Why mood music playlists are the soundtrack to anxious times

Why mood music playlists are the soundtrack to anxious times


Gavin Luke could barely believe his luck. He’d spent nearly his entire life dreaming of being a musician, ever since he started piano lessons as a child. There was a semester spent studying at Berklee College of Music, and another stint trying to break into writing film scores for Hollywood. None of it stuck. Then he struck gold: His piano instrumentals started getting picked up on Spotify playlists like “Sleep” and “Deep Focus.”

Making money on digital streaming platforms, or DSPs, is notoriously difficult, but Luke does just that. The game changer came in 2016, when Luke and Swedish record label Epidemic Sound decided to upload his catalogue of music to Spotify.

The next year, at age 40, he finally made more from music than from his day job with a Minneapolis mortgage company. Two years after that, he sat steadily around 3 million monthly listeners — numbers that beggared belief for an artist with only 600 followers on Facebook, fewer than 500 on Instagram, and who didn’t play live shows. “I always say the more successful I become, the more paranoid I become about it, that this is too good to be true and it’s all going to go away someday,” Luke says.

Luke’s is a name that few music fans might recognize, but he’s part of a growing subset of musicians who earn a living almost entirely from instrumental mood music playlists. “Peaceful Piano,” the most well-known of these, boasts 6.7 million subscribers, making it one of the most popular playlists in any genre on Spotify.

These classically tinged songs are defined by their thoughtful, receding quality, bare-bones piano movements that belie expectations of commercial appeal. But with listeners looking to tune out of the noise of traumatic times and limitless streaming options at their fingertips, this music offers the perfect salve — even as the artists who create it remain largely anonymous.

Luke suspects he’s a unique case, but he’s hardly alone. Jacob David, a composer in Copenhagen, isn’t as far along the curve as Luke but is traveling on much the same trajectory. He uploaded his first recording, “Judith” — written for his niece’s church confirmation — to Spotify in 2015. Four years later, the song took off when Spotify unexpectedly added it to its “Peaceful Piano” playlist. “That was when I said, ‘Okay, the numbers for this are crazy. This could be a living,’” he recalls. “Judith” has since accrued more than 17 million plays on the platform, while David’s monthly listenership is 1.2 million. Like Luke, he was able to leave his job, in his case as a primary schoolteacher, last year to pursue music full time.

The explosion in popularity of these playlists dovetailed with an increased demand for wellness resources, even before the coronavirus pandemic thrust self-help to the forefront of public discourse.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health pledged $20 million in research toward music therapy and neuroscience. “I think people are having trouble sleeping because they’re super, super anxious, so there are more people looking for [relief],” says Toby Williams, the music therapy director at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. “And I think the people who work at Spotify are super smart. They’re trying to find as many categories as possible to hook as many people in as possible.”

It’s not just Spotify, either. After Luke’s streams on the Swedish platform were unexpectedly cut in half in 2020, Epidemic sent out an email the following spring advising its artists that their music had been added to a host of other platforms, like Amazon Music and YouTube Music. “When that happened, my numbers probably quadrupled,” Luke says, still gobsmacked. “I don’t even care about Spotify anymore now, because it’s so many different platforms now. And the income has just gone through the roof” — to the tune, he says, of “close to seven figures.”

But Spotify continues to lead the way for most. Founded in 2006, it launched its first playlists in 2015, which turned into a sprawling network of options either curated by humans or programmed by algorithms.

In the case of some official editorial playlists, the curators function much as radio once did, holding the power to turn a song into a hit with placement on the right playlist. “The labels, when they’re trying to break their artists, they’re pushing hard to these DSPs to try and land on as many different editorial playlists as possible, just to give their songs a fair chance to hit as many different audiences as possible,” says Parker Maass, a senior member of the marketing staff at Three Six Zero, a Los Angeles-based artist management company.

Once an artist is placed, Spotify is prone to add it back into that listener’s algorithm, but repeated plays don’t necessarily equate to fan engagement. Because listeners tend to start a playlist and simply let it play, they might hear a new artist’s song without noticing who the artist is. “The saying we have now is ‘streams do not equate to ticket sales,’” says Maass.

