Is the background music streaming boom helping artists?

Over the next decade, the music was embraced by practitioners of the new age movement, who departed from Eno’s musical austerity and theoretical rigor, creating soothing soundscapes and often presenting them explicitly as aids in meditation or relaxation. New age music had fantastic commercial successes in the 80s and 90s, but it never really shook off the smell of patchouli, always remaining attached to its particular audience of seekers.

Today, in a time of constant uncertainty and overwhelming unease, the new age imperative to slow down and heal is deeply embedded in mainstream culture. So it makes sense that so many of us listen to ambient music all the time: for “Peaceful Meditation” in the morning (1.4 million likes on Spotify), for “Deep Focus” during the workday (3, 6 million likes). million), for “Ambient Relaxation” at the time of disconnection (1.2 million), for “Deep Sleep” at night (1.5 million). The preponderance and popularity of playlists like these – not just on Spotify, but also on competitors like Apple Music and YouTube – has helped the vibe slowly transform from a fringe concern into something of a marketable commodity. , like an auditory stress ball.

Ben Seretan – who, in all transparency, is a friend of mine – has been releasing albums ranging from full-scale drone songwriting to anthem-guitar rock for about a decade. It reached a new level of acclaim with the 2020s Youth ministry, which Pitchfork named one of the best rock albums of the year. He embodies the more pop side of his production: big hooks, hard-hitting production, sense of sociability; his songs make you want to sing along with other people, ideally around the world.

But in a curious inversion, that was last year cicada waves, an understated collection of vaporous instrumentals for solo piano, presented in the faithful fidelity of field recordings, which brought Seretan its biggest streaming success to date. Two tracks from the album ended up on Spotify’s ambient playlists like “Quiet Hours” and “Music for Plants,” and their play counts on the service are now at least 10 times higher than his next track. the most popular. This jump, says Seretan, is “100% due to the editorial playlist. In my experience, it’s always been easier to market songs and lyrics, until now.

Last September, the experimental music newsletter Tone Glow published a review of honest work by the ambient electronic duo Space Afrika which doubles as an attack on contemporary ambient music in general. With a series of links to the social media pages and albums of artists like Basinski, new age contemporary artist Green-House and composer Robert Takahashi Crouch, critic Samuel McLemore tackled “career hacks that prepare Ambient To Work/Study To playlists”, writing that the genre was “perhaps more popular, more critically praised and more creatively stagnant than at any other time in its history”. The review triggered a small gust of comments on Twitter among the types of people who have opinions about ambient music, largely centered around McLemore’s pugilist tone, and the idea that any indie musician who relies on streaming payments for their income – which amounts to small fractions of a cent per song played – could be accused of careerism.

I don’t think any of the artists McLemore linked in his piece are hacks, but I share his concern about the genre’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with corporate streaming playlists. On the one hand, it’s great that ambient playlists have provided ambient artists like Basinski with enough money to provide significant bill-paying assistance. And there’s something perverse and exciting about the idea that listeners with little or no declared interest in experimental music can receive genuinely outraged sounds under the auspices of self-care (like , say, the ghostly and dissonant Morton Feldman Rothko Chapel, a masterpiece of modernist classical music, which features, somewhat confusingly, on the “Music for Plants” playlist). But I also wondered – with these playlists attracting so many listeners and being so explicit in their presentation of music as something to play while you’re doing something else – if they might end up tipping the balance delicate of the famous diktat of Eno on ambient: far from the interesting and towards the ignorable.