Rethinking Labels

Since we last spoke almost a year ago, I’ve been working on a new project called Metalabel. Last week I presented Metalabel for the first time at an Ethereum conference. The slides and edited transcript of the talk are below. Watch a video of the talk here.

A year ago, I hit a wall. I was trying to balance too many projects and struggling to do any of them well: a community I was responsible for; writing commitments I’d made; people and projects I was supporting. A surplus of ideas became too many plates to keep spinning. There was a creeping sense of failure that I couldn’t shake.

One day I was ready to quit. All of it. I wanted to flip over the table and walk away. But before I could, I was struck by an unexpected idea.

At the time I was reading a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life by the journalist Michael Azerrad. The book lovingly tells the origin stories of indie rock and punk rock in America. I’ve read this book several times, and each time I’m struck by how entrepreneurial the origins of indie rock were. Small groups of people around the US in the 1980s started bands, scenes, and labels that evolved into a decentralized network for art outside the mainstream that’s vibrant to this day.

On this reading I was especially struck by the record labels — classic indie labels like Touch & Go, Dischord, K Records, Matador — and how much they did with just one person or a tiny team. They found and signed artists. They provided artists with creative, financial, and production support. They physically manufactured and distributed records. They helped them go on tour. They promoted their work and the larger scene.

Uniting all these actions was the purpose of the label itself. If you were a punk label like Dischord, everything you did made more punk happen in the world. If you were a hip-hop label like Stones Throw or an electronic label like Warp Records, it was the same.

Reflecting on these labels inspired me to wonder: what if I saw the collection of projects on my plate not as the disorganized mess of an individual creator, but more like the catalog of a label? What if I was a label?

When I tried on this lens, the effect was immediate. As an individual creator I was desperate for a hit with everything I did. But when I thought of my work as a label, my projects combined to become something bigger. Until that moment I hadn’t thought of my output as a coherent body of work. Conceptualized as a label, it became one.

I went through my output to identify my label’s purpose (exploring the frontiers of value and the self), name (the Ideaspace), and key releases (17 different works at that point). I made a website to express the concept in a more finished form at theidea.space. It was exciting to express my work this way. It felt empowering to think of myself as a label.

But hang on a second — doesn’t everyone hate labels now?

Today labels are the horse and buggy of culture — an old model nobody wants back. The major labels’ long rap sheet of shady accounting, exploitative ownership, and corporatized content have ruined the form in the popular imagination. But indie labels like the ones in Our Band Could Be Your Life are very different. There are three especially valuable things they do well.

First, labels exist to stand for and promote a purpose of some kind. A hip-hop label exists to fly the flag for hip-hop. A jazz label exists to elevate and support jazz. A label needs to be financially sustainable, but the reason it exists is to promote a cultural point of view.

Second, unlike “Creator Economy” platforms that monetize work that’s already been made, labels typically provide money and creative support for people and projects at an early stage. Labels share in risks and rewards.

Third, labels provide their releases a stamp of approval and a context to exist within. The best labels lift their projects up by association.

As Creator Economy platforms amassed influence and eyeballs, record labels receded from public view. But labels didn’t go away — they evolved into new forms. One especially powerful and distinct form is something called a metalabel.

At a high level, a metalabel is a group of people using a common identity for a common purpose with a focus on public releases that manifest their worldview.

Think about an indie record label: it’s a group of people (the people who run the label and whose work is released through it); a common identity (the label’s brand and reputation); a common purpose (whatever genre or aesthetic it stands for); and public releases (records, concerts, and other cultural outputs).

A metalabel is like an indie record label, but for all forms of art, culture, and ideas.

A book publisher, a local collaborative creative project, an online community, an activist movement, an artist collective, a record label, and other collective cultural projects are examples of metalabels: groups of people using a shared identity for a shared purpose with a focus on public releases that manifest their worldview.

The quintessential metalabel today is MSCHF: the hard to describe project that releases absurd drops every two weeks that often break the internet — from bootleg Nikes with Jesus’s blood to sweepstakes that pay off people’s medical bills.

