Webbed Hand

Interview received: November 8, 2016; March 30, 2017.

What is your name?

For the purposes of my creative work, and as netlabel proprietor, I go by C.P. McDill, though my friends call me Chris.

Where are you located?

My netlabel has moved as I have moved. When I started it, I was in College Park, MD. I have moved four times since, and presently am located on the West Virginia panhandle.

Do you save any materials – digital files, emails, physical materials – related to your netlabel? Are you interested in organizing or archiving them?

Last year or thereabouts I lost my entire archive of digital media related to the label when a backup hard drive failed. I might have some of it on old computers or burned CDs, though most of those have probably decomposed as well. The most important things to me are the actual releases, which are still hosted at Internet Archive, so I do not feel too heartbroken about losing my personal archive.

How do you define what is and what is not a netlabel?

The word has mutated a lot since the early days. My understanding is that when the “scene” first congealed, it was just about sharing music freely as mp3s (or related digital formats) for download, without conventional copyright restrictions (instead with copyleft, Creative Commons, or Public Domain), and if any physical media was distributed, it was for barter or promotional purposes and not commercial sale. But all along there have been labels that fell outside these guidelines, and are still broadly considered netlabels. Thus, there’s bound to be some wiggle room.

How and when did you first learn about netlabels?

After the fall of mp3.com (v.1) and Napster, I was looking around for new sources of interesting music. I came across some netlabels by accident, but did not fully engage with the scene until later.

What was the first netlabel you heard of?

That I am not certain of. It might have been Zeromoon.

What are some netlabels that inspired or influenced you? Or that you admire?

I was dipping into a lot of netlabels at random, so I doubt there was any one that influenced me, but as for admiration, I was a fan of Comfort Stand, run by Otis Fodder. Very creative out-there music. The last release from them was in 2006.

What made you decide to start your own netlabel?

I created Webbed Hand as a CDr label, to release my own work. It wasn’t making me any money, and sales could be counted in the tens. Someone (might have been C. Reider of Vuzh Music) suggested releasing work for download under a Creative Commons license. I started hosting my music on my own site, then heard about the small but growing netlabel category on Internet Archive. It was curated at the time by Simon Carless, and I wrote to him and asked if I could have my catalog hosted on IA. It was around 20 albums at the time. He set me up with an account there, and as soon as I had the free hosting, I opened Webbed Hand up to general submissions. That was around 2003.

What were the reasons you had to choose releasing music for free? And why did you choose to not release physical albums?

Once the average household started having improved bandwidth on the internet, the floodgates were open to those seeking free music. Napster and similar services got people addicted to free tunes, and CDs were becoming less important, what with people listening to music on their computers and mp3 players.

For me, going to free downloads meant I had no limits to my catalog, and anyone at any time could get the music and listen to it right away. Where before my releases were getting tens of listeners, some of my releases back then were getting thousands within the first weeks after release. That’s what made it so worthwhile to give it all away.

What is the name of your netlabel?

As founded it was called Webbed Hand Records, though I also go by just Webbed Hand.

Why did you choose the name you chose?

I had a picture saved on my computer of a fragment of a Buddha statue, which clearly showed the hands as webbed. Apparently this was part of the ancient iconography of Buddha, showing transcendence or wisdom, like the horns shone on some statues of Moses. At the beginning of the label I used that image as the logo, but it was also a play on words as I was selling and/or sharing the music on the web.

When did you start your netlabel?

The roots of it date back to 2003.

What is the focus of your netlabel?

In the beginning, the focus was on my own recordings, as diverse as they were. As my sounds found a focus, the label did too. I released work by other artists who crafted sounds in the ambient, dark ambient, drone, and experimental electronica styles.

Are your albums released under creative commons, copyleft or copyright? Why did you choose the method you chose?

All of the albums are licensed as Creative Commons, with greater or lesser limits on commercial or derivative uses. All of them at least require attribution.

What is your relationship to the artists that you release? Do you maintain any contact once you’ve released their work? Do you help promote them outside of their release itself?

Some of them are friends, or became friends after contacting me. Others I never heard from again after their work was released. Whether I help promote them depends on how close we are.

How do you decide what artists you want to release? Do you approach them? Do they approach you? Do you have any specific guidelines that you follow? Do you act as a curator or is it all luck of the draw?

