Despite the rise of on-demand streaming services, the world of 24-hour net radio is still with us and the offerings for ambient and downtempo fans are awesome indeed. Here are five of the very best.
Has the Spotify glow worn off? Are you sick of organising what to listen to next? And do most of those playlists actually suck?
Then say hello to my little friend: net radio.
By net radio I mean 24-hour non-stop programmed music streams playing one or many varieties of instrumental ambient, downtempo and chillout. There are usually no live announcers and talk of any kind is minimal. The best of them are programmed by gifted people who are really, really good at what they do.
Some streams are free - with donations optional but encouraged - while others such as Digitally Imported work on a “freemium” model where you pay a subscription to get rid of ads and enjoy higher sound quality.
I’ve been devouring net radio stations ever since I had a modem fast enough to stream them. I've also been programming and mixing music myself on FM radio, at festivals and on online since the late 1980's. So while I'm not saying I'm good at it, I appreciate that programming is a precious skill, particularly for underground and non-mainstream music where it's not about pandering to lowest common denominator audiences.
That’s why I love net radio, and partly why Spotify and its on-demand clones leave me rather cold. These services can be brilliant for active discovery, i.e. searching out specific albums, artists and tracks and taking the time to make your own playlists. But the more popular option of passive discovery relies on supplied playlists for continuous music, and it's this option that can be seriously underwhelming. The large number of lazy and poorly thought-out Spotify playlists created by everyone and anyone has led me to two conclusions: 1) programming really should be left to those with a natural ear for it; and 2) for some of us, net radio was better all along.
Here are my top 5 ambient and downtempo stations, lifted from the vast and wonderful ocean that is net radio.
Soma FM has been running for more than 15 years now and is quite possibly the greatest thing on net radio. The San Francisco-based station is supported by listener donations and now has 33 channels. About half of them sit somewhere in the ambient/chill/downtempo universe. Founder Rusty Hodge and crew have set the standard; they are true pioneers of independent net radio and bring incredible knowledge, passion and musical diversity to the medium. Groove Salad is Soma's most popular channel - a canny mix of mostly-instrumental breakbeats and lounge, with smaller doses of psychill and exotic dub. Secret Agent is a blast; it mines six decades of jazzy, funky, atmospheric, cinematic music in the vein of James Bond and other spy movies, particularly 60’ and 70’s Eurospy flicks. Space Station Soma perfectly mines a vein of melodic midtempo electronic instrumentals with its galactic centre in the the mid 90's. Drone Zone goes deep and usually beatless with textural beauty delivered by all sorts from Brian Eno to Steve Roach. The Silent Channel draws on the entire back catalogue of the legendary Silent Records (1986-1997) as well as the Silent reboot (2016-present). Those are my favourite Soma channels; have fun discovering yours.
Previously known as OverXposure.FM, Groovera a one-man operation based in the USA, run by the hardworking Tommy Ohmz and supported by donations. There are six channels of various flavours of downtempo and, quality-wise, Groovera is right up there with Soma FM. Jet City Lounge, Low Mercury and Exotic Lounge cover all bases in downtempo instrumentals. Ambient Popsicle and Chill Surreal cover all strains of ambient pop and vocal electronica. Soul Nouveau stands somewhat apart from the others with its focus on laid-back vocal soul music. They're all good, but the Jet City Lounge and Low Mercury channels are exceptional in the way they create a really smooth program of loungey chill without the bland cafe cliches. Jet City mixes up "instrumental future lounge, nu-jazz, downtempo, Balearic, drum & bass and ambient house" and it's probably my favourite of all the lounge-themed streams online.
Bluemars (now Echoes of Bluemars)
The brilliant, mythical spacemusic station Bluemars was founded in 2000 and has three channels that - in their original form - streamed from a server somewhere in the south of France and were programmed by a mysterious individual known as Lone. After several years of on-and-off outages, the Bluemars streams mysteriously disappeared in 2013, only to be resurrected some years later by Overridex, a longtime fan. Overridex writes: "In attempts to reestablish communication with the lost Bluemars fleet, an echo of past transmissions was found. Retransmitting signals from years ago, these echoes give us a glimpse into the past." In other words, one or more people had been recording the original Shoutcast streams over the years and these were used as the basis for the relaunch. The main channel Bluemars is deep downtempo and atmospheric spacemusic like Biosphere, SETI, early Tangerine Dream and Deep Space Network. Cryosleep is completely beatless - think Chuck Wild's Liquid Mind series - while Voices From Within is spacey wordless vocal-based sounds.
Digitally Imported Net Radio
The USA-based Digitally Imported is another net radio pioneer, founded in 1999 by Ari Shohat and devoted to electronica and electronic dance music in all its flavours, tempos and offshoots. It started small with just one stream for club trance and is now a net radio behemoth offering over 60 channels. I have a particular soft spot for D.I. because it was Ari and channel programmer Cardamar who gave me my first exposure on net radio. I had shows and mixes playing on several channels as early as 2004 including "The Dune Mix" which got a massive reaction from listeners. These days my faves on D.I. are the Ambient, Space Dreams and Chillout channels, all programmed by the Moscow-based Igor Shalin aka Solarsoul. It was Igor who really sharpened and refined the erratic Ambient channel after he came on board in 2008, shaping it into one of the best online streams in the genre.
Chromanova is "100% electronic music for freaky people" and one of the very best of many net stations and channels spawned by the global psytrance and outdoor festival scene. Chromanova was founded many moons ago (1999) by German DJ Nesjaja, fuelled by his twin passions for dance and chillout music. The Chromanova Chillout channel is a superb source of guest DJ mixes and live festival sets that sit on the chilled end of psychedelic trance, world music and dubby exotica. Expect big, slow-to-midtempo rhythms, cosmic melodies and epic panoramic sounds. Ignore the Web 1.0 website design; it's all about the music mixed by Nesjaja and a roster of guest DJ's including AstroPilot, DJ Lorn, DJ Zen and the crew from Cosmicleaf Records. The Psy/Progressive Trance channel is pretty damn great too.