How Ambient Chill Became the New Silence
Kate Cooper has a story she likes to tell. Once, while riding in a taxi in Montreal on the way to the airport to visit family in Brisbane, Australia, she heard a strain of music playing in the background on a screen in the cab. It was music licensed from PremiumBeat, a royalty-free music library owned by Shutterstock that together contain upwards of 22,000 songs, and where Cooper works as a producer.
When Cooper arrived at the airport, she felt another flicker of recognition: the music playing inside the terminal sounded familiar to her, despite being pointedly inconspicuous. Then it happened again, after she boarded her flight. This time, it was the music playing in the background of the in-flight safety video. “I was like, ‘Can you just stop?’” she told me about the experience. “‘I’m going home for a holiday.’” After she landed in Australia and spent a few days sleeping off her jet lag, she went to the movies. There it was, again. “I was sitting in the theater and three ads came on in a row before the movie started,” she explains. “It was all our music.”
Cooper’s story isn’t really about transcontinental coincidence. It’s about the ubiquity and increased homogeneity of certain kinds of mood-setting songs. Background music has been big business for nearly a century, and in recent decades it’s been transformed by factors that are reshaping the music industry at large: streaming, algorithms, and social media. The demand for royalty-free music is growing, in large part because of the explosion of YouTube and Instagram, where influencers—especially in the beauty and travel realms—display an enormous appetite for sonic content, but often lack the pocket money to pay royalties on popular songs. YouTube claims that 500 hours of content are uploaded to the platform every minute. “Almost all of that needs music,” Cooper says; demand is “off the hook.”
Background music comes in a variety of flavors: piped-in playlists curated by sound designers for hotels or fast food restaurants; custom-made background music for big-budget commercials; algorithmic Spotify playlists with chill, lo-fi beats; and stock music, which permeates our environment often imperceptibly, in airports, Instagram Stories, furniture showrooms, grocery stores, banks, and hospital lobbies.
“I was sitting in the theater and three ads came on in a row before the movie started. It was all our music.”
There’s almost no question that our lives are increasingly filled with sound. Noise pollution in urban spaces is also on the rise, as Kate Wagner noted in a 2018 article from The Atlantic. Wagner’s piece, “How Restaurants Got So Loud,” explains how some restaurants are louder than freeways or alarm clocks, at 70 decibels, making it almost impossible to hear a dinner companion, since trendy building materials such as slate and wood don’t absorb much sound. (Wagner measured “80 decibels in a dimly lit wine bar at dinnertime; 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch; 90 decibels at a brewpub in a rehabbed fire station during Friday happy hour.”)
Adding ambient music to these spaces is about setting and controlling a nearly invisible emotional forcefield for consumers; ambient music for shopping spaces, these days, is meant to soothe you or pump you up, and generally nudge your habits toward consumption. The specific calculus about mood varies by business type. A 1982 study conducted in supermarkets revealed that slow-tempo music was shown to slow customers, and they purchased more as a result. On the opposite end of the spectrum, loud pounding music may be effective for bars; one 2008 study showed that men ordered an average of one more drink in louder bars than in quieter ones, and finished their drinks more quickly.
Background music is also increasingly used to create a branded “experience,” one that’s meant to connect a customer and a brand in an intimate way, relying less on the type of song (country, rap, folk) than on its mood (sexy, aggressive, uplifting). The less complicated the mood, the better. “A good song has a single emotion in it,” Cooper tells me. “The average length of a song is two minutes and 30 seconds, which is not a lot of time. If it tries to be really happy, and then really sad, it’s confusing.” Happy stock music sells better than PremiumBeat’s sad libraries, she explains, perhaps in part because people are spurred toward purchases by happy tunes. But, Cooper says, the point of a library like PremiumBeat is that clients can find a song in a library for any emotional occasion: “I just approved a track called ‘Eulogy,’ and I was like, ‘Well, there’s only one use for that.’”
