In 2020, Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought in hip-hop group the Roots, explained his involvement in an unusual new collective called the Wide Awakes.

“Throughout history, it’s been young people, creatives, intellectuals, and philosophers — the visionaries — who understood the power in uniting and who contributed to the greatest progress,” he told the New York Times. “What the Wide Awakes represent is the modern-day version of something we’ve seen at different points throughout history.”

The Wide Awakes call themselves an “open-source network.” Anyone can contribute, and projects are made collaboratively using a toolkit the group developed. The project was awakened by celebrated conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas with an invitation to his artist peers: to make political change, let’s do it together under one name.

This structure has produced a wide diversity of projects — public art installations; events; a mobile soup kitchen; fundraisers for social movements; fashion and music — made by people from a wide diversity of skills and experiences. Uniting the projects are recurring themes: community integration, political engagement, becoming “wide awake.”

The Wide Awakes are a group of people collaborating under a common identity for a common purpose. Their story is emblematic of a wider movement growing today. From artist collectives to activists to online communities and DAOs, a new structure is emerging for cultural collaboration: a form called a metalabel.


To understand what a metalabel is, it helps to first reconsider what a label is. Record and fashion labels use the actual word “label,” but publishing houses, art galleries, filmmakers, and other collectives are all examples of a category we might call “culture labels” — entities that exist to fund, distribute, and promote culture of one kind or another.

Most culture labels exist to promote a specific aesthetic, region, or point of view. A punk label flies the flag for punk rock with every record it puts out. A postcolonial fiction publisher creates space for marginalized voices in wider culture. These labels establish this perspective incrementally, release by release.

When we consider labels as a category, we can observe a few core functions. Labels:

  • Identify a perspective or purpose to stand for and promote
  • Sign and support people that further their purpose or POV
  • Direct resources (funding, promotional support, social clout, context) to releases and ideas in line with their purpose, establishing those ideals in culture more broadly

Labels provide seed funding to new ideas. Labels find, sign, and support talent. Labels signal to the rest of their ecosystem what matters. Taken all together, we can better appreciate what labels are. Labels are startups and institutions for culture.


Today we associate the label form with major record labels and their legacy of rent-seeking, corporate sterilization, and shady accounting. But projects like the Wide Awakes are distinct from the 20th century labels we’re used to.

While 20th century labels exist to maximize profits, a project like the Wide Awakes exists to promote ideas.

While 20th century labels sell defined products – the 22-minute sitcom, the 45-minute album, the 90-minute film – a Wide Awakes release can be anything: an experience, a meme, an event, a book, a film, a form that never existed before and never will again.

While 20th century labels are top-down and use capital to secure IP and forever financial windfalls, a group like the Wide Awakes pools resources to support projects and people that share their purpose, and is owned and controlled by the artists themselves.

The Wide Awakes are a new kind of label: a metalabel. Metalabels are groups of people working under a common identity for a common purpose with a focus on releases — distinct public works that reflect and manifest their views. Metalabels are like indie record labels, except for any kind of cultural project: from art to activism to community projects to efforts to establish new points of view.

As Black Thought said, there’s a long history of this. Many past cultural movements used structures similar to a metalabel to manifest new ways of being.

  • The Royal Society, formed in 1660, is one of the world’s first social institutions and metalabels. Its mission was (and still is) to promote science in English society. Around the start of the Enlightenment a group began meeting, pooling resources, sponsoring experiments by scientists, and publishing the results in journals they financed. These first scientific journals are some of the first metalabel productions: they promoted a specific worldview; they supported work by their members and by others; they helped inspire a wider scientific “scene.”
  • The Whole Earth Catalog curated a specific perspective — the value of access to useful tools — and a catalog to help people adopt it. Even without a person buying a product, the ethos promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog shaped how a person saw the world. This duality is key to metalabel projects.
  • Factory Records began as a DJ night at a local club that turned into releasing records by others in the scene, among them Joy Division and New Order. Their global success made Factory a cultural force, prompting one of the most inspired releases of any label: a legendary nightclub in Manchester called the Haçienda as Factory Records release #51. “Releasing” a nightclub is an example of the positive-sum cultural outcomes that metalabels make possible. Factory was funding and supporting an aesthetic ideal, regional identity, and place in wider culture all at once.
  • MSCHF is the modern standard bearer for metalabels. Its bi-monthly drops range from games where people can win large sums of money to toy versions of failed tech companies to sweepstakes that pay off medical bills. Here’s the New York Times trying to make sense of it:

MSCHF isn’t a sneaker company. It rarely even produces commercial goods, and its employees are reluctant to call it a company at all. They refer to MSCHF, which was founded in 2016, as a “brand,” “group” or “collective,” and their creations, which appear online every two weeks, as “drops.” The point is to produce social commentary; the “story” the sneakers told was more important than turning a profit.

MSCHF isn’t a company, it’s a metalabel that challenges how people see culture and commerce itself. The metalabel structure is core to the critique and power of their work.

  • Gitcoin and Seed Club are examples of metalabels in the Web3 age. Both are DAOs that exist to organize and distribute resources to projects in line with their vision. Both are promoting a larger ideal by supporting others. Because they’re built on the rails of Web3, their activities are collectively determined and funded by resources pooled by members.

Elements of a metalabel

When we consider these diverse examples we can observe a few core elements metalabels share.

  1. A purpose. At the center of every metalabel is a purpose they serve and a point of view they wish to communicate. Metalabels exist to document, represent, or promote a perspective, aesthetic, region, idea, or goal.
  2. A principle (or group of principles) curating the output. Metalabels communicate and reinforce a larger idea with each release they put out. Decisions about what to release and what not to release define the label’s voice and impact.
  3. Releases. Metalabels put culture into the world incrementally through distinct releases. Each metalabel release stands on its own while adding to a larger world built by the label’s work. Releases come from a variety of people in a variety of forms.
  4. Information architecture. Establishing context through information architecture is a key metalabel function as it helps clue the audience into the larger story. This is already a norm in fashion and Web3 where “seasons,” “releases,” and numbered editions are understood language that puts cultural projects into context.
  5. A scene it participates in. Metalabels are at their best when they document, represent, or are in dialogue with a community or scene. In some cases the label may end up creating a scene, inspiring others to explore adjacent territory.
  6. Funding. Without funding, any metalabel is limited in its output. Traditional labels use sales from past projects to fund new ones or they tap into someone’s personal wealth. Metalabels can adopt these models, they can be resourced by peers pooling funds and skills, they can be structured as nonprofits and cooperatives, they can do all of the above. In the world of Web3 the sources of funding are evolving, with tokenization as one new path.

A form for this moment

Most conversations about labels today center on some version of “why do they still exist and can we get rid of them yet?” Decades of centralized corporate power, questionable accounting, and galaxy brain moves like major labels suing fans have given labels a deservedly bad rep.

It’s no coincidence that the push against labels coincided with the rise of the so-called “Creator Economy” and its new heroic myth of the independent creator who out-hustles and out-competes their way to millions of subs and riches. But the truth of the Creator Economy myth has become clear: billion-dollar platforms turning people into content factories and offering little in the way of creative support, financial security, or context in return.

The Creator Economy is creativity in single-player mode. Every creator for themselves.

A metalabel is creativity in multiplayer mode. A model for collaboration, collective world-building, and mutual support.

We dream of a world where millions of metalabels and cultural collectives are supporting their members and one another, and where cooperation and collaboration rather than zero sum competition are the norm. As individuals our powers are limited. In groups we become exponentially stronger.