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Life is chaotic. White noise streams can help you tune out (and fall asleep)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There are podcasts that can put you to sleep because they're so boring. But now there's a genre of podcasts and audio streams intended to put you to sleep. Here's what podcast critic Nick Quah has to say about the phenomenon of white noise streams.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: According to some circles, this is the next hot thing in the audio business.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE NOISE)

QUAH: What you're hearing is a white noise stream. You might find variations based on different pitches and frequencies - brown noise, pink noise - but they all have the same form, long recordings of a static droning sound, not unlike the ambient noise you'd hear on a plane flight. White noise streams are a kind of sonic wallpaper, generally having the effect of drowning out the rest of the world. For many, they help keep some parts of the brain distracted so that other parts may better focus on things like writing or studying. As a phenomenon, white noise streams aren't particularly new, but they have recently been rising in prominence on digital platforms like Spotify and YouTube. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that some white noise creators were earning up to $18,000 a month on Spotify. The trend has everything to do with the shape of these platforms, which are built around incentives that encourage the mass production of content that's cheap to make and sticky to consume.

There is some precedent to the contemporary popularity of these white noise streams. In a sense, they are of a piece with an increasingly vibrant ecosystem of similarly shaped audio content that are native to digital spaces. Consider, for example, stream-of-consciousness podcasts designed to help you fall asleep, like this one, the aptly titled "Sleep With Me," hosted by Drew Ackerman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SLEEP WITH ME")

DREW ACKERMAN: I guess technically, I'm just wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but it is kind of my pajamas or my, like, pre-bed clothing. But I was also - I guess pre-bed clothing or clothing you sleep in your bed in or clothing you sleep - but I was thinking, like, pajamas is, like, one word, right? But then it got shortened to PJs, which - you know, the S is lowercase for whatever that is, multiple or - I don't know. First of all, isn't it a pajama? Or is the top - because what if you're in a one-piece pajama?

QUAH: Consider also YouTube livestreams that string together lo-fi hip-hop tunes, a niche music genre that can arguably be traced back to the beats of J Dilla and the ambient music of Brian Eno. Here's an example of a track from a Danish instrumental producer who goes by Jhove.

(SOUNDBITE OF JHOVE'S "ESCAPE")

QUAH: On the surface, the growing ubiquity of white noise streams has a slightly dystopian feel. They seem to sprout like a fungus, and they quietly creep into spaces they aren't quite meant to be, arriving unexpectedly when you leave YouTube to autoplay indefinitely on its own, or appearing on Spotify charts displaying popular podcast episodes. That's how I first started noticing them, by the way - tucked between an episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience" and "Last Podcast On The Left." What's particularly weird about them is how they are meant to sound intentionally generic. While some creators of these streams are affiliated with the traditional music industry, many operate anonymously, presenting themselves as digital avatars. They also feature clumsy, descriptive titles written specifically to game search engines, like "Deep Layer Brown Noise 12 Hours" or "Relaxing Rainstorms White Noise For Sleep."

If it feels somewhat dystopian, that's because it kind of is. To some extent, these audio streams are creations of profit-seeking actors squeezing as much value as they can from these digital platforms. And as their presence continues to grow, some music industry observers have started raising concerns about how they might crowd out the creations of conventional working musicians. At the same time, there is a pleasure to these audio experiences, and they're also meeting very real needs. Personally, I use white noise streams to sleep when I feel anxious in hotel rooms.

It's also hard to shake the sense that the popularity of these audio formats - white noise, sleep podcasts, lo-fi hip-hop and so on - reflects something larger. These streams can be roughly described as works of minimalism. And as the critic Kyle Chayka recently observed, minimalism is a natural reaction to a chaotic moment in history. We do live in chaotic times, so perhaps it's only natural, then, that people are turning to sounds that help drown out everything around them. It's just surreal and maybe a little ironic that the sound of a chaotic world is this.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE NOISE)

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC SONG, "EAT IT")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be "Weird Al" Yankovic. We'll talk about the new film "Weird," a satirical biopic about his life, which he co-wrote. We'll also talk about his actual life and how he became an accordion player and became a star by writing and performing parodies of hit songs. "Beat It" became "Eat It." He turned "Like A Virgin" into "Like A Surgeon." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT IT")

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) How come you're always such a fussy young man? Don't want no Captain Crunch. Don't want no Raisin Bran. Well, don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan? So eat it. Just eat it.

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry GROSS.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT IT")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Have some more chicken. Have some more pie. It doesn't matter if it's boiled or fried. Just eat it. Eat it. Just eat it. Just eat it. Eat it. Just eat it. Your table manners are a crying shame. You're playing with your food. This ain't some kind of game. Now, if you starve to death, you'll just have yourself to blame. So eat it. Just eat it. You better listen, better do what you're told. You haven't even touched your tuna casserole. You better chow down, or it's going to get cold. So eat it. I don't care if you're full. Just eat it. Eat it. Eat it. Eat it. Open up your mouth and feed it. Have some more yogurt. Have some more spam... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Quah