Throughout the next decade or so, the music was embraced by practitioners of the brand new age motion, who departed from Eno’s musical austerity and theoretical rigor, crafting soothing soundscapes and sometimes pitching them explicitly as aids for meditation or rest. New age music had some improbable business successes within the Eighties and ’90s, however it by no means actually shook off the scent of patchouli, at all times remaining tethered to its explicit viewers of seekers.
Now, in an period of fixed uncertainty and overwhelming malaise, the brand new age crucial to decelerate and heal thyself is deeply embedded in mainstream tradition. It is sensible, then, that so many people can be listening to ambient music on a regular basis: for “Peaceable Meditation” within the morning (1.4 million likes on Spotify), for “Deep Focus” as we grind via the workday (3.6 million), for “Ambient Rest” when it’s time to log out (1.2 million), for “Deep Sleep” at evening (1.5 million). The preponderance and recognition of playlists like these—not simply on Spotify, however on rivals like Apple Music and YouTube as effectively—has furthered ambient’s gradual transformation from a fringe concern right into a form of marketable commodity, like an auditory stress ball.
Ben Seretan—who, full disclosure, is a buddy of mine—has been releasing albums that run the gamut from large-scale drone composition to anthemic guitar rock for a couple of decade. He broke into a brand new stage of acclaim with 2020’s Youth Pastoral, which Pitchfork named one among that yr’s greatest rock albums. It embodies the poppier facet of his output: huge hooks, punchy manufacturing, a way of sociability—its songs make you wish to sing alongside, ideally out on this planet, with different folks.
However in a curious inversion, it was final yr’s Cicada Waves, a low-key assortment of vaporous solo piano instrumentals, offered within the vérité constancy of area recordings, that introduced Seretan his best streaming success so far. Two tracks from the album discovered their method onto Spotify temper playlists like “Quiet Hours” and “Music for Crops,” and their play counts on the service at the moment are a minimum of 10 occasions better than his subsequent hottest observe. That bounce, Seretan says, is “one hundred pc as a consequence of editorial playlisting. In my expertise, it’s at all times been simpler to market songs and lyrics—till now.”
Final September, the experimental music publication Tone Glow revealed a evaluation of Sincere Labour by the ambient digital duo Area Afrika that doubled as an assault on modern ambient music basically. With a collection of hyperlinks to the social media pages and albums of artists like Basinski, modern new age artist Inexperienced-Home, and composer Robert Takahashi Crouch, the critic Samuel McLemore took goal at “careerist hacks churning out playlist-ready Ambient To Work/Examine To,” writing that the style was “probably extra standard, extra critically praised, and extra creatively stagnant than at any earlier level in its historical past.” The evaluation set off a small flurry of Twitter commentary among the many kinds of people that have opinions on ambient music, a lot of it centered on McLemore’s pugilistic tone, and on the notion that any impartial musician who depends on streaming payouts for revenue—which famously quantity to small fractions of a cent per track performed—is likely to be accused of careerism.
I don’t suppose any of the artists McLemore linked in his piece are hacks, however I do share his concern in regards to the style’s more and more symbiotic relationship with company streaming playlists. On one hand, it’s nice that temper playlists have supplied ambient artists like Basinski sufficient cash to offer significant help with paying the payments. And there’s one thing perversely thrilling in the concept that listeners with little to no professed curiosity in experimental music is likely to be served genuinely outré sounds beneath the auspices of self-care (like, say, Morton Feldman’s ghostly and dissonant Rothko Chapel, a masterpiece of modernist classical music, which seems, considerably bafflingly, on the “Music for Crops” playlist). However I’ve additionally puzzled—when these playlists command so many listeners, and are so express of their presentation of the music as one thing to play whilst you’re doing one thing else—whether or not they may find yourself tipping the fragile stability of Eno’s well-known dictate about ambient: away from the fascinating and towards the ignorable.