Why mood music playlists are the soundtrack to anxious times


Gavin Luke couldn’t believe his luck. Since beginning piano lessons as a child, he has spent most of his life dreaming of becoming a musician. He had his semester at Berklee College of Music and another stint trying to write film scores for Hollywood. None stuck. He then won a gold medal. His Piano His instrumentals are now featured on his Spotify playlists such as ‘Sleep’ and ‘Deep Focus’.

Making money on a Digital Streaming Platform (DSP) is notoriously difficult, but Luke does just that. A game changer came for Luke and Swedish Records in 2016 when his label, Epidemic Sound, decided to upload his music catalog to Spotify.

Turning 40 the next year, he finally made more money from his music than from his day job at a Minneapolis mortgage company. Two years after that, he had a steady 3 million monthly listeners. This is an unbelievable figure for an artist who has less than his 600 Facebook followers and his 500 Instagram followers and doesn’t do live shows. “I always say that the more successful I am, the more paranoid I am about it, saying that this is too good to be true and one day it will all go away,” says Luke.

Few music fans may know the name Luke’s, but he’s grown up to be part of a group of musicians who make their living solely from playlists of instrumental mood music. The most famous of these, “Peaceful Piano,” boasts 6.7 million subscribers, making him one of the most popular playlists of all genres on Spotify.

These classic-hued tunes are defined by stripped-down piano moves of thoughtful, understated quality that defy expectations of commercial appeal. But if listeners are looking to escape the noise of traumatic times and have endless streaming his options at their fingertips, this music offers the perfect remedy — the artist who created it. remains mostly anonymous.

Luke suspects he’s a special case, but he’s not the only one. Copenhagen composer Jacob David isn’t as far along as Luke, but he’s more or less on the same trajectory. He uploaded his first recording, “Judith,” written for confirmation at his niece’s church, to his Spotify in 2015. Four years later, the song became popular when Spotify unexpectedly added it to their “Peaceful Piano” playlist. “At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, this number is crazy. This might make a living,'” he recalls. Since then, “Judith” has earned over his 17 million views on the platform, and David’s monthly listener count is his 1.2 million. Much like Luke, he was able to quit his job as an elementary school teacher last year to pursue music full-time.

The explosion in popularity of these playlists coincided with an increased demand for wellness resources even before the coronavirus pandemic pushed self-help to the forefront of public debate.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health pledged $20 million for music therapy and neuroscience research. “I think people are very anxious and have trouble sleeping. [relief]says Toby Williams, director of music therapy at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. “And I think the people who work at Spotify are very smart. They’re trying to find as many categories as possible to attract as many people as possible.”

Spotify is not alone. After Luke’s stream on the Swedish platform was unexpectedly cut in half in 2020, Epidemic informed the artist the following spring that the music was added to many other platforms, including Amazon Music and YouTube Music. “My number probably quadrupled when that happened,” says Luke. “I don’t even care about Spotify now, because it’s on so many different platforms now. And the revenue just went through the roof” — he muses on “close to seven figures.” say.

But Spotify continues to lead many companies. It was founded in 2006 and launched its first playlist in 2015. This turned into a chaotic network of options curated by humans or programmed by algorithms.

For some official editorial playlists, curators work much like radio once did, with the power to turn songs placed in the right playlists into hits. “When labels try to break artists, they push these DSPs hard to reach as many different editorial playlists as possible just to give as many different audiences a fair chance for their songs to hit. says Parker Mars, a senior member of the marketing staff at Los Angeles-based artist management firm Three Six Zero.

Once an artist is placed, Spotify tends to add that artist to its listener algorithms, but repeat plays don’t always equate to fan engagement. Listeners tend to start a playlist and play it as is, so they may hear songs by new artists without realizing who the artist is. “The saying we have now is, ‘Streaming is not the same as selling tickets,'” says Maas.

This atmosphere-driven listenership is an unexpected twist on a long-standing tradition. “logic [of radio consumption] Elijah Wald, musician, academic, and author of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. “That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about playlists. Bottom line, as long as it doesn’t break your mood, so be it.”

Mood music, or functional music, has been around much longer than music for music’s sake. During the Middle Ages, bards remained at court to provide a comfortable atmosphere. Even classical music, as Wald puts it, often had “pretty jingling in the background.”

By the mid-20th century, mood music albums, later Spotify playlists, served as an aural complement to domestic activity. Muzak is probably the most famous variation in recent decades.

Luke is keenly aware of the fact that his music often serves as the background while people are at work, in yoga classes, and even in hospitals. The most successful playlist during its heyday was by far the “Sleep” playlist. He laughs, thinking that his music could be playing when listeners aren’t actually listening. Made the “Sleep” playlist play. I swear to God, when I first sang the song, it had almost two million streams in just over a week,” he says.

Technically recorded in under 3 minutes — Spotify counts plays after 30 seconds and pays accordingly. So shorter songs and more songs matter — the songs in these playlists ripple along melodies that make them sound like stones splashing across calm water. They don’t go beyond gentle cascades of swells and sounds, hinting at tension rather than embodying it, but more than enough for a computer to register “emotions” and record them in metadata, for example. .

Songs like Luke and David, heard in isolation, can sometimes sound like incomplete thoughts, fragments of incomplete ideas. But when played back to back, it has a hypnotic quality, making it almost impossible to tell the end of one song from the beginning of the next. This is, in some ways, the very idea of ​​a playlist.

No matter how comforting the tunes are, don’t mistake the music in these mood playlists for therapy. “Music therapists are trained to form a musical relationship with their clients and to actively make music, so it’s not really the same,” he warns Williams. She distinguishes between activities that are therapeutic in nature, which she may find useful in the moment, and actual therapy. “The treatment process is systematic. It happens over time,” she says.

Contrary to the proliferation of neatly categorized tags like ‘focus’, ‘chill’ and ‘wellness’ on platforms like Spotify, what works for one patient is very different for another. can have an effect. Williams adds that there is “no real science or definitive science” in the labels Spotify uses. “It’s someone’s subjective idea about the mood these particular songs create.”

Still, David says some fans have written to him, saying his music helped sick loved ones, or that he used it to meditate and lull his baby to sleep. He encountered this phenomenon while playing the piano in a nursing home when he noticed a lightening in the faces of residents who heard the music. “I don’t think I’m a particularly calm person in general, but it calms me down when I play,” he says. “And if it calms me down, maybe it can calm other people down.”

Luke is less emotional. He likens himself to a carpenter and might be asked to build a round table one week and a square table the next. In some cases, he admits, he doesn’t even remember his own songs, but he estimates that he collected around 700 of them. good. He forgot about it,” he says with a laugh. “Then a new month comes and it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s move on to the next set.’ [songs]I have to pay my mortgage.

Overall, Williams sees the popularity of these mood playlists as a positive development. “I think people are more aware of alternatives and more holistic ways to feel good because it’s more mainstream. It’s more accessible.” she says.

Even if listening to music doesn’t make fans seek out options such as music therapy, it may reflect a wider shift in mindset. “Generally, the more people want health, the better it is for society. People with more access are a good thing.”

It may not be the way Luke once saw his career unfold, but he doesn’t take it for granted. If I had written the music in , I don’t think I would have jumped if it had been in the sleep playlist. add to. What’s the point of writing music if no one has heard it? ”

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