Spotify vs Tokyo Chill

The way I’ve listened to music has changed a lot in the past year. While I’m as addicted as ever to Hypem, I’ve forever ditched the idea of non-cloud listening: after re-imaging my laptop back in September, I never got around to restoring my iTunes collection, and since then my laptop has been pleasantly devoid of mp3s and flacs. It feels nice and quiet, like a clean kitchen sink.

Okay, that’s kind of a lie – I periodically download all of my hypem tracks for situations where, god forbid, I don’t have access to the internet. Which I guess is sort of a bandaid to the festering wound of ~~ the cloud ~~: everything’s groovy so long as the data’s flowing in both directions. But as soon as that wifi indicator goes from dark to foreboding gray – or the flimsy market dynamics that keep the Spotifies of the world alive take a turn for the worse – we’re out on our asses, with nothing to pump through our headphones.

But that’s a different topic. I listen to Spotify a lot – my flimsy Chrome plugin estimates it at thirty hours a week – and the thing that Spotify really nails is the promise that you can listen to whatever you want, a promise that was largely unfulfilled by everything that came before it. Quibbles like bad album ordering, missing tracks, lanky metadata, and just subpar selection overall always had me crawling back to iTunes: with Spotify, everything is just always there, a search button away. It’s great.

And, naturally, I end up spending half my time listening to the same dozen or so albums anyway. Spotify’s search is great, but it’s discovery mechanisms are pretty awful. They have curated playlists, but the overwhelming vibe is “hey, we want to target this demographic, add some tunes they like” – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but that’s how you end up with a discovery page that tries to give me playlists called Your Favorite Coffeehouse, Teen Party (“brought to you by Zayne of One Direction!”), and – I shit you not – Indie Brunch.

For better or for worse, a big part of what I love about music is the hipster douchebag aspect: the idea discovering new and exciting music as if I’m some Vasco da Gama in skinny jeans and a v-neck, the idea of being taken away to a new and different place, that kind of thing. It’s sometimes hard to put into words, but I know that Indie Brunch isn’t going to fill me with frisson.

And so, in October I discovered Tokyo Chill, which is basically the polar opposite of Spotify. Tokyo Chill is a radio show run by Subcity Radio out of the University of Glasgow. To let it describe itself:

Featuring Tokyo-based artists, electronic musicians of Asian heritage working in the West and Western producers inspired by the artistic culture of Japan, Tokyo Chill demonstrates the abundance of subgenres existing within Asian electronic, the effect of traditional Japanese aesthetic principles on expatriate artists, and the influence that experimental Japanese music is having on the electronic music scenes of Europe and America.

Live every second Friday 1200-1300 EST, 1700-1800 GMT, 0100-0200 JST.

Turn on. Tune in. Chill out.

I’ve never tuned in live, but they post mixes every month or so, and they are uniformly excellent. Unlike Spotify, though, getting information about it is objectively awful from a modern consumption standard: you get a trackless but that’s it, a trackless which acts as a really shitty MapQuest printout for a fifty-minute audio file.

But it’s new music, and it’s wonderful and strange and there’s still something magical about it that. I haven’t listened to most (if not all) of the artists on Tokyo Chill outside the shows themselves, and I don’t know if I’d really enjoy listening to an album of Japanese bedroom pop that much. But on subcity.org, lovingly crafted and mixed by some faraway Scotsman, I’m overtaken with the same sense of juvenile wonder that I had as a preteen spending hours on end binging through a new LimeWire bounty.

It’s a great feeling.

Lately, I’ve been playing around with the idea of extending that metaphor a little bit: I’m increasing intrigued in the idea of bespoke tiny apps, and the idea of creating an app for a single playlist or a couple dozen songs makes me happy. We have apps for summoning taxis and reading books and reading just one book and all sort of niche one-off use cases too, why can’t we have an app for Japanese ambient electronica? Who says that doesn’t deserve to exist?

I don’t think it would really appeal to anyone more than myself and a couple-dozen fellow pretentious idiots, but I think that’s something that gets lost in The Quest To Disrupt Music: as good as it is to make something usable by everyone, the best parts of music are the ones that don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator.

So, yeah, I’ll continue using Spotify like some sort of fiend, but it’s never going to make me as happy as Tokyo Chill.

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Justin Duke is a writer and developer in Seattle.
He likes good, practical things.
(And writing in the third person, I guess.)


@justinmduke
me@jmduke.com