The history of background music begins, more or less, with Muzak—a brand so big, its name has become synonymous with the genre. In the 1920s, George Owen Squier, a major general in the US Army during World War I, developed a new way of delivering music to listeners via wires. At the time, wireless radio was still unreliable; interference and unregulated broadcast waves frequently led to disrupted programs. During the war, Squier had experimented with different forms of transmission and signaling, most notably multiplexing—a method of allowing telephone lines to carry multiple signals at once by using a high-frequency signal and a baseband signal.
After the war, Squier decided to use this technology to deliver music to homes and restaurants and hotels. In 1922, he spearheaded Wired Radio, and the company began experimenting with home deliveries of music to New Jersey and Staten Island, and in 1930 offered its first commercial service in Cleveland. At $1.50 per month (about $22 today), the subscription offered users three channels of music and news, piped via electric wires from a nearby substation.
But while Wired Radio was running its experiments, wireless radio had become more advanced. By 1930, 60 percent of Americans would purchase wireless radios, and soon radio had a clear hold on the broadcast market. Squier soon pivoted to delivering his music to small commercial clients, mostly hotel dining rooms and restaurants at first. (When the Empire State Building opened in 1931, music was piped into elevators and lobbies to alleviate the anxiety of people traveling up and down its 102 stories.) Because of the need to disguise the speakers, early broadcast music often emanated from plants, which earned it the nickname “potted palm music.” Soon the company began leasing AT&T’s phone lines as a delivery method rather than electric wiring. In 1934, Squier rebranded the company as Muzak, a name inspired by the success of Kodak; he died later that year, before his company had achieved total ubiquity.
That same year, the company began recording original music featuring musicians such as Sam Lanin, The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, and Ben Selvin, who later became Muzak’s chief programmer. (Many musicians worked day jobs at the company.) Though Muzak was recorded in multiple genres, it was almost always instrumental and had a quality of distinct anonymity. As the jazz musician and Muzak employee Jane Jarvis told the Washington Post in 1973, “The minute you use words, you call up contemplative thinking and people begin to have opinions.”
In the late 1930s, as the business grew, programming became more standardized, as Joseph Lanza documents in his 2004 book, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong. Muzak piped in upbeat music during breakfast hours to go with coffee, then light classical over lunch, followed by more sultry cocktail tunes and piano melodies beginning at 5 p.m. Between 6 and 9 p.m., the company ushered in the “discreet and quietly classical dinner hours,” then played waltzes and tangoes until 12:30 a.m., getting progressively faster toward midnight, and then slowing down.
“The minute you use words, you call up contemplative thinking and people begin to have opinions.”
Muzak’s goal was to generate conformity—in our daily schedules, in our sonic atmospheres, in our associated moods—and, of course, to boost sales for restaurants, bars, and retailers who could buy different channels of Muzak at a monthly fee. (Lanza notes that one channel aimed at restaurants cost $35 per month—about $630 now—in the early 1940s, for 17.5 hours of music per day.) During this time, Muzak spread around New York City and across the country to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Los Angeles, where it played everywhere from apartment buildings to grocery stores. Its programming increased to 24 hours a day.
During the 1940s, Muzak was also used to increase worker productivity. (A 1947 questionnaire sent by researchers to the US Army Map Service found that 44.5 percent of supervisors in the Map Service saw a boost in production and efficiency amongst workers when music was played on the job.) Muzak began to be pumped into offices, rather than simply serving as the soundtrack for ladies who lunched. In the late 1940s, the company introduced the trademarked concept of Stimulus Progression, the pseudoscientific idea that if music were piped into workplaces in 15-minute sequences of gradually increasing intensity, it would stimulate productivity. (In some workplaces, the blocks were followed by 15 minutes of silence—a sort of palate cleanser that left workers craving music.) The science behind these 15-minute blocks was shoddy at best, but Stimulus Progression became Muzak’s hallmark invention.
