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The State Of New Age Music In The Always-On 'Wellness' Era

The definition of New Age music is as mercurial as the genre's sound.
Russ Rohde
Getty Images/Cultura RF
The definition of New Age music is as mercurial as the genre's sound.

About seven or eight years ago, a couple of people in upstate New York decided to host a sound bath – generally, an event where attendees lay on the ground as instrumentalists play soothing tones that "wash" over and relax them – with some gongs they had bought online, though they were untrained in the techniques of sound healing and/or gong work. It just so happened that two luminaries of this approach, the zither wizard and New Age sage Laraaji and sound healer and reiki practitioner Arji Oceananda, had attended the session at the invitation of the owners of the yoga studio where it was held. And after 20 minutes the pair left, nerves jangled by their hosts' untrained playing.

After the class had emptied out into a nearby tea shop, Laraaji and Oceananda overheard some fellow attendees talking about how they were "still buzzing," Oceananda recalls. It sounded like they were using the description as a positive, but such an active sensation was the opposite of the blissed-out calm they were supposed to feel, and that could have had deleterious effects on people's nervous systems. "Of course, anyone has the right to own any of those instruments, and it's a wonderful thing to have your own bowls, tuning forks, drums and gongs," says Oceananda. "But to then call oneself a 'sound healer' just because you own these instruments can really undermine the integrity of the legitimate practice of sound healing."

Perhaps these sound bathers were buzzing from the buzzworthiness of the culturally adjacent wellness industry, which is estimated to be worth $4.2 trillion.

Many wellness enthusiasts, like those well-meaning sound bathers in Upstate New York, are probably familiar with New Age music. New Age music incorporates a spectrum of sounds — from natural recordings like birdsong and thunderstorms to studio-recorded fodder like ethereal vocals and soft, drifting synthesizer tones — which anecdotal evidence and some scientific studies show soothe the parasympathetic nervous system. In fact, some record labels, rather than identifying the music they release as "New Age," prefer to label it "Music for Spa and Relaxation," believing it speaks more accurately to the music's purpose and benefits. Though New Age and sound healing originally emerged out of the West's discovery of and subsequent obsession with Eastern spirituality, yoga and nutrition in the 1950s and '60s, the relationship between the two is not always crystal clear.

"In my view they're more concurrent than related," Douglas Mcgowan, proprietor of Yoga Records and A&R for reissue label the Numero Group, writes in an email about the connection between the wellness industry boom and a recent revival of New Age music. "The music part is a music thing. The wellness part is a lifestyle thing. There will always be a vocal minority in new age music trying to push the idea that the music axiomatically needs to be part of an overall lifestyle of righteous wellness etc. To me this is not really true, or in accordance with the history of new age music, which is full of people who lived lustily and partied, and still do."

It's true that there are no receipts establishing a direct connection between wellness and New Age music, but tastemakers and gatekeepers of the genre have anecdotally reported a surge of new interest and sales over the past few years. "People are moving towards more mindful practices, and new age is a part of that," RVNG label head Matt Werth told The Guardian's Geeta Dayal in 2016. In 2013, Mcgowan helped to assemble the compilation I Am the Center: Private New Age Music in America 1950-1990 for the independent label Light In the Attic, which helped introduce a new generation of listeners to genre originators like Iasos, Steven Halpern, Joanna Brouk and Laraaji — albums by some of these artists have been the subject of their own reissues on other imprints. And relative newcomers like Los Angeles' Matthewdavid and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith have refreshed the genre with new approaches and sounds.

Oceananda stresses the importance of what she calls "the two I's" in the practice of sound healing – integrity and intentionality – while admitting that it's "a real hard one to measure, because you often have consumers who aren't able to discern the quality of what they are about to receive or have received, and this can lead to less than optimum outcomes."

Despite the fuzzy definitions, it can be obvious when an artist is motivated by genuine interest. Smith, an ashtanga yogi and modular synthesizer master who leads deep meditation workshops in L.A., is one of them. She released the ambient exercise, Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga, earlier this year and incorporates wellness into her life and creative process. She points out that the dictionary's definition of healing is literally "to become sound," and though she's taking liberties with the double entendre of "sound" – meaning vibrations that travel through the air that causes us to hear things, and of functionality, as in, "of sound mind" – the connection feels, in her description, authentic.

"In my experience, [healing and wellness] can't just be on the physical, energetic, emotional or mental level," she says. "It's like a deeper form of knowing where your whole being relaxes, instantly, with a deep sense of understanding. I feel like wellness is consistently having those moments, so that there aren't unanswered questions and misunderstandings within your being that are disrupting the flow of energy throughout the many aspects of yourself. That will naturally create harmonious sound and healing." As she talks about wellness in the same breath as sound healing, as something that is so basic and integral to the sanctity of mind, body and spirit, it's easy to forget the industry has ballooned into such a money-maker for brands like Goop.

