With songs and soundtracks available for nearly every human activity, it was just a matter of time before the market began booming for the second-most sedentary thing that people do: sleep. Sure enough, in recent years the market has become awash with mellow, meditative ambient music designed and recorded solely for the purpose of winding down and drifting off, available on streaming services, albums, apps for iOS, Android, macOS and more.
Spotify is filled with playlists such as “Peaceful Meditation” for the morning (1.7 million likes), “Deep Focus” during afternoon work chill outs (3.6 million), “Ambient Relaxation” for the end of an evening’s listening (1.2 million) — and “Deep Sleep” for when one’s eyes are finally shut (1.5 million). Endel, a sleep and sound wellness company co-founded by Oleg Stavitsky, holds a cross-platform sonic ecosystem of AI-powered apps with over 1 million active users monthly listening to 1.5 million hours per month.
Sleep specializing artists such as William Basinski (“Melancholia II”) and classical pianist-composer Chad Lawson are two top practitioners in the genre. Lawson alone holds over 500 million global streams for his two most recent Decca label albums, 2020’s “You Finally Knew” and 2022’s “Breathe,” with his weekly iHeart Radio “Calm It Down” podcast getting 4 million downloads since its 2021 start. “Music is an extension of who we are – some artists push envelopes and create work that serve themselves without caring about what others think, others create music for a reason,” says Lawson. “Having waited tables for 15 years, I learned the meaning of connecting with people, learning to interact, and to accommodate needs that they might not realize they had. If someone has to ask me to help – be it healing or sleep – I’ve missed the point.”
Into the breach of this soporific sonic trend come the likes of Alanis Morrisette, who last year released “The Storm Before the Calm” — which she described as “an invitation. a balm. a safe place to land. or ignite. or restore. or fuel. or comfort.” — just weeks after electro-soul singer James Blake dropped “Wind Down,” the first functional album constructed with AI technology to be released by Republic in connection with Endel, and their scientific collaboration with Dr. Roy Raymann of SleepScore Labs.
“It’s mesmerizing to hear how my music blends with the science-based sounds of Endel’s AI,” Blake wrote upon his album’s release. “I think we’ve invented something not just beautiful or even meaningful, but practical.” Of the “Wind Down” project with Blake, Stavitsky noted how important the two hours before sleep are to one’s overall restfulness. “To enable this rest, we included certain tones and scales in ‘Wind Down’ that activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” he says. “The body usually does this naturally, but sometimes we need encouragement to get there.”
Recently, even more mainstream artists are creating somnolent sounds. Electronic music maven Moby returned to chill vibes of some of his early material with “Ambient 23” in January. R&B vocalist Jhené Aiko began curating a series of “Sleep Soul” albums such as “Relaxing Nature & Rain Sounds with Green Noise” in March in partnership with the Calm sleep app (Calm’s app also features “Sleep Soul Relaxing R&B Baby Sleep Music Vol.2,” along with June’s release of “Relaxing R&B Baby Sleep Music Vol. 3”). Rapper and BIPOC mental health advocate 6lack jumped into the slumber party several weeks ago with “Since I Have a Lover (Endel Sleep Soundscape),” a blissed-out work streamed across DSPs over 400,000 times since its release. “These sounds can be for rest and relaxation, or for helping you feel inspired and creative,” 6lack wrote. “Combined with Endel’s AI and science, it was easy to create something that felt healing.”
Moby tells Variety that it’s important to make a distinction between his recent work and 1993’s “Ambient,” which lived up to its title but was more doomy and menacing.
“It all goes back to the original utility of ambient music — to create meaningful atmospheres without words,” he says, immediately pointing to the mostly instrumental second side of David Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes” and Brian Eno’s EG label instrumental works as his initiation into the ambient electronic genre. “Ideally, you dance or cry to most music. Ambient music, however, has more of architectural utility, transforming space in weird but pragmatic ways.”
He says that earlier in his career, ambient music meant little more than “quiet instrumentals” with attitude. But 12 years ago, “when I moved to L.A., playing into the Los Angeles cliché of self-help,” Moby found himself wanting to hear ambient music that was more minimal and longer than he was able to purchase for the purposes of sleep, meditation and yoga.
