Gavin Luke could hardly believe his luck. He dreamed of becoming a musician most of his life since he started taking piano lessons as a child. He studied for a semester at the Berklee College of Music and tried again to write music for Hollywood movies. None of this stuck. Then he struck gold: his piano instrumentals started appearing on Spotify playlists as 'Sleep' and 'Deep Focus'.
It's very difficult to make money with digital streaming platforms or DSPs, but Luke does just that. Things changed in 2016 when Luke and Swedish label Epidemic Sound decided to launch their music catalog on Spotify.
The following year, at the age of 40, he finally devoted himself more to music than his day job at a Minneapolis mortgage company. Two years later, he has a steady stream of around 3 million monthly listeners, unbelievable numbers for an artist with just 600 Facebook followers, less than 500 Instagram followers and no live streams.
"I always say the more successful I become, the more paranoid I become, that it's too good to be true and that one day it will all be gone," says Luke.
Luke's name may sound familiar to some music lovers, but he belongs to a growing group of musicians who make a living almost exclusively from playlists of ambient instrumental music. Peaceful Piano, the most popular of all, has 6.7 million subscribers, making it one of the most popular playlists of any genre on Spotify.
These classic songs feature thoughtful, evasive and straightforward piano movements that don't meet market expectations. But for listeners looking to tune out the noise of traumatic times and the limitless possibilities of streaming, this music offers the perfect balm, even if the artists who create it remain largely anonymous.
Luke suspects that this is a unique case, but not the only one. Jacob David, a composer from Copenhagen, is not far behind Luke, but he follows a similar path. She uploaded her first recording of "Judith," written for her cousin's church confirmation, to Spotify in 2015. Four years later, the song took off when Spotify unexpectedly added it to its "Piano Peaceful" playlist. "That's when I said, 'OK, the numbers are crazy. It can become a livelihood,” he recalls. Since then, Judith has accumulated more than 17 million views on the platform, while David has a monthly audience of 1.2 million. Like Luca, last year he was able to quit his job, in his case a primary school teacher, to devote himself full time to music.
The explosion in popularity of these playlists has been accompanied by an increase in demand for wellness resources even before the coronavirus pandemic brought self-help to the forefront of public discussion.
In 2019, the National Institutes of Health awarded $20 million for research in music therapy and neuroscience. "I think people have trouble sleeping because they're very, very anxious, so more people are looking for 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 try to find as many categories as possible to attract as many people as possible. »
It's not just Spotify. After Luke's streams on the Swedish platform unexpectedly halved in 2020, Epidemic sent an email the following spring to notify its artists that their music had been added to other platforms such as Amazon Music and YouTube Music. "When that happened, my number must have quadrupled," Luke said, still in a daze. “I don't even care about Spotify because there are so many different platforms now. And the income skyrocketed," he says, to the tune of "almost seven figures".
But Spotify continues to mostly lead the way. Founded in 2006, it launched its first playlists in 2015, which has grown into a vast network of algorithmically programmed and human-made options.
In the case of some official editorial playlists, curators act in the same way that radio once did, with the power to turn a song into a hit with the correct playlist placement. “When record companies are trying to get their artists out, it puts pressure on these DSPs to try to get into as many different editorial playlists as possible, just to give their songs a good chance to reach as many audiences as possible. maybe,” said Parker Maass, a senior member of the marketing team at Three Six Zero, a Los Angeles-based artist management firm.
Once an artist is released, Spotify tends to re-add it to that listener's algorithm, but repeats don't necessarily equal fan engagement. Since listeners usually start a playlist and just let it play, they can listen to a new artist's song without realizing who the artist is. "Now we have a saying: 'Broadcasts do not equal ticket sales,'" says Maass.
This atmospherically focused listen is an unexpected twist on a long tradition. "The logic [of radio consumption] has always been this: don't turn on anything that will cause someone to change the channel," says Elijah Wald, musician, academic and author of How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll. . “And that's what you're talking about when you talk about playlists. The thing is, as long as it doesn't spoil the mood, it's all good.
Background music, or functional music, has been around much longer than music for music's sake. In the Middle Ages, minstrels were used by royal courts to create a pleasant atmosphere. Even classical music often "played in the background", as Wald put it.
In the middle of the 20th century, background music albums were released and later Spotify playlists, which served as audience accompaniment to household activities. Muzak is perhaps the most famous variant of recent decades.
Luke is well aware that his music is often used in the background, when people are at work, attending yoga classes, or even in hospitals. By far his most successful playlist at the height of Spotify's popularity was the Sleep playlist. He laughs at the idea that his music can be played when listeners aren't listening. “They used to play the 'Sleep' playlist all night while they slept. I swear to God I had almost 2 million views in a week when I first received the song,” he says.
Tight pass in less than three minutes: Spotify counts the piece in 30 seconds and pays per piece, which means longer and longer songs are needed. The songs in these playlists are peppered with melodies that echo like bouncing rocks in still water. They never rise above a calm wave or cascade of notes, suggesting tension rather than embodying it, but it is more than enough, for example, for a computer to register an "emotion" and put it into storing its metadata.
Songs like Luke's or David's, when heard on their own, can sound like incomplete thoughts, fragments of an idea not fully formed. But when played in sequence, it has a hypnotic quality, and it's almost impossible to tell where one song ends and the next begins; that's the idea behind the playlist in a way.
As relaxing as the songs are, the music in these mood playlists should not be confused with therapy. “Music therapists are taught to have a musical relationship with the client by actively composing music. So it's not the same thing at all," warns Williams. He makes a distinction between therapeutic activities that may seem beneficial at the time and actual therapy. "The course of therapy is systemic. It happens over time," she says.
Unlike the carefully categorized labels like Focus, Relax or Health that circulate on a platform like Spotify, what works for one patient can have a very different effect on another. "There's really no science behind the labels that Spotify uses, no definitive science," Williams adds. "It's someone's subjective idea of the atmosphere that these particular songs can create."
However, David says that several fans have written to him that his music has helped a loved one overcome their illness, or that they have used it to meditate or put their child to bed. He first encountered this phenomenon while playing the piano in a nursing home when he noticed that the residents' faces lit up when they heard the music. "In general, I'm not a particularly calm person, I suppose, but when I play, my mind calms down," he says. "And if it calms me down, maybe I can calm other people down too."