Stuck to a door on the third floor of a modest office building just west of Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Japan, there is a sticker that reads, “NO WIFI.” It’s a joke, of course, considering that this door opens up to the cluttered headquarters of one of the internet’s most exciting labels, Maltine Records. Maltine (pronounced mall-tee-nay) is a prolific outpost for dance music with pop smarts, operating at the intersection of SoundCloud bangers and Disney Channel bumpers. Its output runs the generic gamut, from indie rock to juke and everything in-between, but what ties Maltine’s 131 releases together is their relatively sunny outlook. It’s easy to hear a thread of Nord-soaked synth-pop across the sounds of luminaries like multivalent J-pop maestro Tofubeats and “ultra pop” purveyor Yoshino Yoshikawa, as well as lesser known producers like Picnic Women and the Best Vacation Resort Hotels (yes, seriously), rumored to be pseudonyms for bigger names.
Perusing Maltine’s extensive catalog is no simple task. The label’s website is written largely in Japanese, and there are no plans to create an international alternative. Instead, Western DJs, who seem smitten with kawaii sounds, have taken up the task of translating Japanese music for Western audiences. Ryan Hemsworth has remixed and tweeted his support for Maltine, and SOPHIE just announced a collaboration with idol pop titan Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
Lately, Maltine’s currency is seeping out of the cloud and into the brick-and-mortar world of pop music. Perhaps that’s because Japan has surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest market for recorded music, thanks mostly to physical sales. In 2012, they comprised 80 percent of the Japanese industry’s revenue, versus just 34 percent in the U.S.
Inverting the usual physical-to-digital progression, Maltine put out its first CD, winkingly titled MP3 Killed the CD Star, in 2010, three years after the label started. Since then, it has teamed up with the big dogs from time to time for large-scale releases, like the recent Maltine Girls Wave, a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray collaboration with the girl group Tokyo Girls’ Style. The result was not a half-assed compromise, but a wonderfully weird fusion of corporate-sponsored pop and quirky internet funk.
While major labels continue to knock at at the "NO WIFI" door in front of me, Maltine is keen to maintain its cautious rise. I’m greeted by 24-year-old Tomohiro Konuta, better known as Tomad (pictured above), who started Maltine with a friend when they were both in high school. Now he runs the label mostly by himself, planning releases, throwing events, and DJing around Tokyo.
Online, Tomad is an outspoken character, constantly tweeting thoughts, sounds, and images that tickle his fancy. In person, he’s quiet, thoughtful, and charming. As our conversation wraps up, he turns to our interpreter and says, “I just want to ask—because living here in Japan I only get a sense of things outside of Japan through the internet—I wonder, overseas, are there a lot of people who listen to Maltine Records, like around you?” “Of course,” I respond, trying to recall my own introduction to Maltine—probably via Friendzone’s SoundCloud likes, or something. “I think the artists at Maltine Records don’t realize that their music is being recognized overseas," says Tomad. "They have no idea that they are big over there, because they are ‘internet-famous,’ but it’s all pretty anonymous. I’ll tell all of them that you guys listen to them. They’ll be so excited to hear that.”
How did you start Maltine Records? When I was in high school, I was creating music with my friends, and in trying to promote our music I came up with the idea to start an internet music label. This was in 2005, when I was 16-years-old. During that time, there were a lot of internet labels starting to pop up overseas, and people uploading their music online for free—this influenced me and gave me the idea to start Maltine.
What music were you listening to at the time? In high school, I listened to a lot of Japanese rap, like Rip Slyme, Rhyme Star, King Giddra [laughs]. I liked a lot of disco that utilized synthesizers in their music. Actually, I do a lot of DJing, so I listen to a variety of club music, and in doing that some of my influences come from that synth sound.
Did you ever want Maltine to be something you could do for a living? I started it with the goal to release music that I was interested in and enjoyed—I wanted a worldwide audience to be able to listen to the music I liked. If that became profitable, that was just a bonus.
How do you meet musicians who are on the label? There were some instances where they reached out to me, but it’s usually the other way around, where we approach them.
How about Tofubeats? How did you first connect with him? With Tofubeats, well, I had this music review blog—it’s not huge or anything, just a place where I post my personal thoughts and reviews about music—and he was a blogger on the same site. We started to recognize each other’s usernames and gradually became friends after commenting on each other’s blogs a few times. I started listening to his YouTube channel, where he posted his own mash-ups, and I thought he was doing good work, so I approached him with an offer to release his music.
As a DJ and label head, what do you look for in a Maltine Records release? [Laughs] That’s a hard question. I look for originality in a song, something that’s different, but also something that makes me think that it’ll be an instant classic.
What about mainstream appeal? Do you listen to pop music? I do, but not the mainstream Top 40s pop—that’s too much for me [laughs]. As for Japanese pop… Ah! I really like the songs that [Nakata] Yasutaka produces. Kyary [Pamyu Pamyu] is amazing. I listen to her a lot.
How do Maltine’s partnerships with major labels work? Maltine Records is a community where musicians are able to release music to the public for free. Then some are able to gain some recognition and become major names when they go down that route. It’s a first step into the industry where major labels can listen to new musicians’ work.
Do you feel like physical releases go against a net-label’s mission? Basically, the main mission of Maltine is to release music for free online, but we do a physical release annually, or whenever there’s a special event. There’s not much conflict between the two, just because we focus mostly on free online releases.
How important are graphics to that mission? Where does Maltine’s visual aesthetic come from? I came up with the concept and collaborated with a web designer, and also a graphic designer, too. I kind of figured out the importance of coming up with a brand image about one or two years ago—I became more conscious of that aspect more recently. Actually, I was really influenced by Tumblr [laughs].
How would you describe Maltine’s image? For me, there’s an element of nostalgia, like reminiscing on a simpler time on the internet. Ah, yeah—the website itself hasn’t really been changed since I started.
Why not? Mmm, how can I say this… I just wanted to keep the general framework consistent with the original concept when I first started.
What do you think of Western DJs who borrow some of Maltine’s style, like Cashmere Cat or Ryan Hemsworth? I’m really grateful! As for Ryan, I’ve been in touch with him, and we exchange songs.
What have you been listening to lately? Cashmere Cat’s beats, techno and Chicago house. I listen to a lot of club music and recently digging some new artists on SoundCloud. Now I feel like music has become genre-less, like the genre doesn’t matter anymore because there are so many influences. These days, I’ve been looking at a label called PC Music and being influenced by them.
I think they’re being influenced by you, too! Oh, really? The scene there excites me. DIS Magazine, for example.
Have you sensed a growing influence of kawaii vibes in the West, like PC Music? Katy Perry, even? Yeah, there’s a definite pop sensibility that resembles that. There’s a pop feel to club music. Club music is something you can listen to in your house, and the ability to enjoy it in front of your computer has allowed it to really grow.
What’s your ideal environment for listening to music? Headphones or speakers? I usually listen to music from my computer while I’m working, or while I’m browsing Tumblr or Facebook.
Do you have any goal to move into Western pop culture or attract foreign audiences? Totally, I’ve thought about that, but it’s not like I’m going to change my sound overnight to suit American audiences or anything—I want to spread my music in a more natural way, and that would make me the happiest. The ultimate would be a world tour.