Listeners began to revolt. Riders filed a lawsuit after D.C. streetcars and buses began piping in Muzak for commuters in 1948. The next year, in a separate case, New Yorker editor Harold Ross testified at a public hearing of the New York Public Service Commission about music in Grand Central Station. “The individual becomes captive of soundmakers and loses the right to choose whether he listens or doesn’t listen,” he wrote about the hearing in The New Yorker. The D.C. transit case made it to the US Supreme Court in 1952, and the court ruled in favor of broadcasts on public transit, affirming the right of free expression for music providers and denying that it interfered with the rights of commuters—sanctifying background music by law. At its peak in the 1960s, tens of millions of people were held captive by Muzak. It was heard in the White House, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, by sailors on military submarines, and in elevators everywhere. By 1958, 54 million Americans listened regularly to Muzak.
Muzak’s decline began in part because of a competitive company called Yesco that appeared in 1968, with an opposing idea to background music—foreground music. Executives at Yesco asked the question: what if people don’t want canned ambience? What if people want to listen to Jimi Hendrix at work, instead of 15 minutes of a woodwind melody? Yesco, and another company called Audio Environments Inc., offered fast-growing businesses such as TGI Fridays and Victoria’s Secret an early version of the playlist experience—the use of songs with lyrics—as well as rock and roll, a refreshing jolt of “real” music in the soundtrack of public life. Muzak followed suit and, in the late 1980s, the two companies merged. In 2011, Muzak was bought by a competitor, the Austin-based Mood Media, which kept its name in the merger.
At its peak in the 1960s, tens of millions of people were held captive by Muzak. It was heard in the White House, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, by sailors on military submarines, and in elevators everywhere.
Mood Media remains the global corporate giant of playlist curation; the company curates music for everyone from KFC to Gucci to Chase Bank. Mood boasts more than 500,000 clients worldwide and reaches about 150 million ears daily. The company also dabbles in other facets of the branded “experience,” including signage, audiovisual systems, and even custom smells.
“Collectively we’ve all learned that the way brick and mortar retail survives and thrives is by creating elevating experiences, without question,” says Danny Turner, global senior vice president of Mood Media. “Music is such an emotional and strong bond of connectivity with brands.” It doesn’t matter, maybe, if you buy something on-site; if the music leaves you with a positive feeling, a clear sense of a brand’s “personality,” it has done the trick.
Today, Mood Media doesn’t produce much original content; it serves to market a massive existing library of songs, some of which are popular, while others are totally unknown. Unlike the Muzak of yesteryear, a lot of Mood’s music has lyrics, though Turner says that a certain type of ambience is back in fashion. “We are seeing an overall very large swing toward a sort of ambient, chill, down-tempo, sort of like house kind of sound,” Turner says. “I’ve joked that ambient chill is the new Muzak.”
Today, the emotional manipulation of ambient music is growing increasingly specific. And we, the listeners, have become more mood-oriented too—mostly thanks to Spotify. In 2015, the company helped to engineer the shift from listening by artist or album or genre to listening by mood, building data on users’ emotional states through playlists like “Chill” or “Happy Hits,” and selling that data to advertisers and marketing firms. Spotify now claims that, “unlike generations past, millennials aren’t loyal to any specific music genre.”
Musicians who write for stock libraries need to keep up with the trends. Liam Clarke, who’s been making music for stock libraries since 2013, has a few Instagram accounts that he uses to follow bloggers, influencers, and brands of all stripes in order to keep his finger on the pulse of what people are listening to. After a more dancey, upbeat phase that lasted for a few years, Clarke says, the popular ethos today tends to be chill lo-fi, but with a beat.
Clarke got into making stock music the way many musicians do: messing around on the computer. He’d always written and played music, starting in school orchestras, but when he got the Apple program GarageBand, released in 2004, which allows people to write their own music, he could begin quickly writing music in any genre or style. Clarke also writes songs for other musicians and plays his own music. “I don’t think that’s all too different from producing for a library,” he says.
Because they have their personal brands, many artists, including Clarke, use pseudonyms in stock music libraries; his is Liam Aidan. (“You could have a song that’s the most licensed song in the world and no one would know who you are,” he says.) Once musicians upload a song to a library, it can be hard to track where it goes; they receive checks when a song is licensed and may get sent audio clips by friends or family who recognize their tunes, but, often, their work fades into the digital ether. This sometimes leads to the surprising flicker of recognition that comes from hearing one’s song out in the world, like Kate Cooper’s uncanny trip through the airport. (One stock musician found out weeks after the event that his song had been played on the red carpet at the Met Gala; another got a check for $1,800 because his song had been broadcast in Romania.)