I have invited some, or had calls for entry, but usually artists contact me. I have guidelines, and they are a combination of subjective feelings, plus the expectation that the work will meet certain standards of production quality. Given that the label vibe is about work that is fairly serene, even when dark, I reject work that is too violent, transgressive or “nsfw.” Cover art is held to the same standards.

I’m definitely a curator, and in early years I was also producer and designed the whole package. At some point that got too exhausting, so I expect artists to produce/master their own and provide their own covers. I merely select what is released, and if something doesn’t fit I may recommend a label I think is better for them.

What are your criteria for the music you curate and release?

While at times I have taken chances on work that was well outside my criteria, I always found that there was less interest in those releases than in the ones that stuck to the “core” tastes that Webbed Hand was guided by. Primarily I was looking for release-ready (not raw demo) recordings in ambient, experimental, and drone. Ambient is the hub, with all kinds of related things radiating off of that. I did release a few rather noisy things over the years, but mostly I did not want anything too aggressive, transgressive or political. Also I didn’t want song-oriented artists.

Do you feel that Webbed Hand was filling a niche that other labels were not?

For a little while there, Webbed Hand was one of the earliest or only ambient netlabels offering extremely long-form (hour+) recordings, at least among those labels hosted at Internet Archive. I wasn’t listening to everything, but all the ambient I was encountering in netlabels I visited (circa ’03-’05) was pretty short.

Are there any genres that you have never released before, that you would love to release on your label or on a future label of yours?

Since what has up til now guided my label choices has been my own work (I release my work and find compatible artists), any future decision rests on whether I branch into some completely new style of music. If I start making a zydeco/dubstep hybrid with Esperanto vocals, I’d need to seek others doing a similar thing.

Are there any artists that you have yet to release that you would like to work with? Or that you always wished you had been able to work with?

I’ve seldom been one to reach out to artists (except when I did compilation calls-for-entry). So I’ve been at the mercy of who contacts me, based on the reputation of my label. During one of Webbed Hand’s dormant periods, the ambient artist Phillip Wilkerson quickly became a household name among netlabels. I’d like to think that he would have considered WHR for one of his early releases if I’d been open for submissions.

How many albums have you released?

At the present time, just shy of 300 releases, nearly 50 of which are my own, including collaborations. I record work under a variety of different project names.

Who are some of your most notable artists?

I’m reluctant to go there, as I don’t want any of my artists to feel like their contributions are insignificant. But in terms of prolific output and downloads not only in my label but across the netlabel scene I’d say that Mystified deserves special mention. Thomas Park (Mystified, Mister Vapor) was also the first new artist to release on Webbed Hand, and the first to collaborate with me.

Which are some of your most significant releases?

Although I have not released many compilations, they are often the stand-outs, and sometimes the ones that attract special attention from reviewers and fans. One release called Far Afield has almost 85,000 downloads.

Do you release your own work on your netlabel? What do you think of that practice?

All of the netlabel proprietors I know release their own work. In some ways that gives a guiding aesthetic and drive, and shows other artists what the prevailing taste of the label is. I started Webbed Hand for myself, and it took off. Eventually my own work was buried by all the other artists who got onboard, and that’s cool. Some people contributed work that was inspired or influenced by my personal work.

What do you enjoy about running your netlabel? What do you get out of it?

For this answer we’ll need to go past tense. The heyday of Webbed Hand was 2004-2012 approximately. It’s my perception, though some may differ, that netlabels began to lose relevance with the rise of Soundcloud, Bandcamp and similar sites that let artists release and promote their own work with any mediation. In fact, many artists that might have previously gone to netlabels took their music to those sites, and were even able to make a little money selling downloads. Can’t begrudge them that. I think these changes are making the netlabel subculture unravel, and more and more we’ll see netlabel heads themselves giving in to the allure of Bandcamp.

For me, seeing lower average download numbers on releases with each passing year tells me that Webbed Hand is nearing the end of its useful life. It was a good ride, but maybe I too will heed the siren call of Bandcamp.

What are some difficult things about running the label? Or what are some challenges?

