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Universal Music Partners With AI Company to Win Sleep Playlists

Endel, a leader in the lucrative "functional music" space, will transform projects from UMG's roster into soundscapes for relaxing or studying.


Earlier this year, Oleg Stavitsky, co-founder/CEO of Endel, laid out a vision for how his company’s AI-driven functional soundscapes could help the major labels — even as anxiety around AI was reaching new heights. “We can process the stems [the audio building blocks of a track] from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and come back with a functional sleep version of that album,” Stavitsky told Billboard. At the time, he said his company was in talks with all the major labels about this possibility.

A few short months later, Stavitsky will have a chance to do exactly that: Endel announced a new partnership with Universal Music Group on Tuesday (May 23). In a statement, Endel’s CEO said his company will put “AI to work and help UMG build new and exciting offerings to promote wellness and banish the perceived threat around AI.”

“Our goal was always to help people focus, relax, and sleep with the power of sound,” Stavitsky added. “AI is the perfect tool for this. Today, seeing our technology being applied to turn your favorite music into functional soundscapes is a dream come true.” Artists from Republic and Interscope will be the first to participate — though the announcement omitted any names — with their soundscapes arriving “within the next few months.”

Endel focuses on creating “sound that is not designed for conscious listening,” Stavitsky told Billboard earlier this year. “Music is something you consciously listen to when you actually want to listen to a song or an album or a melody,” he explained. “What we produce is something that blends with the background and is scientifically engineered to put you in a certain cognitive state.”

Endel’s technology can spit out these soundscapes effectively at the click of a button. “The model is trained using the stems that are either produced in-house by our team, led by co-founder and chief composer Dmitry Evgrafov (who’s himself an established neo-classical artist), or licensed from artists that we’ve worked with,” Stavitsky said. “The trick is all of the stems” — Endel has used stems from James Blake, Miguel and Grimes —”are created following the scientific framework created by our product team in consultation with neuroscientists.”

Some people in the music industry have taken to calling sounds designed for sleep, study, or soothing frayed nerves “functional music.” And while it maintains a low profile, it’s an increasingly popular and lucrative space. “Science tells us that nature sounds and water sounds have a calming effect on your cognitive state,” Stavitsky noted this winter. “So naturally, people are turning to this type of content more and more.”

Early in 2022, Endel estimated that the size of the functional music market is 10 billions streams a month across all platforms. (The company has since raised its estimate to 15 billion streams a month.) If true, that would mean functional music is several times more popular than the biggest superstars. “Every day, hundreds of millions of people are self-medicating with sound,” Stavitsky wrote in March. “If you look at the top 10 most popular playlists at any major streaming service, you’ll see at least 3-4 ‘functional’ playlists: meditation, studying, reading, relaxation, focus, sleep, and so on.”

But this has caused the music industry some concern. Major labels have not historically focused on making this kind of music. Most streaming services pay rights holders according to their share of total plays; when listeners turn to functional music to read a book or wind down after a long day, that means they’re not playing major label artists, and the companies make less money. In a memo to staff in January, UMG CEO Lucian Grainge complained that “consumers are increasingly being guided by algorithms to lower-quality functional content that in some cases can barely pass for ‘music.'”

But record companies can’t eliminate listener demand for functional music. It makes sense, then, that they would try to take over a chunk of the market. And Stavitsky has been savvy, actively pushing Endel’s technology as a way for the labels to “win back market share.”

Back in 2019, Endel entered into a distribution agreement for 20 albums with Warner Music Group. And the company announced its new partnership with UMG this week. In a statement, Michael Nash, UMG’s evp and chief digital officer, praised Endel’s “impressive ingenuity and scientific innovation.”

“We are excited to work together,” Nash continued, “and utilize their patented AI technology to create new music soundscapes — anchored in our artist-centric philosophy — that are designed to enhance audience wellness, powered by AI that respects artists’ rights in its development.”