How white noise took over the music industry – and put musicians out of pocket – The Telegraph
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How white noise took over the music industry – and put musicians out of pocket – The Telegraph

Songs made up of ambient noise have exploded on YouTube and Spotify, with creators making a killing. But where does this leave real music?
It’s the fuzz of a TV tuned to the wrong channel; aural static, flat and monotonous, with no peaks or falls to puncture the sound. Welcome to the white noise machine – where algorithmically-created tracks designed to sound like nothingness have become streaming platforms’ biggest moneymaker. Downloaded by the near-billion – “Clean White Noise – Loopable with no fade” has been played 847m times, worth around $2.5m in royalties – chart success is now more likely for computer programmers than pop stars.
The tracks are “not super complicated to create,” admits Nick Schwab, CEO of Sleep Jar, which supplies ambient sounds to over 6m people each month. “They’re very easy, if you have the right software.” Primarily sought out by those trying to block out background sound while sleeping, or looking to focus during the day, the market is ballooning: the most popular ‘artists’ can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of views daily, easily earning revenue over $1m each year.
Sleep Jar works primarily through Amazon’s Alexa, connected to Amazon’s smart home devices, offering noises white (“like TV static”), the growingly popular brown (“more bassy”) and pink (“kind of inbetween”). Schwab “accidentally created this business” after being lumped with a noisy neighbour six years ago, and began using a startup development kit to customise his Echo Dot smart device to play ambient sound. He published the results of his experiment online in 2016, and Sleep Jar became a hit; just the thing, seemingly, for our loud, distracted times.
The service now offers over 102 tracks, from multi-frequency static to crackling fireplaces, fans and babbling brooks. “We spend a lot of time mastering our sounds,” Schwab says. Making downloadable ambient noise is a two-part formula: the first objective is “making sure that the looping is seamless, or as seamless as we can make it” – that is to say that the point at which the track repeats appears imperceptible. The second is “making sure that our volume levels are consistent across all the sounds we offer; it’s super important.” And that’s pretty much that; there are no star producers that industry insiders are fighting over themselves to work with (“I wouldn’t say there’s one composer of white noise who really stands out”), or impromptu jam sessions seeking to hash out ambient magic.
Perhaps a lack of star power goes with the territory – standing out is the opposite of white noise’s modus operandi. Musical development is also not part of the plan: the goal here is for the ambient tracks of today “to remain a constant,” Schwab says, rather than trying to push genre boundaries. They vary so little, in fact, that one’s hearing is the only thing setting them apart; lower frequency sounds become more appealing as we age, as the higher register becomes out of reach. If we all had the same hearing ability, there could effectively be one white noise track for all, Schwab says, so indistinct are each from the other.
That’s not impacting the bottom line, however. White noise-makers typically make their cash via subscriptions (Sleep Jar costs $1.99 per month), advertising, or royalties paid-per-stream, on the likes of Spotify (at an estimated average of $0.048 per stream, compared to $0.01 on Apple, or $0.08 on YouTube). Any play that passes the 30-second mark counts (radio, meanwhile, pays out based on audience size and duration), making the looping ubiquitous in ambient noise tracks an easy money maker – infinite tracks featuring the same few seconds of vague humming can be created with minimal effort, unlike a songwriter agonising over a catchy chorus. And the more plays they have, the more they’ll be algorithmically pushed to the top of listening charts and included in various playlists, boosting their reach – and makers’ coffers – further. 
It’s not just songs benefiting from the genre, but podcasts too. Brandon Reed created ‘12 Hour Sound Machines (no loops or fades)’ in 2019, producing podcast-length static murmurs. He now has around 100,000 listeners per day and frequents Spotify’s most popular episodes charts, entering them in four different countries last year, and reaching #15 alongside offerings from the likes of the New York Times. “For this silly noise that plays for 12 hours to be in the top 100 feels crazy,” he said. “People are absolutely devouring it.”
The mechanics of music that resides somewhere between functional and aural Xanax has naturally frustrated those in the business of creating actual songs, not least because streaming platforms divide one revenue pot among all of those they play. Shouldn’t craft be valued higher than someone holding a mic to a desk fan? 
“It’s a lot easier to make those [sounds] than it would be to produce an actual song. So I can completely understand that argument,” Schwab admits. “However, I’m sure these streaming platforms look at the listening data. They’re looking at total streaming durations, they’re looking at repetitive listening”. And there, “these ambient sounds really stand out… so I’m sure they’re using that to drive whether or when they should surface those results over a song.”
Many suspect that data is being manipulated for cynical ends. Spotify rules ban SEO terms from being used as track or artist names, but many seem to make it through the net regardless. Other companies pump out the same tracks under different artist names; some businesses appear to have been set up with the sole purpose of releasing these tracks ad infinitum. 
One former employee of Ameritz, a UK label, alleged that the company “re-releases these albums dozens of times on Spotify with varying names, listing orders, and artwork mostly in an attempt to keep their album at the top as the ‘latest release’ on their artist pages, and that’s basically the full-time job of at least 10 different people (literally to just release the same tracks over and over)… the ultimate goal of this music spamming is essentially to keep the music at the top of the page so that it gets seen most easily and is the latest thing on there.”
Discerning exactly which outfits are guilty of this can be complex, as away from the platforms on which their songs reside, they have no online presence, often bearing names so generic, they couldn’t be dug from the depths of the internet by the most committed sleuth (no doubt by design). As for copyright information, that can be equally vague, with tracks commonly credited to companies of whom there is no digital trace.
It’s bleak stuff, as the future of music goes. And it’s set to continue, so long as “this problem of differentiating between music and sound” persists, says Tom Gray, founder of #BrokenRecord, which campaigns for better royalty payments for artists. Streaming platforms are increasingly seeing a glut of tracks that “aren’t effectively music, but just something that’s cheap and nonsensical. And if you reward it in exactly the same way as music, obviously you’re going to devalue music. That’s just inevitable.”
He points to many “ghost artists” on such platforms – not just ambient noisemakers, but labels releasing entire back-catalogues, or cover artists providing their spin on existing tracks, all of which eat further into the remuneration pie. “They game the system,” he says, and it’s easily done where the model provides this “completely level playing field between what is highly expensive, difficult to produce, original songwriting and music, and just whatever you fancy whipping up in five minutes, or literally sticking a microphone out the window… Some people might call that democratisation, but I call that the devaluation of culture.”
Gray says consumers can’t be blamed for lapping up the ambiguous fizz that now populates so much of the charts. “These services who literally make all of their money and have built their entire business off the backs of the talent and the great music that’s been made need to get their house in order.”
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