The most difficult thing for me in the early years was designing original cover art for all of the releases, and in some instances handling some production responsibilities. I also found promoting releases to be very tedious. Things got easier when I delegated some of that responsibility to the artist as a condition of being released on the label.

Has anything about it been disappointing or frustrating?

No, it’s all been good. I never sought the pinnacle of fame. Just wanted to introduce people to interesting sounds. I take the decline of Webbed Hand and the netlabel scene in general into perspective as a sign of changing times. Many independent LP or CD music labels haven’t had nearly the volume of listeners or longevity as WHR, nor the constantly available back catalog. That’s the great thing. As long as Internet Archive sticks around, people may discover these releases decades from now.

What keeps you motivated to continue running the netlabel when you are feeling frustrated?

I don’t get frustrated so much as get busy with other interests and I find it hard to focus on music or the label. So I’ll put the label on hiatus. I’ve done it a few times over the years. The current hiatus has been the longest, and might reasonably be construed as a sign that I’ve abandoned it. Only time will tell for sure.

How much time do you put into running the label? Approximate hours per day, week or month?

For the past couple years, Webbed Hand has been on a hiatus. But prior to that the activity has been in unpredictable cycles. Fits of heavy activity with stretches of inactivity. Hard to put a number on it.

Can you describe all the work that you do on a regular basis in order to run your label?

Presently I just make sure the site is always online and accessible. If I put out some more releases, which I may, the process is usually to attract some artists, who are expected to submit release-ready work and a cover (not demos, not “hey check out my Soundcloud account”). If accepted, get an album description and artist bio worked up, then upload the whole lot to Internet Archive and create a release page at webbedhandrecords.com.

In what audio format and bitrate do you release your albums?

In the early years of the label it was 128kbps mp3, as a lot of people were still using dial-up modems. In the later years, I started using highest quality mp3s, and often flac. I was a little bit slow to adopt flac, as others around me were doing, because my internet connection at the time was not so fast.

Do you zip your files into a package? Or are/were the albums uploaded as individual files?

I have always used the Internet Archive to host my files. With them, I could upload all the tracks, art etc individually, and they would handle the zipping for downloaders. I like it that way, as visitors can also stream the music on the album page without being required to download it.

Aside from the audio files, did you include any other types of files or information with the album?

That depended on the artist. Usually there was cover art. Sometimes a text file or pdf with credits, notes, bio or other information. There have been high-resolution image files to allow people to print out a complete jewel case insert. And I think there were a couple occasions when there were one or two videos to go with the music.

What software programs do you use to run your netlabel? For converting and encoding audio, for metadata, for ftp, for making cover art, etc.

Photoshop for art. Sound Forge for audio editing/mastering/encoding, and Foobar2000 for editing metadata.

Where do you share your releases? On your website? Free Music Archive? Internet Archive? Et al? A combination of these things?

Internet Archive is my sole host for the releases on Webbed Hand.

What do you do to promote your label?

These days, primarily through Facebook, where I’ve found the most members of the netlabel community to be active. I used to use Twitter, but I didn’t feel like I got much traffic through there.

Do you send releases out for review? If yes, is it traditional media – review sites, magazines, blogs, etc. Or are there non-traditional methods?

No I do not.

How much success have you had in getting people to review your releases in magazines, blogs or websites? Any frustrations regarding this?

I have circumvented any frustration by not trying to get people to review. All reviews have been from those who like Webbed Hand and check out new releases, and write about the albums that appeal to them. I think being too assertive with reviewers is a good way to get some bad writeups.

Have you had success in getting people in general to listen to your releases?

Historically, yes. Webbed Hand was once very successful. It influenced other artists, and inspired the creation of quite a few other netlabels. Many older albums have downloads numbering well over 10,000. In more recent years it has dropped off quite a lot. I’m not sweating it. Music is changing, the internet and the world in general keeps moving on.

Do you keep track of your download numbers and, if yes, how have they changed over the years?

Mostly, yes. I can see the download stats for albums on their pages at Internet Archive. Ten years ago or so they were great. These days it is just a trickle.

How important are download numbers and number of listeners to you?

I’m not trying to compete with other artists or netlabels, but I do like to see good numbers, as it tells me I’m reaching people, and it is a good index of what styles of music people want from Webbed Hand.

