanese wasn’t particularly good at this point. But the voice was drenched in an electronic sound, and soon “Kanekure” was leaping from pop to rap to Street Fighter samples.

A couple years later, I learned the actual lyrics revolved around the members of Mikeneko Homeless providing their bank details, and asking listeners to send some money their way. This made “Kanekure” all the more charming, but at the time, the music itself was more than enough. And it introduced me to Maltine, who I soon wrote about on my blog and who I immediately started digging into, listening to as many of their 90 releases as I could. I followed them afterwards, and watched them bring together creators and fans both in Japan and beyond. It was like stumbling upon a whole new world — all from the countryside of Mie.

The Internet, at its absolute best, helps people overcome geographical limitations to connect with other users and forge new communities that wouldn’t have been possible in the physical world. Maltine has been an excellent example of this over the past decade. Location isn’t an issue — a kid from Kobe, Fukuoka or Sapporo can connect with the netlabel and share their music with like-minded creators. After moving to Tokyo, I learned how central the city is to Japan’s music industry, how you really can’t get attention unless you operate out of the capital.

Maltine, though, offers an alternative.

It has proven to be a great launching pad, especially in recent years. One of the bigger thrills of 2015 has been walking into Tower Records stores throughout Tokyo and seeing artists who released digital albums via Maltine on display. That’s included the cutesy creations of Tomggg, the frantic electronic compositions of Parkgolf, the garage style of Carpainter and the bouncy pop of Yoshino Yoshikawa. And in recent years, the biggest highlight has been tofubeats, one of Maltine’s earliest collaborators and the first netlabel producer to really make the leap to a major label. One of the more surreal moments of 2014 was walking by a Karaoke Kan in Shinjuku and seeing tofubeats being interviewed on the TV in the lobby.

Yet none of the artists jumping up to these higher levels, whether by appearing in a karaoke center’s series of promotional videos or the main display centers of physical CD stores, have drastically changed their approach to music. The songs they release sound more or less identical to the work they put out through Maltine. That’s the other great thing about the Internet that often gets taken for granted — it’s a space where people can be themselves, whatever that may entail. Maltine has been one of the best digital enclaves for artists to do whatever they want since starting out.

What grabbed me about that Kanekure EP was the details that seemed deeply personal weaved into the music. Like that shout of “hadouken!” in the title track, or the deluge of anime vocal samples on the second song. Digging back into the Maltine catalog revealed a similar embrace of interests rarely worked into electronic music, whether it be anime, video games or something else entirely. Maltine isn’t just a label, but a playroom where young artists can experiment and figure out just what their sound is. And in most situations, those styles end up worming into the Japanese pop landscape, helping spread new ideas forward.

Maltine’s biggest gains have been in Japan, but the netlabel has also reached beyond Japan’s borders to connect with those living in other continents. That’s the ultimate magic of this particular netlabel — linking Japanese producers together is great, but transcending borders is even more impressive. Artists such as Meishi Smile from California (whose Zoom Lens label draws heavy inspiration from Maltine), or bo en from London, have been heavily influenced by the sounds and ethos of Maltine. Fittingly, they were some of the first music makers located outside of Japan to release music through Maltine — and both of them performed at the netlabel’s Tokyo even in May of 2014, where they played in front of over a thousand fans at Tokyo famous Liquidroom venue. That show remains a highlight of Maltine’s decade-long existence — even though the label lives online, seeing so many people losing it to Maltine artists lives drove home how far the netlabel has come.

Since then, Maltine has hosted releases from non-Japanese artists such as Grimecraft and Goodnight Cody, and hosted an album of nothing but remixes of American electronic artist Porter Robinson’s “Flicker.” They even hosted a physical show in London in 2015, the label’s first ever international date. Slowly but surely, Maltine’s global footprint has grown larger.

Yet, regardless of what shape Maltine has taken, I always come back to my first encounter with the netlabel, while living in the middle of nowhere. As a person who writes about Japanese music for a living, I know how hard it is for music from Japan (or any non-Western nation) to get any attention overseas. And I also know how difficult it is to break through into the Japanese mainstream, and how difficult maintaining artistic independence within that system can be. Maltine carved out their own space for producers to do what they wanted, ignoring how outside systems work in favor of their own world, one where electronic artists can chase whatever sound they want, wherever they may live. And fans have a central hub to find all of this music, regardless of where they are. I never came across anything that sounded like what Maltine artists were putting out while living in Mie — even trips into nearby Osaka failed to reveal any music that grabbed me in the same way “Kanekure” did.

The moment I truly realized Maltine’s reach, however, came several years later, in Texas. I was watching a concert in somebody’s backyard, when I spotted an American wearing a Maltine t-shirt. By this point, my image of Maltine was of an online juggernaut, uniting people via the Web. Yet here I was, suddenly talking with someone I had never known, all because of a netlabel’s shirt. Maltine created a community stretching well beyond the Internet, and an inviting one.

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