The sounds of bonfires, waves and rainfall are helping us relax – and making millions
There’s no tune, no lyrics and you can’t dance to it. Don’t let that put you off: white noise is the music industry’s next big thing. Streaming services have seen an explosion of tracks in the last year consisting entirely of hissing, humming, fizzing and other varieties of radio static, as well as recordings of rainfall, ocean waves and crackling bonfires.
Some of the recordings have earned their creators millions of pounds. Record companies and tech firms have taken notice. Apple is including background noise as an option in its next Mac operating system, and TikTok influencers have been promoting pink noise and brown noise – sounds with lower frequencies that sound like wind or rustling leaves – as an aid to concentration for students at the start of the school year.
Noise fans say that studying, sleeping and meditation are all enhanced by listening to these sounds at modest levels. The economics of music-streaming mean noise-makers can cash in. Someone falling asleep to White Noise Baby Sleep’s 90-second track Clean White Noise – Loopable With No Fade on repeat for seven hours will notch up 280 plays. By last Friday it had been played 837m times, worth an estimated $2.5m in royalties. The lead track on Spotify’s own Rain Sounds playlist, two minutes of rainfall, has more than 100m plays.
In contrast, Laura Mvula only has 541,000 Spotify streams for the title track of this year’s Ivor Novello-winning album, Pink Noise – not a slice of somnolence but tuneful, lyrical 80s dance-pop that took her three years to make.
“Something I’ve always been very critical of is that all streams are treated equally,” said Tom Gray, the guitarist for Gomez and founder of BrokenRecord, a campaign for more streaming revenue to be paid to artists. “It seems democratic on some level, but it doesn’t account for the actual value that the listener gets.”
Gray compared the practice to an incident in 2018 when a Bulgarian operation created about 1,200 premium Spotify accounts and used them to play 500 tracks on a loop. Music Business Worldwide calculated that the operation cost $12,000 a month to make revenues of $415,000 a month for one of the playlists until Spotify deleted most of the tracks.
“There are amazing artists working in sound design, but a lot of the stuff we’re talking about isn’t that, it’s just someone sticking a mic out of the window,” Gray said.
Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services pay royalties in roughly the same way. They set aside a total pot for royalties, which is then divided up between distributors, record labels, recording artists and songwriters. That means that Mvula will get a smaller slice of the Spotify pie than will White Noise Baby Sleep, although most of it goes to the major record companies.
“This just drains the money away from things that have cultural value, because it’s all coming from the same pool,” Gray said. “There should be a different pool of money for this stuff.”
It’s hard to work out who is making ambient noise. Spotify lists White Noise Baby Sleep’s songwriting credits as belonging to an Erik Eriksson, whose other credits on the platform include Industrial Fan Sound and Best Rain Sounds. It’s not obvious who Eriksson is or whether he is part of a larger organisation, but the Medium website OneZero last year established that many of the artists’ names are pseudonyms used by companies.
Most ambient noise or functional music producers have preferred not to speak publicly about their work, but Patrick Zajda, co-founder of Lullify Music Group in Nashville, said that the business had grown out of more traditional musical pursuits.
“I used to make dance music and hip-hop beats and my partner was in metal bands. When I hit my 30s I knew that the whole DJing thing wasn’t happening. We saw a niche where people were looking for music and we started curating playlists.”
Playlists are the points of entry for artists looking for exposure on Spotify. Zajda said they were inundated with submissions and began branching out. He realised that someone wanting to take a relaxing bath didn’t care where the music came from. “They’ll just say, ‘Alexa, play me some relaxing music’.” The trick then is to market the playlist using search-engine optimisation techniques.
Zajda said it “can be that easy” to simply stick a mic out of the window during a rainstorm, “but I’m a perfectionist and we try to give people the best user experience possible, so we mix and master each track just as we would if we were trying to make a Grammy-winning record.
“My philosophy is that it’s not about volume, we go for quality.”
Catherine Loveday, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Westminster, said: “Music can be a powerful way to control the brain’s complex attention system. When we are deeply engrossed in a task, there is a secondary attention system that continually scans our environment for any new, interesting or unpredictable sounds [such as] a nearby conversation or someone coughing.” Low levels of noise may help mask these sounds, she said.
“Ambient music is particularly good for this – regular repetitive sounds with enough variation to keep our vigilance system engaged but not alerted, and broad frequency ranges that mask other distracting sounds while leaving space for our all-important inner voice.”
A Spotify spokesperson said: “We do not pass judgment on what music listeners choose. We know that there is a demand from our listeners for music that is specially created to suit certain occasions or activities. This music, like all other music on Spotify, is licensed by rights holders and we pay them a licence fee for their music.”