For a self-proclaimed music lover like me, discovering new music is like the shopping of shopaholics. I am an addict. So when in 2011 a friend introduced me to one of the world’s leading music websites (22tracks.com), I’ve been getting hooked to new, cool and funky stuff since. I’ve found my own modern-day jukebox. Only its a free service and intangible. This is my all-time favourite music site but I missed to visit their head office in Amsterdam last time I was in Netherlands (NL), a few months ago. So when I found myself in France, I decided to take the trip down to Amsterdam and 22 tracks was must-do this time.
Accompanied by my friend, Iyobel (an artist who also works as a Manager in music entertainment in NL), we are on a mission to find the head office of the music discovery service. I don’t really know what I will do when I get there – I just want to pick the genius brains behind the platform. After identifying their location online, we start to track them. We are somewhere along Radarweg street, near the city centre police station. It’s an extremely cold autumn afternoon around 4:50 p.m. Darkness is slowly starting to creep in. I am afraid that they might be closed for the day when we get there so instead of a 20-minute walk, we take the metro. On arrival at Nieuwe Prinsengracht, I recognise the street from the last time I took a boat ride around Amsterdam. “This is the rich people street!” I tell Iyobel, who wonders how the hell I have such information. In the 17th century, most of the rich Dutch merchants resided here. This former residential area now houses a couple of banks and a few serious offices. I am guessing 22tracks aren’t too bad off.
When we bump into the building we think is the one, it’s another eureka moment! When I see a sign with 22TRACKS on the left side of the door, I can’t believe we finally made it! I press the little round black doorbell twice and after a few seconds, the door automatically pushes itself open. On the second floor, there’s a plain door with the sign Sound of Amsterdam. After doing my Happy Dance, I start to freak out and pant. Iyobel encourages me, “Just open the door, say hello then introduce yourself as a journalist and a fan.”
I do it!
Two guys are sitting behind their desks. One has the kind of hair you want to ruffle and the other one’s head is clean-shaven. They seem cool. The office space is all white (exactly how I’d pictured it would be). There are loads of iMacs with the one at the reception area with 22tracks on the big screen. Some cool original 22track-inspired artwork pieces are hanging on the white walls. “I’ve got twenty two tracks but the bitch aint’ one”—I like this one. I see a couple of trophies on a shelf. In the mini-boardroom at the end of the office, there is another huge black and white picture of a dope-looking party on one side of the wall from the Paris launch of 22tracks. Interesting sign because I just came from Paris yesterday.
I arrive unannounced but Gilles de Smit, co-founder of 22tracks tells me, “Right now is a good time! We love when genuinely interested people walk in. I wish everyone were here to meet you.” Their warm reception makes me chill. I introduce myself just like Iyobel asked me to and within no time we are having a great informal interview. They offer us drinks and Chupa Chups (super cool office).
Tracking the Genesis
In need of morphing an ordinary music site into a unique platform for discovering new and expertly selected music, Vincent Reinders (Venz) founded 22tracks in April of 2009. Venz also owns a clothing line and hosts a national hip hop show and writes for several magazines. “It quickly started to roll, and six months later I joined forces with him to officially launch in Amsterdam,” says Gilles. On the first year, the platform was run by DJs from Amsterdam and Brussels. Now, five years later, 22tracks has expanded in three other European cities: Paris, London and Brussels.
So how does 22tracks work?
22 local top DJs from the cities of Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Paris share their 22 hottest tracks of the moment in order of genres. These make 22 tracks in each playlist for your selection. 22tracks management has nothing to do with any of the music selection across the cities, if it’s not sponsored or a partnership. “Only the DJs and city curators have the power and freedom to choose this,” says Gilles. As much as 22tracks DJs won’t miss out on popular or hot artists like J. Cole and Usher; you won’t believe the number of amazing artists (most indie or underrated) that get featured. Via 22tracks I’ve discovered countless artists and DJs most of who aren’t well known outside their regions/fan base. Roses Gabor, Rochelle Jordan, Szjerdene, Lianne Le Havas, Fullcrate, Kaytranada, Blonde, Years & Years, Mars, August Alsina, Mack Wilds, Rudimental, Jessie Ware, Submotion Orchestra, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Jhene Aiko, Ephemerals and Tanya Lacey. The list is endless.