Gavin Luke is part of a growing subset of musicians who earn a living almost entirely from instrumental playlists. (Ben Pien)

Copenhagen composer Jacob David was able to leave his job as a teacher last year to pursue music full time. (Andreas Thaulow)

This ambiance-driven listenership is an unexpected twist on a long-standing tradition. “The logic [of radio consumption] has always been: Don’t play anything that will make someone change the channel,” says Elijah Wald, musician, scholar and author of the book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll.” “And that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about playlists. The point is, as long as it doesn’t break the mood, it’s all fine.”

Mood music, or functional music, has existed far longer than music for music’s sake. During the Middle Ages, minstrels were retained by royal courts to provide pleasant atmosphere. Even classical music was often “pretty tinkling in the background,” as Wald puts it.

By the mid-20th century, albums of mood music were produced, as Spotify playlists would later be, to serve as aural complements to domestic activities. Muzak is perhaps the most well-known variation of recent decades.

Luke is acutely aware of the fact that his music often functions as background — while people work, when they’re at yoga classes, or even at hospitals. Far and away his most successful playlist at the height of his Spotify listenership was the “Sleep” playlist. He chuckles at the thought that his music might be playing while listeners aren’t really listening. “They put it on a loop so the ‘Sleep’ playlist plays all night long while they sleep. I swear to God, I had almost 2 million streams just in like a week the first time I had a song on there,” he says.

Rigidly clocking in at under three minutes — Spotify counts a play after 30 seconds and pays by the play, meaning shorter songs and more of them is key — the songs on these playlists ripple along on melodies that plunk like stones skipping on placid water. They never rise above a swell or a calm cascade of notes, hinting at tension rather than embodying it, but they’re more than enough for, say, a computer to register an “emotion” and log it into its metadata.

When heard on their own, songs like Luke’s or David’s can sound like incomplete thoughts, fragments of an idea that haven’t been given their full shape. But played in succession, there’s a hypnotic quality, and it’s almost impossible to tell where one song ends and the next begins — which is, in a sense, the very idea of the playlist.

However soothing the songs may be, the music on these mood playlists shouldn’t be mistaken for therapy. “Music therapists are trained to be in relationship in music with a client, actively making music. So it’s really not the same thing at all,” Williams cautions. She draws a distinction between an activity with a therapeutic quality, which may feel helpful in the moment, and actual therapy. “The course of therapy is systematic. It happens over time,” she says.

Contrary to neatly categorized tags like “Focus,” “Chill” or “Wellness” that proliferate on a platform like Spotify, what works for one patient may have an entirely different effect on another. “There’s really no science, no definitive science behind” the labels Spotify uses, Williams adds. “It’s somebody’s subjective idea of the mood that these particular songs might make.”

Still, David says he’s had several fans write to him to say that his music helped a loved one through an illness, or that they use it to meditate or put their baby to sleep. He first encountered this phenomenon while playing piano at a nursing home, when he noticed how residents’ faces lit up when they heard the music. “I’m not especially a calm person in general, I guess, but when I play it calms my mind,” he says. “And if it calms me, maybe it can calm other people.”

Luke is more unsentimental. He likens himself to a carpenter who might be asked to build a round table one week and a square one the next. In some cases, he admits, he doesn’t even remember his own songs, of which he estimates he’s amassed around 700. “Every once in a while I hear an old track of mine and go, ‘Oh yeah, that was actually pretty good. I forgot about that,’” he says, laughing. “Then the new month happens and it’s like, ‘All right, on to the next set of [songs]. I’ve got to pay the mortgage.’”

On the whole, Williams sees the popularity of these mood playlists as a positive development. “I’d say people are more aware of alternative ways to make them feel better, and more holistic ways, and it’s because it’s more in the mainstream. It’s more accessible,” she says.

Even if listening to the music doesn’t lead fans to seek options like music therapy, it could reflect a broader shift in thinking. “The more health-seeking people are, the better, in general, for society. And people having better access to the idea even of using music, using breath, using movement to naturally take care of themselves is a good thing.”

That may not be the way that Luke once saw his career playing out, but he’s not going to take it for granted. “I suppose if I was writing music with lyrics and vocals that had a real powerful meaning to me, I guess I wouldn’t be jumping up and down if it got on a sleep playlist. But, you know, it is what it is,” Luke says, adding: “It has meaning to me, but it’s more meaningful to me that other people get to hear it. What’s the point in writing music if no one ever hears it?”