A lot of journalists have spilled a lot of ink trying to make sense of MSCHF — is it a company? A brand? An art project? MSCHF is a metalabel whose purpose is to reveal how manipulative capitalism is, using the tools of capitalism and commerce to demonstrate it in new ways every other week. The metalabel structure is crucial to how they function. It’s what gives them the freedom to put out new projects while accruing value in a wider universe they’re creating.

While the term is new, the metalabel form is not. One of the very first metalabels is the Royal Society, founded in 1660. The Royal Society began when a group of people in the 17th century pooled money and resources to fund experiments and publish the first scientific journals so that scientific thinking and practices would be accepted in English society.

The Royal Society went on to fund and publish work by Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and other breakthrough discoveries that helped spark the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Some of the greatest achievements in science were funded or published by the Royal Society — a group of people creating a common identity for a common purpose with a focus on releases to manifest their worldview.

One favorite metalabel is a project called the Wide Awakes, which was reawakened by the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, with the Roots and Alicia Keys among its members. (Their name and structure are modeled on an earlier metalabel also called the Wide Awakes that was active in the Abolitionist movement.)

The Wide Awakes are a group of artists and activists who created an open source network for politically engaging art and experiences, all of which are released under the Wide Awakes name. This has produced diverse projects like a mobile soup kitchen, public art installations, parties, and activist campaigns by a wide group of people sharing resources, distribution channels, and skills for a cultural cause.

Every metalabel shares four core elements that shape their behavior and output. There’s (1) a core purpose why they exist; (2) a squad of collaborators who operate and release projects with the label; (3) public releases they put out into the world to express their worldview; and (4) rules for participation, like how they make decisions, who owns what, and their economic structure.

Because of their ability to be designed in such a fluid way, metalabels are very different from what we’ve thought of as labels in the recent past.

Twentieth century labels are focused on selling products and maximizing financial returns. A metalabel exists to promote ideas and encourage new ways of seeing according to the values of the label itself.

Twentieth century labels are focused on owning a creator’s intellectual property and exploiting it financially until the end of time. A metalabel is likely to be a bottom’s up organization rather than a top-down one, and owned by the artists themselves.

Metalabels matter because over the past decade we’ve been lured in by the Creator Economy, which is creativity in single player mode. It’s every creator for themselves, with the algorithms encouraging people to perpetually make as much content as quickly as possible. As a result, people experience burnout and lose connection with what they do.

In contrast, a metalabel is creativity in multiplayer mode. It’s a system optimized for mutual aid and support for people collaborating on things together. It’s a model built around cooperation and shared goals.

A year ago I got stuck in the Creator Economy. I became isolated by a desire for attention and lost the context of my work. Discovering the label framework changed how I thought about my work, and manifested an entirely new journey too.

I’m here representing Metalabel, a label whose purpose is to create knowledge, resources and tools that will inspire more groups to collaborate, cooperate, adopt practices of mutual aid, and create together.

I’m doing this with a squad of others: a group of core collaborators (Anna Bulbrook, Lauren Dorman, Rob Kalin, Austin Robey, Ilya Yudanov, and myself), and soon a wider network of labels, artists, service providers, fan communities, and others. All of us creating a network of support and new norms for how we make culture together.

Metalabel isn’t a traditional startup producing a single product solution. We’re building a universe of tools, stories, and networks one release at a time. Our first release, dropping this week, introduces the metalabel concept in words, design, and code.

Every metalabel is a design space for a group to shape according to what matters to them. Unlike a for-profit company, where the assumption is that the purpose of the project is to make money, a metalabel decides for itself what its purpose is. It’s a form that fits those hard-to-define projects that often have so much cultural resonance but don’t fit into the existing for-profit/non-profit dichotomy.

If I could have you walk away with one thing, it’s that metalabels are startups and institutions for culture. A traditional startup is an institution for capital. Metalabels are startups and institutions for culture. They’re a proven recipe for cultural influence with clear role models from the past, and that fit with where culture is today.

Behind all of this is a simple belief: that as individuals our powers are limited, but in groups we become exponentially stronger.

Check out our first release, Introducing Metalabel, here.

For video of this talk, go here.

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Yancey Strickler

Yancey Strickler

Author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World”; Cofounder of Kickstarter; Bentoist; http://www.ystrickler.com