“You could have a song that’s the most licensed song in the world and no one would know who you are.”
Stock music that comes from libraries such as PremiumBeat is referred to as “royalty-free” because users pay a one-time licensing fee, which starts at $49 for web-based or non-commercially distributed content and jumps to $199 for an enhanced license, which covers revenue-generating media such as advertisements. Unlike music that plays on the radio, where royalties are tallied each time a song plays, stock music artists are given an upfront fee for their songs by the library, then are paid again if their songs are actually licensed. (If the song is played on TV, on the radio, or in other venues, the artist might get royalties through their membership in a performing rights organization such as the American Society of Composers.) Cooper declines to say how much the artists who contribute to PremiumBeat are paid upfront, but says that, between that fee and royalties, “It’s a great way to pay a mortgage. It’s enough to live off if you’re submitting month to month.”
In 2016, Clarke had the unusual experience of creating a stock music hit. One night, when he was out with his friends in Montreal, his phone started blowing up with emails from major news organizations, asking him questions about Republican politics in the US. It turned out that, during a recent January snowstorm in Washington, D.C., then–House Speaker Paul Ryan had decided to livestream the view from the Capitol. The video shows snow falling, with Clarke’s song “Golden Skies” playing in the background on loop. The livestream lasted for nearly two days, and the song—which Ryan’s team licensed on PremiumBeat—played on repeat.
The hypnotic, chillwave-y beat went viral; Vice ran a story headlined “We Found The Song on DJ House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Blizzard Livestream.” But virality doesn’t necessarily mean profits. For “Golden Skies,” Clarke receives the upfront fee and a portion of the licensing fee each time the song is downloaded from PremiumBeat; no matter how many times the song played during the snowstorm video, he didn’t receive any additional money. “That was my surreal 15 minutes of fame,” says Clarke.
Both Cooper and Clarke tell me that there are a number of well-known producers and musicians who write stock music under other names. Cooper says that while she initially had trouble convincing some serious musicians to produce tracks for her stock music libraries, one told her later, “You changed my life. I bought a house.” At the high end of the market, Cooper says, contributors can make five figures, if they sell five songs per month to a custom library and see licensing returns—especially if their music gets on TV or the radio and earns extra royalties.
Oliver Lyu, a PremiumBeat contributor, says he makes about $30,000 to $40,000 a year writing music for the library, as well as for other custom projects. This is the higher end, of course; another stock musician, who has a day job, tells me he has made about $10,000 over the course of three years, licensing to libraries that—unlike PremiumBeat—don’t pay an upfront fee.
“With library music, sometimes you lose yourself because you’re writing so much so quickly, and you can’t remember half the tracks you’ve been working on,” Lyu says. “On the one hand, it makes you fast and skilled. But it can kind of take the life out of you.”
The logical endpoint of the demand for mood-based content might be something that’s not created by a human musician, but by an algorithm. Some players in the music industry are betting on this. Earlier this year, Warner Brothers Music partnered with Endel, a company founded in Berlin that creates customized “soundscapes,” mostly for individual consumers. Endel’s songs aren’t really songs; they’re endless sonic ecosystems of sorts, for activities such as focusing on work or sleeping.
Listeners on the Endel app select a particular “mode”—Relax, Focus, Sleep, or On-The-Go—and the music begins. The Endel algorithm can even adapt to a user’s location, time zone, local weather, and heart rate, depending on how much data one forks over. For the most part, it’s sonically lo-fi; even the On-The-Go mode feels like a gentle, chillified experience, not quite music for dancing. Endel’s recent partnership with Warner Brothers led to what it claimed in a January 2019 press release were the first “app-as-an-artist” albums on Apple Music and iTunes. The first albums were a series of Sleep albums: Sleep—Clear Night and Sleep—Cloudy Afternoon, streamable with an account on Spotify or Apple Music. Endel plans to release five albums apiece for Focus, Relax, and On-The-Go, promising “minimalistic, abstract cover art similar to the app’s visual aesthetic.”
