July 25, 2024

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Beats Of Music

Is the Ambient Music Streaming Boom Helping Artists?

3 min read

William Basinski’s “Melancholia II” sounds like what might happen if despair itself walked into a studio and someone pressed the record button. Little pops poke through its smeared dreariness, like a despondent person bumping their forehead slowly and repeatedly into a microphone. Basinski, perhaps the most celebrated ambient composer of the 21st century, composed the seven-minute track in his usual fashion: by combing through his vast archive of audio tapes, finding a particularly resonant snatch of sound, and playing it on a loop until it takes on a mysterious character of its own. You might experience “Melancholia II” in the manner that critics have often interpreted Basinski’s work: as a meditation on the universal inevitability of death and decay. Or, perhaps more likely, you might encounter it as aural Ambien, a soundtrack to counting the saddest sheep to ever cross your dreams.

“Melancholia II” appears as track No. 80 on “Songs for Sleeping,” a five-and-a-half-hour playlist created by and hosted on Spotify, accompanied by an image of a child tucked under white covers and a promise to “send you to sweet, sweet slumber.” It is one of many pieces of ambient music, including several by Basinski, that have reached large listenerships after placements on popular playlists like this one, billed as utilitarian aids for relaxing, or focusing, or meditating, or caring for your houseplants. On the “Apply Yourself” playlist, Basinski’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a montage of ominous bell tones and howling negative space, becomes an unlikely anthem for buckling down and writing some emails. It is clear that these playlists are significantly contributing to their tracks’ streaming success. “Melancholia II” is Basinski’s most popular piece on Spotify, with more than 10.6 million plays. The album’s other 13 tracks average around 800,000 plays each.

Basinski, who has been making music with tape loops since the late 1970s, is mildly puzzled, but ultimately sanguine, that millions of listeners might encounter his work for the first time as a sleep aid or mood booster. “It’s funny, ironic in a way, and kind of sad,” he says. “But people who may not even know who I am, who want some kind of solace and find it on one of those playlists: It’s amazing.” Plus, he adds, after having to cancel two planned world tours due to the pandemic, “every little bit of income helps.”

Jeremy deVine can attest to the mysterious power of playlists, too. As the founder of the experimental music label Temporary Residence Ltd., he’s released several Basinski albums over the last decade, including a reissue of Melancholia in 2014, when on-demand streaming was still a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. The money generated from so-called mood playlists, in some cases, is higher than any other source of income from a given release, he says. He offers the example of Tarentel, a post-rock band that released a few records with Temporary Residence in the late 1990s and 2000s before fizzling out. Their most popular songs have Spotify play counts in the tens of thousands, with one exception: “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” a drifting ambient-adjacent instrumental from a relatively obscure 2007 EP, which recently exploded in popularity after showing up on a focus-oriented playlist, collecting nearly 3 million plays. According to deVine, “The revenue generated from that random Tarentel track is several hundred percent greater than the amount of money that band ever made.”

In its early days in the 1970s, ambient music was the domain of a few composers with roots in the avant-garde, like Brian Eno, who coined the term and laid out its precepts in the liner notes to his influential 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular,” he proposed. “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

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