Not extremely loud and not incredibly close

Music is often an extremely deep, personal emanation.  Listening to it can feel like being taken into the performer's confidence.  Whether it's Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" or Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler or André 3000 telling us to shake it like a Polaroid picture (and now you've got that in your head for the rest of the day), there's something visceral and immediate about it.  You can feel their touch.

Or not.  

I wrote about ambient music yesterday because in ways it's trying to achieve the very opposite.  The ambient artist is trying to affect you, but in a way that keeps its distance from you.  

In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander wrote about the "intimacy gradient" in houses.  As you progress from the street to the porch to the front door, from the front door to the foyer, through the living room and kitchen to the bedroom, each step you take is taking you away from the public and into the private.  Ambient music respects the intimacy gradient.  It doesn't want to muscle into the bedroom with you.  It knows that what you want is for it to stay on the porch.

There's a difference between the soullessness of Muzak and the approach that Eno took with ambient music.  His music is very personal - really, nobody but Brian Eno could have made a record that sounds like Music For Airports.  But it keeps its distance.  It's got a soul, but you don't have to let the soul all the way into your bedroom.

I started thinking about this emotional distance because I've been listening to the offerings of Epidemic Sound.  

If you don't know about Epidemic Sound, you probably should.  It's a big player in the background-music-for-content-creators space.  For fifteen bucks a month, Epidemic Sound lets you use any track in their vast, vast library for your YouTube video, Twitch stream, TikTok whatever-the-noun-for-that-is, or whatever.

The amount and variety of music that Epidemic Sound has on tap is staggering.  Need something with a drum-and-bass energy that trails off into mysterious echoes?  They have it.  Trap music with aggro rap vocals?  Sure.  Swooping M83-style grandeur?  We got you covered.  Big banging rave-ups?  What key do you want it in?  

Epidemic Sound is very much the 21st-century version of Tin Pan Alley:  a huge number of musicians toiling away to crank out song after song for an industry that will take everything they can make and more.  Only they're in Sweden, not downtown Manhattan.  

The Swedish thing is interesting.  The musicians aren't all Swedish, but its the way to bet.  Sweden's combination of good school music education, universal internet access, and long winters has created a generation of kids who learn the tools and techniques, collaborate with each other, and produce more music that anyone can possibly listen to.  For every Max Martin there are dozens of kids in Gothenburg who can do pretty much the same thing, if not quite at the same magical level.  The difference is that Max Martin's music demands to be let into the bedroom.  The music these kids are making stays on the porch.

Epidemic Sound that feels like it's the future, or a future.  Spend some time wandering through and you'll see what I mean.

They're not the only mineowners digging up music for YouTubers, mind you.  There's a lot of royalty-free content background music out there.  And it's all the same kind of thing:  broad in genre, and managing to create a mood at the same time that it keeps its distance.

I am grateful to whoever compiled the video I've linked here.  It's exhaustive enough that it becomes kind of a chore to listen to, but it's really interesting.  It's a vocabulary of styles.  It's as interesting to thumb through as a catalog of clip-art.

And I am especially grateful to Daniela Bodoh (if that is indeed her name), who did the work of figuring out what kind of video each track is used for.  It's the top comment on this video, and you must read it.  While she is clearly joking around, she has also compiled a startlingly broad typology of made-for-YouTube content.  It's a pretty good practical answer to the question, "What is YouTube really for?"


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