Up until the release of its first albums, Endel functioned, to some extent, like the various sleep apps that are already available on the market—as a kind of white noise with an algorithmic twist, marketed primarily toward individuals. But Endel has broader ambitions for its ambient soundscapes, and the music and technology industries are interested. (Amazon’s Alexa Fund is an early investor.) “The technology behind Endel is designed to be integrated into various technologies and public infrastructures such as airports and hotels, as well as office and coworking spaces,” the company claims in its bio.
All of this is an issue for Nigel Rodgers, the founder of Pipedown: The Campaign for Freedom From Piped Music, a UK–based group that’s been campaigning against the use of background music since the 1990s. The group itself is small: there are about 2,000 members in the UK, and a few smaller sister organizations in the US, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere, according to Rodgers. “We are the visible peak of the iceberg and the bulk of the protest remains unseen and unheard,” he says.
Rodgers’s issues with ambient music are manifold. For one, it can be a hearing hazard when played at high decibels in bars, restaurants, and retailers. (In 2012, a New York Times reporter found that the midtown restaurant Lavo averaged 96 decibels over the course of an hour, which, she wrote, was “as loud as a power mower, and a level to which, by government standards, workers should not be exposed for more than three and a half hours without protection for their hearing.”) Loud public spaces can exacerbate conditions such as tinnitus, cause difficulties for the hard of hearing, and make spaces unpleasant for people with autism and other neurodiversities. But the group’s campaign is not solely focused on health hazards, Rodgers insists; it’s also concerned with protecting the sanctity of music itself.
“Music should not be treated as a marketing tool or a kind of acoustic wallpaper,” he says. He notes that his group, Pipedown, counts a number of music teachers as members, who regard the ubiquity of ambient music as a barrier to young people trying to learn to hear and play. “With music coming out of the walls all the time, students find it even harder to concentrate, and are almost addicted to music, which is not a good way to appreciate it,” Rodgers says.
“We keep fighting it, but it’s like fighting a monster from the deep with some sort of endless tentacles.”
Pipedown members organize letter-writing campaigns and occasionally stage protests, as they did at one location of the large British grocery chain, Marks & Spencer, in 2006. The group doesn’t distinguish between the types of venues where the music it deems bothersome is played: shops, airports, even the soundtracks of BBC documentaries, which—members argue—they’d like to watch in peace, without musical accompaniment.
The group has scored some victories. In 1994, after Pipedown lobbied managers at Gatwick Airport, authorities put out a survey about the music; of the 68,000 respondents, 43 percent said they disliked it, 34 percent said they liked it, and the remainder was indifferent. The airport agreed to stop playing music in public areas, though it remains in bars and restaurants. In 2016, Pipedown convinced Marks & Spencer to stop playing music completely. But Rodgers says it’s hard to say whether there’s been progress overall—background music keeps creeping back.
“We keep fighting it, but it’s like fighting a monster from the deep with some sort of endless tentacles,” Rodgers says. “You get a tentacle off one retail chain, and suddenly it’s on another.”
This comparison is apt, however you view the creeping of sound. Rodgers’s experience—or, for that matter, Kate Cooper’s, recognizing snippets of stock music everywhere she goes—are not uncommon. While I was reporting this story, I started feeling it too. Everywhere I went, I noticed music that I would have normally ignored. I kept a mental catalog of the sounds I was being exposed to, and sometimes jotted notes on my phone about how it affected my mood. (“Pop music in café = oddly gloomy?”) I noticed that I was often putting on headphones to drown out the loud music in a café where I was working—then thought about how strange it was to stuff my ears with sound to avoid other sounds.
Once, I walked into an Irish pub and had an unsettling experience: total quiet. I noticed it immediately, and felt what I can only describe as uncertainty. I wasn’t being told what time of day it was or what kind of bar this was or how I should feel walking in, as I had been conditioned to do. I thought I’d been craving silence. But when it arrived, it felt much too loud.