New Age music is now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. If you don't have the resources to study under Don Conreaux (much less buy his gongs), just watch some YouTube videos and get a Zidjian tabletop on Amazon. Oceananda welcomes newcomers to the field – even as she grapples with how to evaluate "the two I's" without gatekeeping – but she and other New Age and sound healing pioneers are concerned that democratization may also be having a diluting effect. "People try to simulate New Age because they think, 'I'll just sit down at the piano and doodle away,' " adds musician, songwriter and entrepreneur Suzanne Doucet. "People who like New Age music, they know the difference. It's the same in the wellness industry – they can distinguish between the fake and the real."

The debate over what constitutes this music goes back to the genre's beginnings in the 1960s and '70s. "New Age often is defined by what it isn't, rather than by what it is," wrote Don Heckman for the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It isn't jazz, it isn't folk, it isn't rock, it isn't classical. Yet elements and influences from all these more precisely defined arenas occasionally sneak into the music." Indeed, the earliest New Age albums have more in common spiritually than sonically. The first New Age album is widely recognized to be Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation And Other Joys from 1965, a sparse soundscape of clarinet, koto and shakuhachi. Next was bassist and flautist Paul Horn's Inside, recorded inside the Taj Mahal in 1969 as an accompaniment to a documentary about transcendental meditation, followed in 1975 by the genre's arguable ur-text, Steven Halpern's Spectrum Suite. He plays seven keynotes on a Fender Rhodes that correspond to the seven chakras, in order "to literally 'tune your human instrument.' "

According to the guidelines put forth by the Grammys when it created the category in 1987, New Age is also a question of "consciousness," or what the artists' intention was in making this kind of music. Doucet, a member of the Recording Academy's screening committee, adds that "alternative" New Age – music produced by Spotify's "chill" playlist regulars like Lo Mimieux and Piotr Miteska – is just a facsimile, but for plenty of users, it's close enough. "They just put on some tingly music and nature sounds that are maybe 30 percent of the real thing," she says. "People who are not deeply into this music might say 'This is fine, I'll just play it in the background.' "

Doucet was there for the first New Age explosion, after she moved to L.A. in 1983 and opened America's first New Age-only record store, fittingly named Only New Age Music. The genre expanded to a movement at once derided and adored; top-selling artists like Enya and Yanni sought to distance themselves from the New Age label. "When someone says new-age music, I think of something that you put on in the background while you're vacuuming the house," the Greek pianist deadpanned to the L.A. Times in 1988. Meanwhile, L.A.-based classic rock station KMET switched formats to KTWV, AKA "The Wave," which played smooth jazz and New Age. The move dovetailed with an uptick in genre record sales. According to a Times reportfrom 1987, pioneering New Age label Windham Hill was grossing over $26 million annually (about $59 million today) and other similarly-focused labels were seeing sales increase by 5-10,000 units year over year.

"Within five years, every major record store was carrying New Age music," says Doucet, who has just reissued a five-LP career retrospective package, New Age Box Set: 1982-1984, on San Francisco label Dark Entries. "It was so mainstream that people would come to us and listen to the music in listening stations, and then they would go to Tower Records and buy it for six dollars less, which we couldn't compete with."

Laraaji, who has been practicing laughter meditation and bathing listeners in trance-inducing cosmic ambience since the 1970s, has a sanguine view of the New Age-adjacent music that's available for listening on streaming services, regardless of its origins. "I go onto a web place like Pandora or Spotify and I listen to what's being offered in terms of soothing, healing music," says Laraaji. "I listen to some well-produced, mindful, positive music that helps to harmonize deep subconscious stress patterns. For people who need to take a break from their information-overloaded lifestyles, this kind of music – whether you call it sound healing or trance music or alternative music or New Age music – addresses the need for the psyche or the emotional body to relax and release from linear information, lots of thinking."

The difference, as Laraaji and Oceananda observed during that entry-level sound bath, comes down to the intangible mental and physical sensations listeners experience. One should not be "buzzing" – at a minimum, they should feel relaxed. Still, "that doesn't necessarily make it New Age," explains Doucet. "Music that gives you horrible feelings or makes you tense is not New Age. For people who are into spirituality, it opens up another dimension, and people who are open to that dimension, they know it right away."

