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.