“Restraint and minimalism make this music effective — and neither skill happens to be most musicians’ strong suit,” he says. “It’s counter-intuitive, rather than difficult, to make music that is for sleep anything less than solitary and minimalistic. You have to not add more or play louder. So, first and foremost, I made new ambient music for myself, music that was calmer, quieter and less demanding than anything out there. I love Boards of Canada, but once the drums kick in, it’s hard to just lie on the floor, absorb and relax.”
Moby says he’s gotten some high praise for his recent release. “Danny Elfman told me that my ambient stuff is his nightly sleeping soundtrack — that was flattering. I met [former top Hollywood agent] Mike Ovitz’s wife at a function a while back, and she told me that she and I sleep together every night, which was a funny introduction to someone you’ve never met,” he laughs. “But look, everybody is panicking; everyone is scared; everyone is dealing with insomnia. Anything that provides people with respite and refuge will be embraced. And in opposition to musicians who want attention for what they do, ambient records are completely different – we want people to celebrate the vibe and find a place for the music in their lives without recognition of the musician who makes it. The musician truly must take themselves out the equation to serve the purpose of healing and/or sleep.”
Chad Lawson was a church-raised, classically-trained, jazz-gigging, soundtrack-making pianist when he had a eureka moment in regards to wellness and music: hearing that his most emotional tracks had comforted listeners through their greatest time of need.
“As an artist, you rarely see what happens to a song once it leaves your door,” Lawson says. “But for example, one woman wrote to me, very early in the morning, telling me how she was listening to one of my songs and its tempo matched the pace of her husband’s final breath — I get emails like that often. If I can create work that is healing, brings emotional nurturing or rest, that’s what I am supposed to be doing. That woman doesn’t care what chart position my music has. What meant something to her was that my music was there at the most important time in her life, as if someone was holding her hand in that difficult time. That is where music and wellness are melded together.”
One of the longstanding issues with any ambient music is that people often think it’s simple, or just sounds rather than songwriting. Lawson begs to differ. “My focus is melody – something that has been missing from music in the last five-to-seven years,” he says. “Melody is the songbird, something people remember the most, that allows for rest, and is something that resonates no matter what they may do. And my intent is to speak to people no matter where they are in life, crafting moments around each melody, with no boundaries such as titles when I create. That allows for so much more potential to reach people, emotionally speaking. We’re just a vessel for those who need rest, who need to heal.”
Stavitsky, who worked as a videogame journalist before co-founding Endel (and wrote an op-ed about AI for Variety earlier this year), says he was an “ambient music nerd” before he noticed favorite electronic artists such as Brian Eno and William Basinski popping up on Spotify playlists and the then-new musicForProgramming site around 2016. “Those sites that were repurposing ambient music helped get me into the zone and served certain functions,” he says. “I thought that we could refine that. Endel was envisioned, from day one, to exist at the intersection of art, technology and science. The science part helps us to assess what state you are in, and how we know what frequency, scales and tones you must listen to focus, relax or sleep. The world outside is crazy, and getting progressively more so every year. Sound is powerful – the easiest way to control your environment.”
Even though listeners usually create Endel’s self-generating sound environments by headphone for more immediate results, Stavitsky is now also experimenting with more shared experiences. For such communal purpose, Endel and the “Wind Down” series — of which James Blake is part — entered into a partnership with Apple TV. “This is the first experience we’ve created that goes beyond personal use,” Stavitsky says. “We usually tell users to put on their headphones. But ‘Wind Down’ can also be played out loud, meant to expand into your entire home. Many people drift off with the TV on, and we wanted to turn that experience into one that supports good sleep, before and after your head hits the pillow, instead of interfering with it.”
Self-medicating with sound – Endel and otherwise – is something that he believes happens subconsciously, no matter what age, with younger audiences already learning to appreciate the noise of nature and beyond.
“I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old daughter who use everything from lo-fi and white noise to self-medicate,” Stavitsky says. “As the head of Endel, yes, I have something to do with that, but I also will peek into their bedrooms and see them sleeping to rain sounds on YouTube. I think that kids and students have a feel for lo-fi and natural sounds, while people my age, 40 and over, are more drawn to ambient and New Age music.
“Ultimately, however, everyone is stressed, and not coping well with all of life’s demands,” he concludes. “Sound is the easiest, least-invasive non-medical way to deal with all that.”