Is the Ambient Music Streaming Boom Helping Artists?

Across the following decade or so, the music was embraced by practitioners of the new age movement, who departed from Eno’s musical austerity and theoretical rigor, crafting soothing soundscapes and often pitching them explicitly as aids for meditation or relaxation. New age music had some fantastic commercial successes in the 1980s and ’90s, but it never really shook off the scent of patchouli, always remaining tethered to its particular audience of seekers. 

Now, in an era of constant uncertainty and overwhelming malaise, the new age imperative to slow down and heal thyself is deeply embedded in mainstream culture. It makes sense, then, that so many of us would be listening to ambient music all the time: for “Peaceful Meditation” in the morning (1.4 million likes on Spotify), for “Deep Focus” as we grind through the workday (3.6 million), for “Ambient Relaxation” when it’s time to log off (1.2 million), for “Deep Sleep” at night (1.5 million). The preponderance and popularity of playlists like these—not just on Spotify, but on competitors like Apple Music and YouTube as well—has furthered ambient’s slow transformation from a fringe concern into a sort of marketable commodity, like an auditory stress ball.

Ben Seretan—who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine—has been releasing albums that run the gamut from large-scale drone composition to anthemic guitar rock for about a decade. He broke into a new level of acclaim with 2020’s Youth Pastoral, which Pitchfork named one of that year’s best rock albums. It embodies the poppier side of his output: big hooks, punchy production, a sense of sociability—its songs make you want to sing along, ideally out in the world, with other people.

But in a curious inversion, it was last year’s Cicada Waves, a low-key collection of vaporous solo piano instrumentals, presented in the vérité fidelity of field recordings, that brought Seretan his greatest streaming success to date. Two tracks from the album found their way onto Spotify mood playlists like “Quiet Hours” and “Music for Plants,” and their play counts on the service are now at least 10 times greater than his next most popular track. That jump, Seretan says, is “100 percent due to editorial playlisting. 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 Labour by the ambient electronic duo Space Afrika that doubled 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, contemporary new age artist Green-House, and composer Robert Takahashi Crouch, the critic Samuel McLemore took aim at “careerist hacks churning out playlist-ready Ambient To Work/Study To,” writing that the genre was “possibly more popular, more critically praised, and more creatively stagnant than at any previous point in its history.” The review set off a small flurry of Twitter commentary among the sorts of people who have opinions on ambient music, much of it focused on McLemore’s pugilistic tone, and on the notion that any independent musician who relies on streaming payouts for income—which famously amount to small fractions of a cent per song played—might be accused of careerism.

I don’t think any of the artists McLemore linked in his piece are hacks, but I do share his concern about the genre’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with corporate streaming playlists. On one hand, it’s great that mood playlists have provided ambient artists like Basinski enough money to provide meaningful assistance with paying the bills. And there’s something perversely thrilling in the idea that listeners with little to no professed interest in experimental music might be served genuinely outré sounds under the auspices of self-care (like, say, Morton Feldman’s ghostly and dissonant Rothko Chapel, a masterpiece of modernist classical music, which appears, somewhat bafflingly, on the “Music for Plants” playlist). But I have also wondered—when these playlists command so many listeners, and are so explicit in their presentation of the music as something to play while you’re doing something else—whether they might end up tipping the delicate balance of Eno’s famous dictate about ambient: away from the interesting and toward the ignorable.

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