Do you feel that the lack of a physical object – vinyl, cassette, eight track, etc. – is a hindrance to building an audience? To getting any media to pay attention? If yes, why do you think that is the case?

Personally, I wouldn’t mind getting some of my own recordings onto vinyl. I have vinyl records dating back to the 50s, and shellac 78s dating back to the 1910s, and I can enjoy them any time. Will anybody care about mp3s a century from now? I’m not too concerned about getting the most audience right now. I’d like to see these things endure, maybe to be rediscovered by a future generation. In theory, digital could last forever without loss, but realistically, will it?

Has the lack of a physical object been a problem for any of the artists that you have worked with? If it has how have you responded?

I’ve always had a policy for when an artist finds an opportunity for one of their albums to get released on CD or tape on another label. Given that on Webbed Hand the release is under a CC license, with a Non-Commercial requirement, it could be problematic for the album to be both a netlabel and a commercial release. So I tell the artist that if they get a physical release, I’ll gladly un-publish the album from the Webbed Hand catalog, thus freeing them from the CC license. Usually I insert another album into the vacated catalog slot.

In addition to promotion, publicity and releasing albums do you organize live performances or festivals for your artists?

That is the artist’s responsibility. Webbed Hand has always been a shoestring operation, and the kind of organizing and networking required to take promotion and publicity to the next level translates to: I might as well be a physical record label with entertainment lawyers, a marketing dept and A&R people out scouting the clubs for talent. Webbed Hand was my effort to have the cleanest, simplest and minimalist way to share music.

How do you finance your netlabel, including the labor you put into it?

For a time I accepted donations from fans, to cover site hosting and domain fees. It amounted to just barely enough to cover that most years. Since the label’s output is on hiatus, I stopped taking donations and am handling the costs myself.

What do you think about Bandcamp and any similar music hosting sites?

It looks to me like it is the new paradigm for artists promotion and music sharing. People can download or stream, pay or not, and even buy physical media from the artist directly. The attention any artist gets is proportional to their own self-promotion efforts. No record labels, no netlabels, no big music studios. Nobody gets a cut out of the artist’s earnings except Bandcamp itself.

What netlabels offered that Bandcamp doesn’t is that curated sense. Netlabels are taste-makers. Quality by association, judged by ones company. Bandcamp is each artist for him/her self. So individual charisma versus collective charisma, I suppose.

Do you think netlabels are sustainable? If yes, what do you think the future is for them? Should there be more?

Over the years many netlabels have come and gone. Most last just a few years then are abandoned. There are a few that are still going strong since the early days, but they are a few out of hundreds that were founded. On the whole netlabels are ephemeral, and last as long as the attention or passion of their creators.

As a subculture netlabels have seen better days, but there may always be netlabels. It’s about adapting to the mutations of culture and technology. It’s getting harder to find artists when so many want to self-represent though, so only some of the most extreme and un-commercial niches may find sanctuary in netlabels.

Two netlabels that I see still going really strong these days, despite everything, are Torn Flesh (brutal metal) and Dusted Wax (instrumental hiphop/triphop).

Are there too many netlabels?

Most netlabels are ephemeral things. They exist for a month or two, spawn a few albums, then give up the struggle for life. Then there are the netlabels that are started by someone with some free time and creativity, maybe while in college, who make a bit of a name for themselves, but then they marry, have kids or get a challenging career, and it’s over. The really venerable netlabels are a fairly small number.

I really wouldn’t want to put a cap on how many netlabels is enough or too much. It’s like asking if there is too much creativity or too many artists. One can argue that it’s become much easier to get buried if you don’t work hard to find your audience. But hey, consider this: once there were 3 TV networks and they got all the ratings, then hundreds more arrived on cable. And now all those commercial networks are losing audiences to amateur videos on Youtube. This is modern life.

Will netlabels be obsolete before 2025?

That depends on technology and how people use it. Already there are services that learn your tastes and deliver music streams to match your preferences, with no effort of searching, digging, seeking. Some of them include indie and self-publishing artists. With AI getting into the game, these services may come to know you better than you know yourself, and serve up non-stop audio bliss on your own custom stream.