In a way, the 1980s mainstream audience's enthusiasm for soothing, mellow sounds foreshadowed many listeners' preference for the "lean-back" modes of listening that Spotify pushes so aggressively today. In 2017, music industry sources told The Baffler's Liz Pelly that Spotify's ever-expanding roster of "chill playlists" catered to, and possibly even created, a cohort of consumers that seek out this new breed of inoffensive music. All they have to do is press play and let the algorithmically curated sounds make decisions – something research shows consumers as a whole are increasingly fatigued by doing – for them. While this kind of listening doesn't actively harm listeners, the practice does have broader, equally worrying implications for artists whose livelihoods are being affected. Berlin-based tech company Endel, for example, engineers soundscapes it says are attenuated to each user's location and biometrics. Earlier this year, Warner Records announced its acquisition of the company's proprietary algorithm as if it had signed a new artist to its roster. "First-ever algorithm to sign a major label deal," proclaimed the press release announcing the news. In June, Endel "released" five albums titled – or, perhaps, moodboarded – Foggy and Cloudy Morning, Rainy Afternoon and Evening and Clear Afternoon.

In 2017, online publication Music Business Worldwide reported that Spotify had been populating playlists for relaxation and concentration like Peaceful Piano, Deep Focus, and Ambient Chill with "fake artists." They were called "fake" because no one could find evidence of them anywhere except on Spotify, but if users could tell the difference, they didn't seem to care: Many of these playlists have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers and plays. "It's up to the individual to decide what they're taking from the marketplace," Doucet says. Some of these individuals might think a $27 bottle of vampire repellent really does keep the bad vibes away, while others say it's glorified snake oil. But if a couple spritzes here and there acts as a placebo, hasn't the product achieved its desired effect, regardless of whether it's "real"? The same could be said of Spotify's equally popular and parodied "chill" playlists. If they lack the je ne sais quois that New Age music's old guard can sense instantly, but still benefit some listeners, what's the harm? Especially since – perhaps most importantly – they're available to listeners regardless of their income stream, or whether they have any prior experience or knowledge in this field.

One company trying to bridge the divide between consumer, algorithm and artist, with the intention of self-actualization, is smartwater. The Coca-Cola-owned brand recently launched an EP and series of playlists called smartbeats, featuring artists like Toro Y Moi, Empress Of and Madeline Kenney that incorporate wellness practices into their lives in some way. Coca-Cola hasn't divulged how much each artist was paid, but industry sources estimate such partnerships can net artists anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000. Endel then designed the B-side, which is customized for different user activities, like running or cooling down. "We look at it as a continuation of building upon the cultural zeitgeists," says Joe Holder, creative director of wellness at smartwater. "Improving soundscapes can make a huge difference in people's well-being and access. All you really need is an Internet connection, and you can now have access to something that previously was a little hard to get to, as we see with the rise of boutique fitness, and things of that nature."

It's all well and good to pour money into shifting the focus away from wellness figureheads like Moon Juice's Amanda Chantal Bacon and mind-bogglingly expensive products towards democratizing well-being, but smartbeats does not seem to meet Oceananda's "two I's" criteria. At the smartbeats event, held in a rather soulless event space in Midtown Manhattan, a brief meditation and workout session which lasted all of 30 minutes – that the evening was centered on — seemed an afterthought to bespoke cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and networking. (And on a philosophical level, smartwater's business is built on plastic water bottles, which threaten the environment and human bodies, both of which are deeply connected to sound healing and New Age music.) By contrast, the inexperienced gong-players' sound bath in upstate New York seems practically transcendent. In this case, the intention may have been there, but the integrity is less certain.

L.A. producer and multi-instrumentalist Matthewdavid has found a sweet spot between making sound healing and New Age music accessible – with some of his artists capitalizing on brand partnerships in the space – without either losing sight of its integrity, or his intentions. For example, Carlos Niño, who has released a number of albums on Matthewdavid's Leaving Records label, is good friends with Bacon, and has curated in-store playlists for Moon Juice (in addition to soundtracking her baby shower). Leaving Records also hosts an outdoor ambient music series called Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree, which is exactly what it sounds like. One edition this summer featured a wordless, beatless tribute to the recently deceased hip-hop producer Ras G. In 2012, Matthewdavid fully embraced New Age, and four years later ,released several albums under his genre-specific project Mindflight; he also launched the regular show Mindflight Meditations on L.A.'s dublab internet radio station.

Despite his unbridled enthusiasm for the healing power of New Age tones and textures, Matthewdavid also knows a hack when he sees one. A recent post poked fun at the cheesy packaging for a New Age cassette four-pack from 1992, which promised the perfect accompaniment to "Romance" and "Seduction," among other things. Nonetheless, he sees the spread of knowledge and access to New Age philosophies as a generally good thing regardless of intentionality, which he says is valuable but can also be a slippery slope to judgment and exclusivity.

"When you deal with sacred, ancient practices, that thing that you are then commercializing takes on a different form and is then re-contextualized. It is a bit questioning and a little bit of a problem," he says. "But the wealth of knowledge, the sharing of knowledge I feel is so important right now. I feel that has always been my M.O. with music and process and technology. A lot of what I do creatively and professionally, I share and I encourage others a lot of the time without placing a barcode on it."

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Harley Brown