How Gaming Helped Birth the Most Important Music Label You've Never Heard of

"Monstercat was a gathering of up-and-coming producers who are always hanging out together, playing video games together."

Monstercat Uncaged 2017 in LA Credit: Monstercat

Watch a Twitch video or YouTube stream and you're sure to hear a song released by the label Monstercat. 

"Monstercat was one of the first really big YouTube channels to push exclusively electronic music," says Jauz, a Los Angeles based producer, who previously released music through the label. 

Founded in Vancouver, Canada by Mike Darlington and Ari Paunonen in the summer of 2011, they got started uploading the music of their friends that included then unknown producers like Ephixa, Going Quantum, and Varian. Rather quickly, the label started receiving music from aspiring producers, who saw the potential in receiving placement on a YouTube channel that focused on electronic music just as the genre was hitting the mainstream through major music festivals (Electric Zoo, Electric Daisy, Ultra) and pop hits (Avicii, Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia).

Where else would a leading company in the world of gaming and music begin, but over Skype chat. "Monstercat was a gathering of up-and-coming producers who are always hanging out together, playing video games together," says Mike Darlington, CEO of the Vancouver-based music label, "I was the odd one out in not being a producer or having any musical background beyond being a fan of electronic music." Without the musical background, Darlington decided to upload his friends' music to YouTube and after a little bit of success, they started to eye the gaming space – particularly, the issues that streamers face when licensing music.

"Large YouTubers were getting hit with lawsuits from large mainstream record labels and what we’re trying to do is fix that issue," says Gavin Johnson, the current Head of Gaming for Monstercat, about an early goal of the company. "That’s where the partner program came into play," says Johnson, "which is licensing our music out to content creators and live streamers, companies, esports production studios." They created tiers for music licensing, so newer streamers could pay a flat fee to access their vast library, but for larger streamers Monstercat offers free music licensing understanding a streamer with a million followers will only benefit their artists. Johnson, who was right out of school, and already into the world of Twitch found a great way to fuse those passions of music and streaming.

"I was about to join the military," says Johnson, "I was waiting for a waiver to go through and I checked out Twitch when it launched and I was moderating Twitch channels for professional gamers." Johnson started following the Starcraft 2 Rootcatz on Twitch, then he stumbled across an early Monstercat artist Ephixa using Twitch. The novelty of a musician using Twitch caught his attention, then he saw and applied to a new gaming initiative Monstercat was about to start. Monstercat Gaming was a separate gaming specific brand of the label that didn’t quite take off, but working in the niche of music on Twitch and YouTube helped spur their partner program that focused on licensing out music. Their eye on increasingly became a central focus of the label.

"[The] constant need to build community and bring the artists together further built this ethos around Monstercat," says Darlington. Electronic music, even since the days of disco, focused on singles, live shows, and fostering a community that differed from the full length album dominated record industry. That is why Monstercat fosters communities on Bandcamp, Discord, Reddit, Spotify, Soundcloud, Twitch, their own podcast feed, and their fairly active 24 hours YouTube stream. The label signs artists for single song releases, so it’s important that fans can connect to the label, when artists aren’t bound to keeping putting out new music with them. Monstercat understands this dynamic and actively pushes to be in new online spaces that pop-up in service to their fans.

Monstercat’s fan community may congregate online, but for Darlington the company’s home of Vancouver offered a special place to build their internal Monstercat community. "Vancouver became a really nice home," says Darlington, "where there is a great creative culture here, but more importantly there is a lifestyle here that can really help fulfill while building a music and internet business at the same time." He values the ability to still find time to go hike, snowboard, or retreat to nature, when working in such a digitally heavy field. Their proximity to nature doesn’t completely isolate them from the media world — EA holds offices in Vancouver — but the internet remains their true home and how new fans discover them.

"A lot of my introduction to electronic music was in YouTube recaps of video games," says Jauz. "There was no Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music or any of that stuff, it was either iTunes or YouTube." The producer first worked with Monstercat back in 2015 on his single “Get On Up,” and grew close with the label after a chance Canadian festival meet-up. "[Darlington] dragged me into the crowd to see Porter Robinson," says Jauz, recounting his initial introduction to the Monstercat crew. They were one of the early labels to make strong connections to the gaming community, but that arrived with a slight stigma of being known for gaming music. That eventually started to fall away when bigger releases from artists like Jauz, Marshmello, and San Holo that found success in the broader EDM world.

"A-List DJs are getting booked for the different shows and trying to break into the market," says Darlington, in the changes over the years in how major EDM artists view the gaming community. "It’s a pretty common sentiment for people saying ‘We want to be known within the gaming space.’" He chuckles at the difference in tone, because he remembers not all that long ago when artists would express concerns about anyone showing up to these events.

"It’s a pretty common sentiment for people saying ‘We want to be known within the gaming space.’"

Monstercat themselves stepped up in this space with Monstercat AFK, a live music series with their artists that take place at gaming conventions like: Dreamhack, E3, PAX East, and Twitchcon. That level of diversity of their brand is why a number of more established electronic music labels are looking to follow their mold. Their proactive approach of allowing their music to be used by the streaming community is now being filtered into established electronic labels, as Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak and the Netherlands based Spinnin’ Records both started offering labels, respectively New Noise and Spinnin’ Copyright Free Music, which focuses on accessible copyright music free for streamers.

Darlington and Johnson downplayed Monstercat’s role in shaping the current relationship between electronic music and the gaming world. "I don’t think there is anything that wouldn’t’ve been happening without us," says Darlington. "I don’t want to be that bold." Still when Twitch announced its Twitch Music program Monstercat was one of the first labels and "Alone" by Marshmello was one of 2016 biggest EDM songs—scoring over 100 million views on YouTube—was released by Monstercat. That kind of dual success best exemplifies the company, because as Darlington said: "[It’s a] similar audience of people who share the need to sit in front of a computer for 10 hours a day to become successful."