On the other hand, there will always be a counter-cultural underground. Netlabels may adapt to the changes by getting back to their roots, such as the tape-trading scenes of the 80s-90s (at which point they won’t still be netlabels, but whatever). Already there is a revival of cassette culture, and many tape labels have emerged in this decade. So the real question is, will the spirit of what drove netlabels into existence be obsolete in 2025? The netlabel itself was a response to specific cultural and technological conditions, which may not be relevant in the next decade. But the urge to share ones own music won’t be going away.

Does your netlabel align with any political or philosophical positions or thoughts? Do you get involved with politics at all as a netlabel?

No political positions. I’ve got artists from all along the spectrum, as long as they don’t produce “political” works. The only philosophical position that might affect my selection of a work is that I shy away from works that are blatantly pro-transhumanist, AI or robots. They are completely absurd/arbitrary criteria, but it aligns with the aesthetic of Saluki Regicide, one of my creative projects.

How do you feel that netlabels as a phenomenon overlap with any other artist practices – cassette trading, mail art, etc? Is there any overlap with podcasts, podfiction/netfiction, or any other art that is distributed for free?

I participated in mail art and cassette trading back in the 80s and 90s, and I see the origin of netlabels being very much a descendent of that anarcho/anti-commodity tradition. In some ways the digital age has made things even more free. In the mail art heyday, everything you were making and sending costs you out of pocket. Xerox copies, postage stamps, envelopes, blank cassette tapes or whatever. So even if nobody was buying, there was still a lot of money crossing palms.

I know that the internet is powered, and involves servers, cables and other manufactured items. But in this age of mass storage, how much does it cost to share 10,000 copies of an album? Pennies or at most a couple dollars? So this non-commodification exploits an infrastructure built by commodification. It couldn’t exist without it, but then how long would most arty anarchism survive in the absence of infrastructure?

Are you aware of a chronological history of netlabels? If yes, what is it?

As I understand, it is a convergence of many different scenes. The aforementioned mail art/tape trader scene started to digitize some of their work as far back as the mid-90s (in RealAudio or other formats before mp3 took over) and shared via UseNet boards. There was a group of individuals that were composing music using 8-bit code similar to that used in old video games, and they called themselves Trackers. They shared files in .mod format, which played the tunes in midi instead of being waveform audio files. They were among the first to colonize Internet Archive. When IA’s netlabel category started, many people who were sharing mp3 and other files on their own site found a free host, which allowed them to expand what they could share, as personally hosted bandwidth was expensive back then. Much of what early netlabels shared was electronica and noise/experimental, as well as assorted obscure subgenres with no commercial potential.

Is there anything else you would like to write about that wasn’t included here?

In the early 2000’s pretty much all netlabel releases were short recordings, mostly as an adaptation to dial-up internet, where a 1mb (2-3 min at low bitrate) track could take upwards of a half hour to download. I’d say a very significant thing that Webbed Hand Records did was make CD length tracks (74+ minutes) a normal thing. By 2004, Webbed Hand’s “Rain” series was making some waves, and not long thereafter many ambient netlabels began pushing into longer track times. Much of the early-middle period of WHR was long-form work, as artists who recorded in this style couldn’t find other labels to release their work.

Anecdotally it seems like the majority of netlabels, or at least a huge number of them, were based in Eastern Europe and Russia. Do you have any ideas why that might have been?

This probably comes down to the limited opportunities for experimental, electronica and noise artists to get any kind of exposure through conventional music channels. Even though these countries no longer have a communist government, much of the culture still has residues of it, especially in the ways they might judge certain creative works as decadent or subversive. So using the internet to share music echoes the older practice of samizdat, ie. the distribution of contraband texts through underground channels. Come to think of it, samizdat during the communist era may have been the original ‘zine scene. It is likely the Russian netlabels also descended from tape trading networks, and they may have even had their own mail art scene.

One thing I did notice emerging in the mid-00s, which created a false sense of the magnitude of the Russian netlabel scene, was the practice of splogging (“spam blogging”) which involved vacuuming up the contents of other netlabels and releasing the albums as if their own, usually on a site that serves up a lot of advertisement. In some cases these Russian sites even try to sell the albums. Unfortunately there’s little legal recourse for the average artist who can’t afford lawyers.

What questions would you ask other people who run netlabels?

“What’s your legacy, or did you feel you were filling a niche that other labels were not?”