In an increasingly crowded cyberspace and controlled mainstream media, finding fresh music curated to suit your taste is a task. But never too daunting for the real music lovers. And now with 22tracks, we’ve got this era’s own jukebox. Just like the olden jukeboxes, 22tracks has the latest songs and a way of playing music on demand without commercials. A Top22 playlist from top trending tracks being played across the platform in different cities is updated on the site every day. Gilles says, “The only way artists can get themselves on Top22 is by promoting their music via our site. That will possibly make their fans keep sharing and listening more.” Like jukeboxes, 22tracks has also offered listeners a means of controlling what they want to listen by the option of creating your own playlist, MY22. Sometimes they also have exclusive tracks that you won’t find anywhere else. A new playlist, Tip22, features hidden gems collected from newly released tracks or those that you might have missed.
Jurian van der Hoeven is responsible for all content and city management at 22tracks. He talks about keeping up with the tracks. “I find special DJs who can fit in our platform. We are currently working on our London and Paris contacts, we already have new people in London, some who have big names in reggae.” However, the work never stops at finding curators and the music. He says, “We are down to every detail, even concerning who is sharing 22tracks on Facebook.”
It must be some crazy tech sophistication to manage a business that permanently and fully depends on the net – a playground for malicious rivals and hackers. Gilles recalls, “One time, our site was messed up someone could basically download all the tracks.” The website has also experienced downtime in the past because of power outages and working with hosting companies that couldn’t manage the kind of tech advancement required from the start. “We have now moved to a bigger company hosting five of our servers. There are huge costs of running 22tracks but we had to change into more reliable servers to enhance security after being hacked a couple of times,” says Gilles.
Tracking the Trajectory
I don’t think you could dig up this kind of music selection and not have some sort of clairvoyance for future sounds. Gilles says, “The point of it all isn’t just discovering new sounds but supporting those that can potentially be the next big thing. For instance, Drum & Bass Amsterdam playlist isn’t that popular with everyone but we choose to keep it because it’s a genre that might come up and pick up especially in the clubs.”
The sprouting growth of the platform and emerging financial ventures like advertisements and collaborations with software companies, has empowered 22tracks to provide music while running business in different cities – what Gilles calls “taking a different approach.” Through a recent Microsoft deal, 22tracks has partnered with Internet Explorer to create a sound spectrogram that responds best via touch screens. The app is situated on the far right upper side of the website. Gilles says, “We never knew we’d get to such technology. Now we have a testing team in charge of that. This gives us the freedom to solely concentrate on music curation and strengthening the sound of this city outside the platform. We are big in Dutch clubs!” 22tracks is now “exchanging value” with various media partners, music labels and festivals. All either pay for selected playlists or barter trade, confirms Jurian. They have also collaborated with NL hotel CtizenM to play guests 22tracks during stay.
My favourite DJs on 22tracks are Amsterdam duo: Fullcrate and Mar (who are musicians too) can’t wait to see them one day in concert. I also love Paris R&B/Soul curator JP Mano. I tweet him saying I forgot to send him a shout while in Paris recently. He replies, “What a pity! Don’t forget next time, it will be a pleasure.”
About having more of African music spilling into the European-based platform for the delight of music lovers worldwide, 22tracks occasionally have an African playlist curated by Fiona Okumu from Afripop. Gilles confirms that 22tracks is already planning on launching into the cities of Berlin, New York and Cape Town—first African city. Gilles says, “We are definitely interested in more sounds. We are watching Nairobi too as it’s one of the emerging markets in Africa.”
Double Yaay for my city!
We both like the idea that maybe through me 22tracks finally got their Nairobian contact. I tell them about some edgy sounds from Africa I suppose they would dig, and that I work as a Publicist for Kenyan band – Sauti Sol (Winners Best African Act 2014 MTV EMA). Shock on me, they know Sauti Sol too well. In fact, Gilles sings to me their Swahili song Mama Papa. “How did you know them?” I marvel, soon realising that I asked the right person the wrong question … This is home of discovery.
BONUS: S/O to Iyobel. I am so happy I was at 22tracks outside my comp! Plus they gave me some cool merchandise. Thanks for errrrthing 22TRACKS!
If you like this, you might also dig my Love, Sex & Drugs tales from Amsterdam.