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Why the ambient music market is booming

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And finally today, to create a certain mood, people may often turn to ambient music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: That's music, usually without words and curated in playlists, that's sometimes meant to achieve a particular mood or feeling, and marketing it as so-called mood music has become big business. Streaming giant Spotify has an entire genre dedicated to it, with dozens of playlist options, and one market research firm says in recent years, the background music industry has been valued at $1.5 billion, driven in part by demand from places like cafes. But if you think it's just background noise, you are mistaken. That's according to Andy Cush, a contributing editor at Pitchfork magazine who's written about the genre. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDY CUSH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: What's the best way to describe ambient music? I feel like a lot of us kind of know what it is in theory, but what's the specific way you would describe what we're talking about when we have this conversation?

CUSH: Yeah. So I think that I would kind of default to the definition of it that was put forth by Brian Eno, who is the person most often credited with sort of inventing ambient music, and the key part of that definition for me is it's something like music that is ignorable as it is interesting. He was really fascinated by music that could just sort of exist in a space, whether or not anyone was paying close attention to it. That was still an OK way to listen to it. And yet, if you wanted to sit, you know, with your head right between the speakers and try to take in every detail, there would be enough there to keep you interested and excited.

And the way that that kind of ends up manifesting in terms of the way it sounds is like, you know, a chord that might just stay in one place for several minutes at a time and slowly change the way that it sounds. It's not particularly dissonant or loud. There's, like, a meditative, relaxing and kind of ambiguously emotional feeling that comes along with it.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, you focus a lot on Brian Eno, like you said, as the person who really kind of made this stand out. What was it that he did that really set him apart, that made this take off?

CUSH: Well, one thing was that he came up with the terminology for it. You know, there was music that we might, like, look back on as being sort of adjacent to ambient music. Like, minimalist classical composers kind of were exploring similar ideas sometimes. But in this album, "Ambient 1: Music For Airports," in the liner notes, you know, sort of put forth a mission statement for what ambient music was. And honestly, his contribution to ambient music has as much to do with kind of, like, the theoretical terminology side as it does, like, with music itself.

DETROW: Let's listen to a little bit from that album. Like you said, it's called "Ambient 1: Music For Airports" Here's a cut from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO'S "1/1")

DETROW: This is from a track titled "1/1." It is a 17-minute song that sounds somewhat like this throughout it. You know, we're talking about this - this album came out a couple decades ago. How did the streaming era change the ambient music scene?

CUSH: At its outset, like, ambient music was something that, like, you would have been kind of a nerd about music to be even encountering, you know? It was like music that record collectors or enthusiasts of ambient music specifically were into. And I think in the streaming era, a lot of this music is being presented to listeners under the auspices of, like, aids for relaxation, or, you know, you could just go on Spotify and pull up, like, a deep focus ambient playlist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CUSH: And that has in a cool way, from my perspective, opened up music that is, like, quite easy to understand and could be quite widely appealing to an audience of people who are maybe, like, outside of this sort of niche...

DETROW: Yeah.

CUSH: ...Of listeners who were initially attracted to ambient music.

DETROW: Right - because it feels like there's a tension here. And it seems like you feel like there's a tension here - right? - because this is a genre that people are putting a lot of thought and work into it. And then it's being widely consumed but, in a lot of ways, just as, like, white noise, in a sense.

CUSH: Yeah. And when I wrote this piece for Pitchfork, I talked to quite a few ambient musicians. And honestly, I would say, like, the primary response that I got was people were just happy with this idea that people might be encountering their music in some new way that wouldn't have heard it otherwise.

DETROW: Yeah. We talked about Brian Eno for a bit. Are there other artists or specific algorithms you'd recommend or point people to as a starting point?

CUSH: Yeah. I mean, probably my favorite artist ever kind of in the space of ambient music is this guy Hiroshi Yoshimura...

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROSHI YOSHIMURA'S "GREEN SHOWER")

CUSH: ...Whose music I first encountered, like, not too dissimilarly. I first heard it as, like - on YouTube, just being kind of - recommended one of his albums after something else I was listening to. And that kept happening to the point where I was like, man, this music is so beautiful. I have to actually, like, learn who this guy is. And he's got a whole fascinating catalog, and it's just really - it's not difficult music. It's just - it makes its sort of charms apparent right away. It's just, like, so soothing and...

DETROW: Yeah.

CUSH: ...Tender. And every time you hear it, you might find something new in it.

DETROW: That's Andy Cush. He's a musician and contributing editor at Pitchfork. Thank you so much.

CUSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROSHI YOSHIMURA'S "GREEN SHOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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